Peter Mansbendel: The Swiss Texan Woodcarver | The Early Days
Welcome to December friends!
Today’s post is the first in a series about Peter Mansbendel, a sculptor and woodcarver who serves as a huge source of inspiration for me. In fact, I spent years researching and studying Peter’s work and his life which led me in many fascinating, illuminating directions – so much so that I actually wrote a book about him! I figured I’d share some of his stories here with you, and this way you can understand why I find his artistic journey so enriching. This series of posts won’t necessarily be posted concurrently, as I like to switch things up from month to month depending on what I’m drawing inspiration from or am currently working on.
In 2004 I was researching Swiss woodcarvers who lived in the US when a booklet about Peter Mansbendel and his work popped up in the search results. It looked like some art museums in Texas had a few exhibits of Peter’s work in 1977, which led me to seek out the few of his carvings that made it up to Dallas homes.
I wasn’t sure how I’d be able to find the houses that displayed his work since the booklet only mentioned the homeowners from the 1920s. I decided to write to Ebby Halliday, the well-known relator, about the homes and she replied that one of the homes had been turned into a now famous hotel. She also said the other homes could be found by visiting Preservation Dallas. a historical home society, who told me that Peter lived in Austin.
After I began searching through Austin’s history, I learned as much as I could about Peter’s life and artistic work which led me in many fascinating, illuminating directions. Along the way, I was able to meet some of his living family members, study his work and techniques, and get to know the intricacies of this fascinating artist.
From 1800-1920 a wave of artists immigrated to the US, bringing their own traditions and artistic tastes from their unique backgrounds. One of these talented artists was Peter Mansbendel, a Swiss woodcarver who moved to Texas after falling in love with an American woman who lived in Austin. Unexpectedly, he became a vitally important Austin artist and community tastemaker who inspired others to incorporate and appreciate artistic design and beauty. Using chisels and gouges of every possible shape, he carved everything from inkwells to elaborate decorative pieces – many of which still adorn homes in Austin, TX today.
Peter Heinreich Mansbendel was born on August 12, 1883, in Basel, Switzerland to parents Valeria Siegrist and Johann Peter Mansbendel. Peter’s father, Johann, was a stern businessman who pushed his children to follow in his footsteps and didn’t allow for much deviation from that path – including Peter’s artistic talent and interest. Thankfully, his mother, Valeria, supported her son’s passion for art and encouraged him to continue carving and practicing different forms of art. Even as a child, Peter was said to have known he wanted to be a well-known artist!
At this time, freehand drawing was compulsory in Switzerland schools meaning Peter got more than his fill of space and time to practice drawing. By the time he turned 10, he declared that he was tired of drawing and wanted to focus on woodcarving as his primary art form. With the firmness of his decision, his father finally relented and bought his son the necessary tools for Peter to be a woodcarver’s apprentice. At 10 years old he began to apprentice for Ulrich Huber (1868-1949) in his hometown of Basel, and he continued to apprentice under Huber for 6 years. During this time, Peter was mainly expected to create roughouts for Huber’s sculptures – but at night he could study fine woodcarving from Swiss master carvers. Peter’s reflection from this time: “For years I had to wake half an hour earlier to build fires and sweep shavings and then carve and carve, and I’ve been carving ever since.
Following his apprenticeship, Peter spent a couple of years at the Industrial Arts School of Basel, then went on to complete his 2 years of mandated military service. After leaving the military, he was 21 years old and yielded to his wanderlust and love for the work of the famous English woodcarver, Grinling Gibbons, and moved to London. Gibbon’s work is very well-loved and he’s considered to be one of the best Western woodcarvers of all time. His work can still be seen in many of England’s cathedrals, castles, estates, and nobleman’s homes. While living in London Peter was thrilled that he could study and sketch Gibbon’s carvings by visiting various cathedrals and homes around the city, and could often be found creating charcoal sketches that focused on the common themes of Gibbon’s pieces. Some of his most prized sketches were of Hampton Court, which had many high-relief pieces with naturalistic flair and no fancy cuts (similar to the Chippendale style). Gibbon’s frequent use of flowers, fruit, and foliage motifs served as potent inspiration for Peter’s future work in Texas.
After soaking up all of the inspiration London could offer him, Peter decided to move to Paris to enroll in formal art education at the Coquier-Roland School of Art. Throughout his schooling, he studied clay modeling and sculpting from live models, and ended up having much of his work displayed in the studio. This schooling would prove to be invaluable in providing a strong foundation for his sense of proportions, visualization, and ability to work quickly. While living in Paris he landed his first portrait commission for a Russian nobleman, though the payment didn’t come for months after!
We’ll dive into the next chapter of Peter Mansbendel’s story soon…
As for my own work and life over the past month, it’s been a busy one!
I’ve been making good progress on a couple of the projects I mentioned last month; the kubbestol and the commissioned Byzantine crowns.
For the kubbestol, I’ve been able to work on the back of the chair to begin carving in the relief foliage design.
As you may have noticed, I use a lot of acanthus foliage in my carvings. From the beginning of my exploration of carving, I’ve always loved and incorporated acanthus plants into my designs because of their beauty and uniqueness. The leaves are so textural and are often found in various kinds of European woodcarving, and can be found as far back as 500 BCE in Greecian art.
I’m also still in the process with the Byzantine crowns that were commissioned by a couple recently. Getting them perfectly lined up and set was tricky because of the unusual angles, but I found a method that ended up being successful. The next step is beginning to carve these beauties, make sure to check back next month to see the progression.
After taking a break from hiking in October it was really nice to get back to my hiking group throughout November! I was able to go on a handful of hikes but these 2 were particularly memorable.
First was the Black Mesa Otowi Peak trail on the Rio Grande. This is a 5.0 -mile out-and-back trail with 1100’ of elevation change. It is located north of Santa Fe, New Mexico just past the Las Capansas housing additions. Generally considered a moderately challenging route, it takes an average of 3 hours to complete. This is a popular trail for birding, hiking, and walking, but during this time of year crowds being to dwindle so it didn’t feel crowded. The trail is open year-round. When I went on November 3rd the temp was about 50 and it was lightly raining and the wind was blowing briskly on the peak. Good to be back hiking after a few weeks off!
On Nov 10th my hiking buddies Thad, Richard, and I headed up to hike near Ski Santa Fe. We started our hike at 10,200’ elevation then hiked Windsor-Ravens Ridge up to Deception Peak at 12,377’. It was 6 miles and 2,400’ of elevation change. The hike was almost entirely in snow which made it very difficult but we had a breathtaking view as a reward for our hard work. You could see all the way into Colorado with clear skies and sun. It was a chilly start at 28 degrees and around 35 on Deception peak. A real butt kicker of a hike!
We also had our first snow of the year here in Santa Fe ❅
Looking forward to catching up with you again in the new year! I hope this holiday season is full of rest, fun, and joy for you and your loved ones.
If you have questions about anything in this post, feel free to leave me a comment below.