By Mary May
The beauty and elegance of the acanthus leaf has inspired artists, architects and craftsmen for centuries. Among furniture makers, carving this classic detail is a rite of passage, much like making your first hand-cut dovetails. If you are interested in carving, the acanthus leaf should certainly be in your repertoire.
The acanthus plant, also known by the common name of “Bear’s Breeches,” is native to the Mediterranean. It has thick, spiny leaves with serrated edges and produces large 2′- to 3′-long spikes of white or purple flowers. The word acanthus comes from the Greek word ake, meaning a point or thorn, and anthos, meaning flower. The acanthus plant most resembles the dandelion, thistle and artichoke plants.
The acanthus first appears in the decorative and architectural arts of Greece around the 5th century B.C. The most familiar historical use for the acanthus on a curved or turned surface is on the capitals of Corinthian columns.
At first, the designs based on the acanthus leaf were accurately portrayed and extremely lifelike. As this motif grew popular, it became more stylized and has now evolved into an imaginary leaf of many uses. The acanthus design can be seen in everything from embroidery to architectural designs and furniture details.
Acanthus leaves in wooden, carved furniture became common in the 18th century. Many European-trained furniture makers settling in America brought different styles and techniques to this new furniture style. These craftsmen were able to achieve an amazingly high level of design during the Queen Anne and Chippendale periods. The acanthus leaf design was incorporated into furnishings such as table bases, chairs, highboys, tea tables and bed posts.
If you study the details of acanthus leaf designs, you will notice that no two are alike. There are some designs where the leaves are hollow, some are rounded and some have a combination of both rounded and hollow sections. They vary so greatly in style and shape that they are sometimes difficult to identify as an acanthus leaf.
One way I like to advise students on how to become familiar with the design of acanthus leaves is to start to draw examples that they see – whether from photographs or drawings, or actual examples of the carving on furniture. The more you understand how to draw the leaves, the more you will be able to recognize the subtleties of this versatile design. Carving the acanthus leaf is similar to drawing it. Because these leaves are often carved in shallow relief, you are virtually drawing with your chisels.
Beginning on the next page, I show the step-by-step process of how to carve an acanthus leaf design; this particular design is based on the turned pedestal of a Charleston, S.C., tea table, dated 1755-1775. I’m carving the design onto a turned bedpost, which is part of a four-post bed made by Greg Guenther.
Web site: Visit Mary May’s web site to see more of her work, and find out when and where she’s teaching.
Video: Watch as Mary May shows you how to sharpen one of the essential tools for woodcarving – the V-chisel.
In Our Store: “How to Carve an Acanthus Leaf on a Cabriole Leg and on a Turned Post,” DVD from Mary May.
Online Learning: Mary May has just launched an online video school to teach carving; find out more.
From the October 2012 issue #199
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