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Antique Pyrography

by Kathleen Menendez

A Look Into the Past of The Art of "Pyr"

Wall cabinet, circa 1920
Probably produced in the studio of
Fred Stewart Greene, either by him
or his mother, Harriet M. Greene

>From the house and estate of Fred Stewart Greene
Now the North Stonington Historical Society
N. Stonington, Connecticut

Photograph by Sharon H. Garvey

To most people, the idea of antique pyrography brings to mind Victorian pyrography--and for good reason! Not only does the Victorian era represent somewhat more recent history, even the word pyrography, it seems, was coined at that time. With the invention of a variable-temperature, benzine-fueled tool and the phenomenon of the ladies magazines, which promoted this promising "new" art form as something desirable for women as well as for men, pyrography reached the status of a full-fledged craze.

This enthusiasm was widespread not only in America, but in Europe and Australia as well. Since this particular era of popularity for pyrography is so recent, Helena Walsh, in her book, Australian Pokerwork, captured impressions of people reminiscing:

Pokerwork touched many people in different ways--sometimes there was an association with community organisations, or those school years when everyone had to decorate woodcraft projects with pokerwork (with those embarrassing moments when unexpectedly the effort was praised in front of the whole class). There are warm memories of sentimental gifts--gifts made of humble material, but with an exquisite design that took weeks to perfect. Then of course there were the souvenirs of holiday trips, and the ornaments made by relatives and friends, working at the kitchen table at night. Most heartrending were the recollections of veterans who, shell-shocked from war battles, had responded positively when introduced to the absorbing benefits of pokerwork.

Just How Old Is This Ancient Art?

In addition to the Victorian era pyrography, there is an earlier form referred to as Poker Work or Poker Art from the first half of the nineteenth century that is also well known. Because of the implement used, the work produced was generally more rustic in style.

There is a general concensus that pyrographic art in one form or another and on any number of materials goes back to the advent of man's use of fire. Bob Boyer, in his book The Amazing Art of Pyrography, hypothesizes (complete with illustrations!) that cavemen used char from the fire to draw on the walls of their caves (a pyrography precursor, as it were), and that later, once they devised metal implements, started doing real pyrography by heating those implements in the fire and transferring designs onto other materials such as wood and leather.

Since discovering either the originator or the origin of the art form is highly unlikely, two objectives come to the fore as worthy for the researcher to pursue: Tracing pyrographic art by discovering examples and by locating documented references and illustrations of this art form from many (often unlikely) sources. A subsequent goal emerges: compiling sufficient primary and secondary sources until a reasonably encompassing history takes shape.

In a small book on the merits of pyrography written in the early part of this century, the author stated that some of the Great Masters--and here he named Rembrandt, Hals, Brouwer, and Teniers specifically--had decorated the wainscots of Dutch and English alehouses with poker work. This isolated tidbit of information would seem of great significance, yet the author did not list sources for this claim or any other substantiation of it. You might imagine that these early artists did this decoration while socializing--maybe even encouraged by complimentary refreshments from the owners of the establishments!--but this is merely conjecture. The author of the little book did not even go that far, and numerous queries over the years to verify his statement or discover more information in that regard have not met with any success. Perhaps someone reading this article will be able to shed some light on this intriguing possibility.

Nevertheless, there are still other avenues of pyrographic research to pursue, and the following two examples might surprise you:

Exquisite Seventeenth Century Neopolitan Cabinet

Arquitectural Frontispiece Inlaid with Tortoise Shell
and Ivory Pyroengraved with Religious Scenes

>From the Collection of the Estevez Museum of Argentina

The beautiful piece of Italian furniture above is one of those rare finds for the researcher of pyrographic art: first, because of its age (17th century!); second, because it represents one of those references in works other than those on pyrography that are, consequently, much more difficult to discover.

In a book on church decoration of the Middle Ages, a 12th century Hungarian church was cited as having choir stalls of wood inlay with pyroengraved enhancement in the wood inlay.

Pyroengraved Mate Cup
of the Nazca culture of Peru
from the period 0-700 A.D.

A very small container of 13.9 cm (5-1/2 in.) in height; 13.6 cm (5-3/8 in.) at the largest point on the diameter and down to only 3.3 cm (1-1/4 in.) at the mouth

Museum of Archaeology, Anthropology, and History Lima, Peru

Not every day are we fortunate enough to find pyrography dating back to before 700 A.D. like this mate (pronounced Mah'-tay) cup, above, from the Nazca people of Peru. This curious little container has a pyroengraved flower design encircling the mouth and all around the belly are nine little hummingbirds posed vertically to take nectar from the flower.

Pyrography is accorded such little recognition in its own right that often it is just mentioned in passing or not at all, so that even where it exists, reference is not often found even in the index of a larger work. Fortunately, another obscure reference has surfaced--this time to still another early Peruvian culture called the Moche. These people lived about a thousand years before the Incas and unlike the Incas and other Andean civilizations, the Moche lived along the desert coastline of Peru. This very old civilization flourished between 300 B.C. and 700 A.D. when they developed many skills, including, according to Claudio Cavatrunci of the Pigorini Museum of Rome, pyroengraving!

Far and Wide As Well

If we are going to look at pyrography far back in time, it is evident that we must also look around the globe, for surely we will discover examples of this beautiful art form in myriad manifestations throughout history and the world.

Freestanding wood cabinet,
American, circa 1920
Art Nouveau design of two musicians
attributed to Fred Stewart Greene

The North Stonington Historical Society
N. Stonington, Connecticut

Photographed in place in the attic
of the Historical Society
by Sharon H. Garvey

Rodris Roth, of the Smithsonian Institution of Washington, D.C., suggested that, since the Smithsonian does not have a collection of pyrography per se, local historical societies may well be the place to look in the United States for examples of antique pyrography and antique pyrographic tools. The wood cabinet above is such a piece, hidden away in the attic of a Connecticut historical society. Perhaps if all of the readers of this article were to take a closer look at their respective local historical societies and small museums in the smaller cities, there may be more discoveries made to reveal the past of pyrography.

With the E-Museum of Pyrographic Art in place, we will have a central location to compile some pyrographic history.

Assortment of antique pyroengraved objects

Salt and Pepper Shakers from Germany,
Cigarette Box from Russia (Opens from both sides),
Souvenir wooden shoe from Holland,
Egg cup from Germany

From the private collection of
Kathleen M. G. Menendez, U.S.A.

Photograph by Sharon H. Garvey

The little grouping above illustrates some other countries with a history of pyrographic art. In an earlier article on traditional pyrography (often decorative art to enhance utilitarian objects), we looked at the concept of traditional pyrographic art and how, by definition, it implies that the methods and designs (often symbolic in nature) have been passed on from one generation to another. It can be inferred that, in any country where traditional pyrographic art is being produced today, an underlying history is there to be explored. The first "history book" at our disposal for such research in those countries is their present-day pyrography, rich with ancestral spirits.

There are special museums dedicated to the study of culture and tradition that house examples of pyrographic art, although they might not be all grouped together as a pyrography collection per se. They are folk art museums, the Museum of Mankind in London, the Musee de l'Homme in Paris, the Museum of Folk and Traditional Art in Bulgaria, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Bob Boyer cited a museum in Birmingham, England, as well. As collections are located and verified, we can cite them in the E-Museum for reference and give specifics.

Writing Tablet
Richly textured, nicely drawn and colored
A charming example of early-this-century
>From the private collection of
K. J. Mixo Sydenham, Australia

Photograph by Mixo Sydenham

Continued next page

Forward to Page 2, Antique Pyrography The Advent of the Ladies Magazines, That Marvelous Invention--The Victorian Pyrographic Kit!, The Factories

Forward to Page 3, Antique Pyrography Collecting Pyrography, Conclusion
Pyrograffiti: E-Museum Announcement, References from Article, Items of Interest, Bio

©1997 Kathleen M. Garvey Menendez

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