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Contemporary design: inspired by Grinling Gibbons, self-taught carver Shane Raven is a consummate master of his limewood medium. Amicia de Moubray talks to him about his career and the unusual research he undertakes for each commission.

Wood carver Shane Raven is evidence that the skills of craftsmanship are innate. Having left school barely able to read, he became a builder's labourer: 'I picked up all the trades that I was surrounded by at building sites, such as bricklaying, but I found that it was carpentry that interested me the most. I developed a passion for woodwork.' At his wife's instigation, he enrolled on a ten-week wood-carving course at Hither Green College, south London. After staying for three weeks longer than planned, Raven was told 'there is nothing more we can teach you'. To his pride, his diagrams of the various wood joints were pasted up on the wall for future students to refer to.

A chance encounter at a martial-arts class with the son of the Chelsea-based antiques dealer Leigh Warren launched Raven's career as a wood carver. Warren's restorer had just retired and his son asked Raven if he was interested in taking on the job. Raven leapt at the chance and restored a small chiffonier as a tester.

In 1998, several years and restorations later, Warren gave Raven a pair of intricate limewood carvings to restore. Two years passed before Raven mustered up the courage to think about them. 'I decided that if I was able to copy them I was able to work on them'. He began by making detailed drawings of them before embarking on the carving. To his great delight he discovered that 'I found I could just do it'. The result was displayed in Warren's New Kings Road antiques shop and the commissions began to roll in.

Raven's work demonstrates consummate mastery of the medium. In every part of his carvings there is a little detail to marvel at, whether it is an articulated, linked chain or a bunch of grapes, all imbued with the brio that distinguishes his craft: Raven's enthusiasm for his medium is evident. His work is remarkable not just for its technical skill, but also his spatial understanding of how to incorporate numerous different elements into one carving to form a cohesive composition. Throughout there is a vitality that is characteristic of someone who is untrammelled by formal art-school training.

A self-taught draughtsman, Raven begins a commission by drawing the design before transferring it onto tracing paper. 'I undertake as many drawings as possible. You have to think in 3D and establish how the objects will support each other.' Then with the aid of carbon paper he copies the outline onto the wood before roughing everything out with a saw. His preferred wood is lime, as 'it carves beautifully, just like a knife slicing through butter'. Dense and robust, limewood permits delicate carving as thin as 'a piece of tortoiseshell'. Raven prepares the wood himself, buying half a tree and stripping the bark, sawing and planing the pieces into a reasonable size. Many of the tools he uses are antiques dating from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, garnered from antique and junk shops by himself and his family.

Raven's natural enthusiasm for his task spills over into extensive research for all his commissions. Sometimes he even undertakes anatomical studies. A commission for two trophies of marine subjects (Fig. 1) involved Raven carving a crab. To prepare himself, he boiled a crab a fisherman had given him and then filled its shell with plaster of Paris to get an understanding of its structure.

Inspired by the Grinling Gibbons exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1999, Raven incorporated a couple of dead birds into a large overmantel carving for the same client (Fig. 2): he kept a dead magpie in the deep-freeze so that he could look at it while carving them. The panel brims with a variety of objects, including two sconces with pairs of dripping candles, roses and an artist's palette.

His most monumental piece to date is a 213 x 122 cm limewood panel of Caesar Augustus's breastplate, surrounded by Roman iconography, which was displayed at the 2005 Battersea Decorative Antiques Fair. Current commissions include carving an overmantel for a library in Spain and the figures for a nativity scene to be used in a film being made at Shepperton Studios, London.

Shane Raven: +44 (0) 20 8309 6927
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Author:de Moubray, Amicia
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jan 1, 2006
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