Shane Raven is the modern day Grinling Gibbons, taking inspiration from carvings created thousands of years ago and stamping his own style all over wood, including working with dead animals. His work, the glorious Augustus panel, is proudly displayed in The Guild Hall. He talks about the sentimental worth of handmade furniture and discusses the frustration, the attachment and the pressures that come with being a renowned British carpenter. Shane explains why carpentry is such an important part of British heritage and why he is now a little part of history that will never die.
What is it about Grinling Gibbons that first inspired you to carve?
His style was so new at the time. He was a young Dutchman and his style of wood carving had never been seen in England at the time. He was seriously radical and everybody wanted a Gibbons piece – he was the man of the moment. And still, I look at his work and it blows me away. It’s so intricate, so tactile.
You calved the breastplate of Cesar Augustus; what kind of pressure does that put on you?
The pressure to finish it was the biggest one, and when to stop. It took me over a course of four years to carve, and it was just trying to find the deadline in my own mind, and knowing when to stop. When was enough enough? I kept finding bits to add. I did the initial drawing as a working piece but like anything it evolves, it morphs into something else.
What does that piece mean to you personally?
It means I’ve achieved something. When I first met my wife she inspired me to take up wood work because she knew I liked to mess about with it and it was just a need to do something, to prove to her that I was valuable. I also wanted something to leave to the family. A lot of people leave nothing and it just seems such a shame. It’s nice to be able to go into a museum and see something; you pick up a book by an author and that’s his legacy that’s what he’s left us, the stories. I just thought of how nice it would be to leave something. I’m incredibly proud of that panel. It’s actually in the Guild Hall in London, bought by The Carpenter’s Company of all people, they’ve got enough woodwork! But they’d never seen that sort of style of carving and they just snapped it up which was really nice of them.
Why do people hold on to inanimate objects?
For me, objects hold an incredible amount of nostalgia – not just my own nostalgia but stories from the past, before our time. We keep an old arm chair which is falling apart because it’s part of our family history. It’s missing a leg and you daren’t sit on it, but we’re very fond of it. We had our children’s portraits taken in that chair so it’s very a very important object. Similarly, when my daughter was born I carved her a wooden puppet which she still loves to death. He’s knackered now. I was offered a lot of money for him but I would never sell him now, he’s far too sentimental.
Where else do you get your inspiration?
I’m big on nature and flowers. Things just inspire me all the time. I see a bird land on a branch and I’ll note how nice he looks perched there so I’ll sit and draw him maybe and then try and add him into one of my carvings.
I read that you actually worked with dead birds at one point. Tell us more!
I did yes – on the Augustus panel there is a dead magpie and I wasn’t sure how to draw a bird that looked dead. I was lucky enough (unlucky for the magpie of course) that I found one laying in the road and shoved him in the freezer and I just kept working on him. I did the same when I was carving a gone off lobster, too.
Which piece are you most proud of and why?
It have to be the Augustus panel because it was a big part of my life and it actually changed my life! I gained so much from it, it was a real pain to carve at times. At times I just wanted to walk away from it, there were times when I wanted to just smash it up. But there was times when it was my precious I was almost like Gollum out of ‘Lord of The Rings’ you know, don’t come near me because it’s my precious! I became a recluse and I used to have a sign on the door reading, ‘do not disturb, man working’. There’s an old saying “carvers are starvers” and the reason for that is it takes so long to make a piece.
What is the general reaction of the client when you first unveil your work?
It’s hard to tell because if you go and see a work of art and it says something to you, you don’t need to say anything you just look at it. Everything you’re saying it going on inside. But with the panel, people would just keep talking about it and keep buzzing round it, asking questions. There is actually a musical instrument on there and when I carved the strings I carved them so they were pitch perfect. I said this to one of the clients one day,
“You know the harp plays?” He didn’t believe me of course so I plucked the strings which made a sound and he just stood there and his jaw dropped! And that’s the sort of effect that you get from some people and it’s a real buzz. It’s a lovely feeling.
You were on the BBC documentary ‘Carved With Love’. Have you ever made pieces carved with other emotions, such as carved with frustration?
They’re all frustrating if I’m honest. There’s times when you can’t suss something out and you know how it should be done but you can’t suss our how to do it. A friend of mine said to me,
“Whenever you get frustrated with something, walk away. Just leave it alone and go back to it tomorrow.” Those were some of the best words I’d ever had spoken to me. On the big panel there’s a set of grapes and on the original drawing, they were on one side but when I carved them they didn’t sit right. Now I had spent at least nine days carving this bunch of grapes, and for them not to fit in the right place was like,
“Oh my God, I’ve just wasted nine days! What am I going to do with them?!” And I would just sit there staring at them in my workshop. On the panel there’s a small leaf turned up I had the grapes in my hand and I just pushed them against the leaf, and it fitted perfectly like it had almost been carved for that reason. And it looked just amazing there. It just fitted. They call it serendipity, pure chance.
Why do clients want one-off pieces hand-made carpentry pieces?
Unique, simple as that. It’s unique, it’s a one-off, need to have thing. We all want that one piece don’t we? And I guess that’s basically it, because they can have it. And if they want it, they’re gonna get it. The Dean of Rochester got in touch with me and he had a lovely friend and she was blind and he told her about my work and she asked if I would carve him a 3D picture that she could touch, it was a lovely thing for somebody to ask you to do. It’s one thing looking at something with your eyes but to actually experience it by touching and getting an idea of what’s there is a different story. She wanted a bird with branches with berries all set within a panel but I just went the extra half mile and put little lady birds on it for her.
Why is carpentry such an important part of British heritage?
Because England was built by carpenters! If you look at the old bridges that span the river Thames, they’re all made of timber – that’s where the guilds came from. Most of the English houses were built by carpenters. Ships were built by carpenters, everything! It is an important commodity in England and most countries really. We’ve still got a good heritage. It’s nice to have a tactile piece of something made by a hand. If you get an old chair like a Victorian piece, you can guarantee it wasn’t made on a production line it was made by an old gentleman sitting in a cold dank room, chipping away by candlelight.
Do you grow attached to the objects you are creating?
Every time! Never want to give them away but I know it’s somebody else’s work, not mine, I’m just making it for them. It’s a way to pay the bills isn’t it? Most people are really good and offer to let me come and see it again. With woodwork it changes colour and the panel looks darker now than when I originally did it so it’s just nice to go and have a look at things changing naturally.
Words by Loo Loo Rose
Illustration by Emmi Ojala