Saturday, January 9, 2016

Maritime Carvers- The Art of the Tiller

Carved oak tiller, England or NW Europe, late 17th-early 18th century. A fine oak tiller arm carved with the head of a sea serpent and ball terminus. 45 1/2 inches in length.

As a maritime dealer and collector, I am always seeking to acquire exceptional examples of wood carvings that were produced during the "Age of Sail."  Wood carvings which decorated ships during the 17th, 18th and 19th century are sometimes all that remain from the vessels built during that time.  We know that ship carvers specialized in producing quality decorative work for maritime environments on ships, boats and yachts were a trade in to itself and different from those that built ships.Typical examples of their work would include figureheads, nameboards, trailboards for boats and unique yacht interiors out of wood.

In this article we will take a look at the art of the carved tiller arm that sometimes embellished great yachts and naval gigs that carried wealthy merchants and ship captains from  sea to shore. These were at times garnished with carvings of figures such as animal heads, folded hands and monkeys fist in terminus. Sometimes the length of the tiller was carved with elaborate rope turnings, snake bodies and end with rectangular panels with stylized acanthus leaves and other foliation, stars and other favored decorations of the period carved inside.  Among the works produced by marine carvers throughout the centuries, authentic carvings off of actual ships continue to be highly prized and sought after and becoming increasingly more difficult to find.

Here's a selection of exceptionally carved tiller arms made during the 19th century by those that specialized in maritime carvings.

 A carved mahogany and brass small yacht or launch tiller, probably English, circa 1880.  The tiller has a monkey fist end followed by a multi strand rope carved shaft which transcends into a four sided rectangular shape with carved flags on the top and sides.  The rear section of the tiller is rectangular in shape with a curved end.  There is a slot at the center where the tiller slipped over the rudder.  The rear section is wrapped with brass around its outside surface.  Dimension:  Length 26 1/2 inches. Hyland Granby, Hyannisport, MA.

A carved mahogany and brass small yacht or launch tiller, probably English, circa 1880.

A 19th century carved tiller handle with rope-turned center, pointed finger terminus and carved foliate panels at other end. Measures slightly over 22 inches in length. Kahn Fine Antiques, Chatham, Massachusetts.

A 19th century carved tiller handle with rope-turned center, pointed finger terminus and carved foliate panels at other end.
Tiller handle hand with finger terminus.

A 19th century carved yacht tiller. This exceptional tiller was made in mahogany and elaborately carved in a rope-work pattern with a monkey fist at the head, a brass collar forming the grip, a Turk's Head closing off the rope work which continues down the entire length to the squared off post end, with panels carved in relief decorated with carved ribbons. The end in the form of a wedge to fit in the rudder post. 85 in. (215.9 cm.) length. Sold for $17,500.00 at Christie's Auction 15 January 2009, New York, Rockefeller Plaza

This exceptional tiller was made in mahogany and elaborately carved in a rope-work pattern with a monkey fist at the head.

A finely carved oak and brass yacht  tiller arm, British Isles, mid to late 19th century. Elaborately carved and has the typical reverse curved shape.The end of the tiller features a carved dolphin with a brass collar just below forming the grip. The turned post transcends into an octagonal length which continues and curves down to a blocked section to the squared off post end. The end in the form of a wedge to fit in the rudder post. Survives in good condition with a wonderful old patina and original surface. Measures 58 inches in overall length. A rare tiller and an exceptional example of maritime artistry. Skipjack Nautical Wares & Marine Gallery, Portsmouth, Virginia.

The end of the tiller features a carved dolphin with a brass collar just below forming the grip. 
The turned post transcends into an octagonal length which continues and curves down to a blocked section to the squared off post end. 

 A carved wood tiller in tapered form with a turned top half ending in a carved animal head with wide gaping mouth holding a ball with five pointed star. Bronze hardware is present. All in a very nice old dark patina. SIZE: 59."  James D. Julia Auctioneers, Fairfield, Maine.

A carved wood tiller in tapered form with a turned top half ending in a carved animal head with wide gaping mouth.

A rare carved snake form boat tiller.  This example was described to be a late 19th century American tiller,  carved out of maple or birch. This carving is finely executed while evoking a whimsical and folky feeling in the snake's face. This is a wonderful example of how a utilitarian object can transcend into a work of art. Condition: Retaining original varnish finish and brass mounts. Dimensions:  32 1/2."  Jeffrey Tillou Antiques, Litchfield, Connecticut.

A rare carved American snake form boat tiller, late 19th century.
Side view of a carved American snake form boat tiller, late 19th century.

Celtic Cat Ship's Tiller Arm. The last example is a rudder arm with such fine detailed carving would have stood out from the more mundane examples, and offers lasting appreciation as both a valuable maritime antique and as a fine example of the carver’s art. Due to wood’s inability to hold up against years of exposure to salt water and weather, only a very small percentage of the decorative ships’ carvings survive into the 21st Century.

 An extremely well preserved and presented hardwood tiller arm features a Celtic Cat laying ‘couchant’, its heraldic pose completed with the imaginary continuation the cat’s body as the full length of the wood artifact. The cat is aggressively showing its teeth in fierce armament. Deeply grained and expertly shaped with consideration for the grain pattern, the wood resembles English Oak, but is quite light in weight and of extreme age. The well-preserved tiller has a leather covered neck grip showing visible signs of the wear caused by tied lines to keep the rudder on a straight course. The grip is bounded with knot-work ring collars. The curvature of the rudder-steering device would allow for a captain to navigate from the stern cockpit of what was undoubtedly a decent sized sailing ship. The length is carved in a quite nice stylized rope braid, and the "klick board" has a floral design motif carved just forward of where the arm would mount into the rudder head. Vallejo Gallery, Newport Beach, California.

Celtic Cat Ship's Tiller Arm.

The "klick board" has a floral design motif carved just forward of where the arm would mount into the rudder.

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