AN ARTIST IN WOOD
THE WORK OF MR R. PRENZEL

IN a little road by the sea at Black Rock is a straggling garden, in which may be seen specimens of many rare and beautiful Australian shrubs and wild flowers. At the end of the garden, some distance from the road, is a square building which has the appearance of a schoolhouse. Its sides are chiefly of glass. On the way up the garden path I passed a rare acacia and a New South Wales waratah, struggling for life in this unaccustomed latitude. Ahead was a magnificent flowering gum. On the verandah an elderly man sat carefully mending some mallee roots which he had rescued from the wood pile. 'There you are," he said. "Now you would never see the join. I'll put a 'possum on one, and maybe a magpie on the other." He was the man of whom Mr. J. J. Simons, of the Young Australia League, said 'Some day connoisseurs will look at a magnificent wood carving and say with conviction, "That's a Prenzel", just as they say now, "That's a Rembrandt," or "That's a Corot." His wood carvings are the most perfect works of art I know.'

argus_prenzel-1.jpg

Mr R. Prenzel at work on a Queensland coat of arms for the Young Australia League. Note the manner in which the gouge is held in the finishing stages of carving in boligum timber. From The Argus 24 January 1931. S085N15A

In his roomy studio by the sea Mr R. Prenzel spends his days, surrounded by benches and chisels, making works of art out of blocks of wood. My introduction to him was the outcome of a visit to the rooms of the Young Australia League in Melbourne, to which a magnificent carved panel, representing the crest of the league, surrounded by flowering gums so perfect in texture that it was difficult to believe that they were made of wood, had just been delivered. Mr Simons explained that this panel, together with six smaller panels, representing the State crests surrounded by indigenous flowers, had been ordered for the reception room of the headquarters of the league in Perth. Taking advantage of their opportunities of procuring good examples of work while travelling with the parties arranged by the league, the officers have collected many gems of wood carving. A huge old English carved sideboard stands against one wall at the headquarters in Perth. The league has refused an offer of 500 guineas for this piece. A remarkable carved frieze from a Buddhist temple in China adorns another wall. The set of Australian panels will, Mr Simons is assured, be the chief attraction, even among the wonderful carvings already acquired.

Australian Models Best

Mr Prenzel took his mended mallee roots into the studio, and cut the bases flat to form pedestals for further examples of his work Since he came from Germany in the Habsburg in 1888 to see the great international exhibition at Melbourne, he has remained in Victoria, studying the Australian animal and plant forms which, he believes, are unrivalled as subjects for his art. His garden is filled with specimens for use as models. He displayed a panel, almost completed, of the Victorian crest the five stars of the Southern Cross on a shield, surmounted by the bust of a kangaroo bearing in its paws the Imperial crown, with the State motto, "Peace and Prosperity" on a scroll beneath. Sprays of silver wattle, realistic both in form and texture, surrounded the panel. Each ball of the wattle blossom revealed the wonderful care and skill of the artist, and was in itself a complete work of art.

argus_prenzel-2.jpg

Another example of the woodcarver's art. A coat of arms in decorative timbers. S085N18

Other panels were in various stages of completion. Some were no more than slabs of wood on which the design had been traced from a full sized drawing, with the finest and truest of lines. Others were roughly hacked. The black swan of Western Australia, whose every feather appeared liable to be ruffled by the first gust of wind, was awaiting the finishing touches.

Mr Prenzel demonstrated his methods. First, with the largest and heaviest chisel and a heavy mallet, he attacked a block of wood, approaching the lines of the design but never cutting them. Then finer chisels and gouges were employed until finally the centre of each line was cut into, with never a hair's breadth of deviation. Next came the modelling, first roughly, with mallet taps to assist the coarse cuts, later with only the hands to drive and guide the tool. Photographs, or the spray of a plant, were used as models for the final stages.

The library in the studio contains many illustrated books of animals and plants. Cuttings from illustrated papers, albums of photographs, and scientific journals, all aid in the first drawing of the design and are referred to constantly in the course of the work. Figure carvings are completed from living models or plaster casts. When there is not a cast available Mr Prenzel models one carefully in clay before beginning to work on the wood. A mirror shows him the lines of his own face as he works on a human figure.

Carving With An Axe

More than 300 chisels and gouges are among the tools which Mr Prenzel uses. He has also a few punches for background work, but he seldom employs them. "Punching," he says, "is simply to cover bad workmanship, when you do not take the trouble to make the background smooth. Its legitimate use is in heraldry, where punched dots and crosses are the conventional representation of the heraldic colours."

The handles of all the tools are worn smooth through many years of careful use. On one is carved a date in 1894, which commemorates one of Mr Prenzel's major works, the carving of the ceiling and walls of the west wing of St. Patrick's Cathedral. "We roughed out that work, not with a mallet and chisel, but with an axe," he said.

Victoria has many examples of Mr Prenzel's classical and ecclesiastical carving. He favours the Italian Renaissance style for church decoration. In addition to the work in St. Patrick's Cathedral, specimens may be seen in St. John's Church of England, Toorak, where the panelling and reredos are perfect "Prenzels". Other very fine examples are the pulpit and other pieces in Our Lady of Victories Roman Catholic Church, Camberwell, and the ecclesiastical Gothic reading desk in St. Peter's Church of England, East Melbourne.

Australia produces the finest timbers for carving, according to Mr Prenzel. Boligum, the wood of a Queensland tree, Letsea reticulata, he claims to be the finest carving wood in the world. It is moderately hard, close, and uniform in texture, and has no tendency to split or to chip with the grain. Second only to boligum is another Australian timber, Queensland beech. The work in St. Patrick's Cathedral, however is chiefly in kauri and cedar.

See Also:

Terence Lane, 1994. Robert Prenzel 1866–1941: His Life and Work, National Gallery of Victoria, ISBN 0 7241 0167 5