Thursday, December 19, 2013

Pyrography: Art by Fire

One of the most unique Christmas items in my collection came from my grandmother's estate.  It's a long, narrow wooden box with a hinged lid, almost three feet long, divided into three felt-lined sections inside.  It's decorated in a red and green poinsettia motif.

I had no idea who made the box until I looked on the underside:

By looking this name up online, I discovered that the Flemish Art Company of New York specialized in creating wooden boxes decorated with woodburned, or "pyrographic" designs.  

The term pyrographic comes from two Greek words meaning "fire" and "writing."  

The design was etched into the wood using a metal object heated in a fire, or, since the 20th century, by electricity.  The technique dates back to at least 700 BC.  The Victorians, I learned, were particularly fond of pyrography, but they called it "pokerwork."  A poker was a metal rod with a handle used to poke (rearrange or stir up) coal or wood in an open fire.  

As I read this information, a line from Louisa May Alcott's Little Women popped into my head: "...a bold attempt at poker sketching."

Chapter Twenty-six
Artistic Attempts

It takes people a long time to learn the difference between talent and genius, especially ambitious young men and women. Amy was learning this distinction through much tribulation, for mistaking enthusiasm for inspiration, she attempted every branch of art with youthful audacity...she devoted herself to the finest pen-and-ink drawing, in which she showed such taste and skill that her graceful handiwork proved both pleasant and profitable. But over-strained eyes caused pen and ink to be laid aside for a bold attempt at poker sketching.

While this attack lasted, the family lived in constant fear of a conflagration, for the odor of burning wood pervaded the house at all hours, smoke issued from attic and shed with alarming frequency, red-hot pokers lay about promiscuously, and Hannah never went to bed without a pail of water and the dinner bell at her door in case of fire. Raphael's face was found boldly executed on the underside of the moulding board, and Bacchus on the head of a beer barrel. A chanting cherub adorned the cover of the sugar bucket, and attempts to portray Romeo and Juliet supplied kindling for some time....

My grandmother's house in Alva, Oklahoma, was built in 1906, and this box dates to about that same era.  I like to think of it as being representative of Christmas in its day: a festive object in which treasures and memories may be stored.


Pictures and history of the Flemish Art Co. are at this website:

There's a good article about pyrography on the website:

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