Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 7/Ivory carving in Dieppe




All English tourists visiting Boulogne, Caen, or Dieppe, are familiar with the ivory-carving,—brooches and other trinkets for the chimney-piece or for personal ornament, that fill the windows of every other shop you pass, along the quays and principal street. In Dieppe, however, the largest trade and the best carving are done; those at Boulogne and Caen are but offshoots—younger brothers of this fils ainé of Dieppe. This trade has been the source of money-making to Dieppe for generations; indeed the hardy fishermen of this flowery little harbour, claim the honour of being the first to introduce ivory into France. Thus the story goes, that, in 1364, a company of Dieppois equipped a couple of barques, of only one hundred tons burden each, for the purpose of exploring the coast of Africa. It proved a lucky expedition, stamping the signs of its progress, in the names it gave to its various stopping places, which may be seen to this day on any map; for instance, Cape Verd, Bay of France, and Petit Dieppe, near Sestos. The return cargo of these frail craft was African spices, fruits and ivory. The former soon found its way into the interior, but much of the ivory, whose uses were less familiar, remained, as we may easily suppose, as trophies of their adventures, in the hands of the sailors and their families, until the ingenious fingers of Frenchmen cut, roughly at first no doubt, this compact but easily wrought substance into such domestic ornaments as might, at that time, be in use; sword and other handles, combs, and the like.

Such, then, is said to be the beginning of the Dieppe carving of ivory. Little seems to be known about its progress after this first step, until 1830, when the Duchess de Berri visited Dieppe, and she having taken great interest in the atéliers, has the credit of introducing the Italian taste for finely and deeply cut wreaths of flowers, cupids, and scrollwork.

Ivory work is done in Paris, but it differs from the Dieppe work, in that it is less elaborately carved. Articles of smooth and highly polished surface may easily be distinguished as Parisian ware, and, though beautiful, give more the impression of manufactured goods, than of being specimens of handicraft from an artist’s workshop. Such are the polished glove-boxes, the toilet-brushes, the dainty étui of gilt embroidery scissors, the delight of wealthy Parisiennes, but which minister more to the sense of touch than to the pleasure of a cultivated eye. It is true you may see such articles in the Dieppe shop-windows, but on inquiry it will be found they are made in Paris. Carving is the specialité of the Dieppe workshops, while that of Paris is polishing.

Both Paris and Dieppe are supplied with ivory imported from India and Africa in English ships. In London large purchases are made by a Paris company, whose capital enables them to keep larger and better stocks than individual workmen could themselves. This company will sometimes buy 4000l. worth of tusks at one time. The choicest ivory for the Dieppe work is the green ivory, the fresh or recently extracted tusk of the hunted elephant. It is clear and transparent at first, but with time and exposure becomes whiter and more opaque than the dead ivory, which is from the tusks shed by the living elephant, and is not held in high estimation, being small and often partly decayed.

Senegal, Guinea, and India, yield the best ivory, though small specimens from China are much used. The quality of all these ivories varies much, according to the place of its growth. A carver easily detects a piece of Indian from African ivory. Fossil ivory is brought in good quantities from Siberia; it is whiter and harder than any other, but is still esteemed and much used. The finest ivory is reserved for crucifixes and large objects. The fang or root of the tusk, being bony and opaque, is used only for common purposes and small inferior articles.

The carving of Dieppe is carried on partly by piece-work, and partly by the masters and their apprentices working together, in their atéliers. The Orphan Asylum often provides apprentices for this work. The boys are taken from the asylum at about twelve years of age, and are boarded, clothed, and trained for four years. The priest of the parish, and, I believe, the heads of the asylum, take over-charge of these apprentices to secure their being well treated, and, by a late regulation, the masters are obliged to allow the boys two hours a-day for attendance at the School of Design. The bulk of the Dieppe carving is done in the winter and in the cold bleak months of spring. When the monster hotels are shut and boarded up, and the wintry wind howls in the channel, then, if you are lucky enough to have the entrée into the atélier of M. Hue, or of Madame Veuve Farge-Herbert or M. Binet, you will be made cheerful again by the sight of the earnest, lively workers with which they are filled. With the scrupulous cleanliness and order of both workshop and workmen, you will be alike struck. Workmen in white blouse, and with whiter fingers, bend over their respective vices ranged in front of long flat windows, such as are seen in weavers’ houses in Spitalfields, and in the stockingers’ houses in Leicester and Derbyshire. The masters, men, and the apprentices are all working and talking together; miniature-like tools are strewn about; bright dainty files, gouges, and saws lie on his bench at the elbow of each workman, and bowls of water stand here and there. These bowls contain the roughly sawn pieces of ivory lying to soak before the carver begins his operation. In front of some of the less expert men lie their designs drawn out on paper, from which they are working, but the cleverer carvers simply sketch their idea on the piece of ivory, and work it out as they go along. Some of the older men—excellent carvers in certain departments—know nothing of drawing, and say they should find it difficult to sketch their intention at all. In these atéliers they work from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., from which, of course, they have time allowed for their “second breakfast” at 11 o’clock, and their dinner at 5. A good deal of work is done “by the piece” by many workmen at their own homes,—this often proves to be carving of the best quality.

The general run of wages is from two to four francs a-day, though first-rate men have been known to earn as much as twelve by a day’s work. When women do the carving it is by the piece—not in the atéliers—but there is a prejudice against their doing much at it; it is thought to be too sedentary, and to produce consumptive tendencies. Spite of this opinion against it, some exquisite carving has been done by women. Madame Binet has worked successfully, and her husband readily acknowledged the superior sculpturing of her roses to that of his own, or that of any of his men, and exhibited specimens to me even before his wife, pointing out at the same time the delicate turn of a petal, which he averred, in true Frenchman style, “gave quite a sentiment to the flower!” The first time I was in their shop, I was struck with Madame Binet’s taste and pleasure in the carving, and I now remarked that Madame seemed to have a great love for the work. “Oh, yes,” she replied, “she did a little whenever the affairs of her house allowed her time;” and in confirmation pointed to a little block of ivory and some tools lying on a table in her little sitting-room opening from the shop, where she had been working before my entrance.

In visiting these domesticated atéliers, it occurred to me that here, as in the workshops of the artists of the middle ages, the son might be found inheriting at once his father’s tools and his talents. In answer to my question if it were so, I was told that, though not common, it certainly had been so in the case of the Farge family. They had been earnest and successful carvers for two or three generations. Parents, brothers, and sisters worked together and had a common love of the cold ivory, and each excelling in the execution of its delicate sculpture. The industry and ingenuity of this family, is to this day notorious among their fellow townsmen, and I was told that the quantity of carving left by the father alone, was, at his death, a few years ago, sufficient to stock a shop for years to come. Of late a taste for the extremely fine work has grown into a fashion, and poor Mr. Farge’s more simple designs are no longer regarded so highly as they once were. At one time this family employed thirty workmen.

Ivory Carving from Dieppe (OAW).png


Nos. 1 and 2 are by Madame Veuve Farge-Herbert; Nos. 3, 4, and 5 by M. Hue; and Nos. 6 and 7 by Madame Binet.

The carving done in Dieppe is much finer than that done elsewhere, and the Dieppe workman is esteemed more highly than any other. This is by many of the masters held to be owing to the quiet and somewhat primitive system of working, which, as we have said, is done very much at the workmen’s own time and in their own houses, preparing in the winter months the articles which they sell during the gay summer season. They can regulate their labour by time and their own fitness for work. A Dieppe carver is sometimes tempted by the offer of high wages to go to Paris, where the system of contract prevails, and there working hurriedly to complete a great deal in a given time, such a carver, it is said, has frequently been known to lose entirely in the course of six months that very care and delicacy of execution for which he was before distinguished. The sculptors perhaps are, what the great art critic of the day would call too “servile” in their copy of nature; they perhaps do too merely imitate nature whenever they use flowers or leaves, and their execution of the blooms of a spray of lilac, for instance, is extraordinary in its exactness and minutia, but that higher artistic feeling, the exercise at once of fancy and restraint, the power over their subject and idea, shown in conventionalising leaves and sprays, you look for in vain in most of the articles sold in the shops. But to those who feel interest in the worker as a man not as a mere tool, and who believe that in so far as the worker is allowed to preserve his love and pride in his work, and to keep his own characteristic way of doing it, in so far the work he does will be more lovely and interesting to the beholder—to such the carving at Dieppe will be found so far satisfactory, that it may be regarded as an art, not as a manufacture, for men can work out their own ideas if they have any to express, and their individuality need not of necessity be lost in toiling year after year at but one part of their work only.

To particularise the names of all, or half indeed, of the articles which this ingenious people contrive to shape out of an elephant’s tusk would be to make an endless catalogue, from Cupids and Graces a foot or more in height, down to egg-spoons, dainty thimbles, studs and brooches in infinite variety. But the objects on which most artistic feeling and invention are displayed, are highly wrought crucifixes; sides for books, chiefly missals, and the well-known “Imitation Jesu” pyxes of such pure and simple form, and of such “sculpture rare,” that the beholder instinctively guesses their holy use; chapelets or rosaries of large, smooth beads, or a perfect incrustation of carved roses; vases supported by Caryatides; exquisite salad-tongs, cups, boxes and interlacework trays for the toilet-table. It would occupy too much space to give more than a mere outline sketch of a remarkable Venetian looking-glass, in a carved ivory frame ordered by the Empress Eugénie in 1852, and which gave constant work to the artist during six years. It is almost painful to reflect how much labour this piece of luxury has cost. The wreath which encircles the mirror, wrought of sprays and bunches of rose, lily, tulip, hyacinth, harebell, and a host of other flowers, all diminutive, are rendered with an exactness that is more marvellous as a feat of execution and dexterity of manipulation, than an exhibition of lovely design. The pillars supporting the glass are formed of an ingenious twisting of ivory chain and rope work, all cut from the solid ivory, yet so flexible that the chain yields to the touch, as an ordinary one of metal would. Under the oval of the mirror, stands an ivory basket of minute flowers, and over it an ivory cobweb is thrown, on which are seen a spider and a fly, almost as delicately formed as in nature, their organisation seeming all but too solid for their frail support of ivory web. In short, without any striking effect of design, the whole work is a somewhat incongruous elaboration of tiny flowers, shells, corals, laurel-wreaths, Cupids, and imperial monograms, that speaks French taste to be to-day very much the same as in the days of Louis XIV., when this profusion of ornament prevailed. The carver, Carpentiére Beauregard, had 10,000 francs awarded him in payment of his six years’ work; but it is sad to think, that health and eyesight as well as labour were all given away for the obtainment of this sum!

The Duchess de Berri did much to develop the trade during her visits to Dieppe, and on her leaving, the town presented her with the usual gift to royal visitors, an ivory ship. Napoleon I., Louis Philippe, his Queen, the Dukes de Nemours and Joinville, and the present Emperor, have all in turn “graciously accepted” such a token of Dieppois handicraft from the townspeople. These ivory vessels, perfect and full rigged in slender threads of ivory, are undoubtedly emblematical of the brave little barques that brought the first cargo of ivory from the western coast of Africa to France.

The ivory carving of Dieppe, as our readers are aware, is well represented in the International Exhibition this summer, and many persons have doubtless felt an interest in comparing these specimens with the English carving which has been successfully carried on for the last few years in London, where the workers are all English—men and boys. An account of these artists, and the ways and means of carrying on their business, may interest the readers of Once a Week, and at some future time we may possibly recur to the Ivory Carving in England.