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( Originally Published 1913 )
Undercut is a word of several applications, and that is why, for a long time, I did not understand what " undercutting " in " Old Wedgwood " might exactly mean.
There are, for instance, the undercut in boxing, and the undercut in beef ; but these are totally beside the present mark. You get nearer the mark when you consider the wonderful undercutting done in Oriental objects made out of ivory and wood. I have just been examining two tiny Chinese junks made out of small bits of sandal-wood. The knife hollowed away the interior so deftly, and with such infinite pains, that you can see inside the junks, and note the little seamen sitting within, behind shutters that open under your finger-tip. That is undercutting, and so is something of the kind which you may see in mediaeval European ivories ; but it is not the undercutting to which this chapter on " Old Wedgwood " refers.
If you enter the Chapter House of Southwell Minster, you will be surrounded by beautiful pillars with undercut capitals that are unique and unparalleled in any English cathedral, or in any of the fifty French cathedrals which I know. The hard stone was so cut into and under by the sculptor that the twigs, leaves, and fruit on these lovely capitals stand out, away, and up from the block of stone, just as if they were not integral parts of it. Even so in Grinling Gibbons' wood-carvings, the undercut details seem as if separately carved and then glued on. Now, it was these uses of the word " undercut " which long misled me as to what undercutting in " Old Wedgwood " might exactly mean.
Sir Arthur Church wrote : "The relief had been previously moulded ; after its application to the prepared ground it would be, and often was, worked on by sculptor or modeller, so as to repair defects, and to do such undeycutting as was necessary." And Mr. Rathbone had written of the medallions, etc., "all being carefully undercut." It is as essential for a collector of " Wedgwood " to know what that means exactly as it is for a collector of English old china to know " soft " porcelain by the feel.A Simile. A homely illustration may help us to understand. Liquid jelly is poured into a tin" shape" or mould ; when the jelly hardens it is " turned out " upon a dish. The mould or shape, if ornamental, will " cast " an ornamental-shaped jelly, but the lines of it cannot be anything else than simple, because the lines of the mould must be perpendicular to the dish. Otherwise, the mould will not " draw off " from the jelly without breaking it. The undercut junks, capitals, and wood-carvings could not be imitated by a mould.
Now, the white raised ornament on a piece of " Old Wedgwood " was deposited upon it from a mould. Flaxman or Hackwood modelled a decoration in wax, a mould was cast from that, jellied white jasper was put into the mould, and then the result was " turned out " upon the coloured jasper it was to ornament, just as a jelly is from a tin mould. It was not actually turned out; strictly speaking, the mould was drawn off it, leaving the moist ornament upon the jasper " ground."
Lapidary Work. Just as a lapidary chisels a cameo in chalcedony, or a sculptor a statue in marble, so an artist with a knife might go to work upon a jelly; and did go to work upon an Old Wedgwood bas-relief freshly produced by a mould. He undercut it-that is, he accentuated the lines, removed superfluities, deepened hollows ; for example, consider a medallion of Nelson, the one most frequently seen. The knife cut under the lapel of the coat; the knife cut away between the neck and the collar ; the knife accentuated the hollow under the eyebrow ; and thus produced the sharp effects of light and shade which the mould alone, because of the necessity to " draw it off," could not produce. A fine piece of Old Wedgwood thus employed first a potter and then a sculptor. After 1800 or so, the labour of the sculptor was dispensed with, the ornament was left just as it came out of the mould, and inferiority began.The Old and the New. "Old Wedgwood" has in every way a finish superior to that which began to come from the same works in the year 1800 or so. The earthenware was finer in grain, and therefore produced a finer surface, more smooth, flat, and glossy ; the colours were richer ; and careful undercutting was done. This undercutting did not consist in cutting away the base and leaving details almost detached and independent of the whole, as undercutting did in Grinling Gibbons' work, so do not look for that. But if, a piece of Wedgwood ornament being before you, you perceive details which are not " perpendicular to the dish," and could not have been produced by a drawn-off mould alone, then you may conclude that you have before you a bit of early Wedgwood, undercut.