Chippendale Furniture Making School teaches the ancient skills of wood carving

An interview with Charles Oldham, fine wood carver and member of the Master Carvers’ Association.

Charles Oldham, a master wood carver, believes passionately in preserving the ancient skills he learned from an older generation of carvers; teaching woodworking students at the Chippendale International School of Furniture provides an opportunity to pass on these skills.

Charles Oldham specialises in restoration, architectural wood carving, letter cutting, carved and gilded ornaments, and gesso cutting. Charles has worked on a number of high profile restoration projects amongst them Windsor Castle, Hampton Court Palace, Spenser House and Tredegar House.

Charles Oldham, master wood carver, in the Chippendale Furniture School's purpose-built workshop.
Charles Oldham, master wood carver, in the Chippendale Furniture School's purpose-built workshop.

How did you get into wood carving?

“After going to St Albans Art College and Bath College, I served my apprenticeship in three London wood carving workshops run by master carvers. Once there I carved eighteenth century style fireplaces and picture frames. I also restored fine carved and gilded furniture and mirror frames from the auction houses and the antiques trade.

“I went on to set up my own workshop, Charles Oldham Fine Wood Carving, now in Frome, Somerset. Current clients include cabinet makers, architects, the National Trust, antique dealers, conservation firms, restorers and individuals. I work with existing designs, interpret designs and design new work. Chippendale mirror frames are one big area of work – baroque, rococo, neo classical and regency – and I’m currently moving more into sculpture as well.”

What are your favourite commissions?

“I was fortunate enough to be asked to carve some ceiling bosses for Windsor Castle.

“I’ve also carved a life sized pony for the National Trust Carriage Museum in Devon.

“More recently, Salisbury Art Centre had to cut down a yew tree. The wood was given out to different artists and cabinet makers for the ‘Yew Tree Exhibition’. I carved a ‘ewe’ from the yew based on an idea from Henry Moore’s sheep sketch book (one of my favourite sources!). The Art Centre liked the piece so much that they bought it.”

You can see photos of Charles’s beautiful life-sized Pony and Ewe from Yew on our Facebook page.

“Some of my best restoration work is in Redland Chapel, a perfect Baroque building in Bristol where I restored the Gibbons style foliage and cherubs.

“Last year Anselm Fraser [principal of the Furniture School] and I designed and carved a fantastic Gothic doorway in Dunkeld, north of Perth in Scotland.

The pony carved by Charles Oldham master carver.
The pony carved by Charles Oldham master carver.

“One of my more unusual commissions has been carving a dog’s bed for a Labradoodle called Oswald! This is really a very elegant William Kent style piece of furniture.”

What do you teach the students at the Chippendale International School of Furniture?

“This is now my fifth year. I always enjoy my two week visit in the summer term.

“The students learn about carved ‘ornament’ and where they can use it. I use 3 carving exercises to teach the students: carving foliage and a lion’s head, through to creating a mirror frame.  They learn about design drawings, carving techniques, chisels and how to sharpen carving tools.

“Each student carves with a different character. You can begin to see which direction they want to go in from the character of their work.”

What’s your impression of the Chippendale School of Furniture?

“It’s very nice to be working with people again, and there are a great range of ages and nationalities. The School of Furniture has a really refreshing attitude – it lets everyone be their own character instead of telling them to do things in a particular way.”

More information is available at Charles Oldham’s website.

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