Have you ever seen those old, intricately carved bear hat racks, cuckoo clocks and game panels in European lodges of old? That style is called Black Forest — an art form named for that region in Bavaria, Germany.
Born during Victorian times for the tourist trade and thought of as whimsical novelties, Black Forest carvings are now widely sought after, upscale antiques coveted for that Alpine-lodge look.
However, new research by authors Jay Arenski and Peter Blackman argues that this style actually began in Brienz, a small village in the Swiss Alps, to offset the hardships brought on by famine and crop failure.
These Swiss carvings are referred to as Brienzerware, but have been misidentified as Black Forest for so many years, to change now would cause much confusion. The German-carved cuckoo clock fit with Swiss movements and the fact that the Swiss also produced versions of the clock could have added to the misnomer.
Swiss towns like Brienz and Luzern were popular for the wealthy, traveling Victorians on grand tours of Europe. Queen Victoria visited this area in 1868, traveling under the name of the “Countess of Kent” and brought back many pieces to furnish Osborne House.
Showings in the Great Exhibitions in London (1851,) Chicago (1893) and Paris (1900) also contributed to the style’s popularity.
One man’s simple souvenir carvings to help feed his family became the seed to an entire industry, spreading to Paris and Germany — from 1816 until 1940!
Most Black Forest carvings depicted a hunting lifestyle and animals native to the Alpine forests. Artisans created these carvings into a multitude of everyday objects for the tourist trade, such as ink wells, cuckoo clocks and jewelry boxes. As the form’s popularity grew, so did the size of the objects. Soon furniture, mirrors and life-size animal sculptures appeared.
The oak leaf and acorn
In addition to animals, oak leaves and acorns became another common theme of Black Forest style. The oak tree is a symbol of great strength and hardness, showing up in early German coins, crests and military insignia. In the US military, the color of the oak leaf determines an officer’s rank. The native Texas oak and acorn is also part of the Texas state seal.
Mighty oaks ruled in popularity, followed by linden and walnut.
Game animals — such as chamois, ibex, boars and stags became depicted in life-size carvings — as did oak-embellished panels to attach small game antlers to, such as Roe deer. Antique Black Forest panels for bigger game are hard to come by and usually command a high premium.
Fortunately, Heritage Game Mounts makes modern day panels for all sizes of horns, antlers and game, using the same “Old World” feel, featuring oak leaves and acorns.
MSRP: $175 to $450
A German charivari, passed down in our family, is one of the ancestral pieces that inspired the creation of Heritage Game Mounts. It depicts tiny sterling oak leaves and acorns holding stag teeth. Men wore the Charivari on their lederhosen to represent a successful hunt while also showing pride and respect for their prey.
More ways to bring the oak and acorn inside
Bring a little of autumn inside with beautiful fall leaves and nuts (real and artificial) that are abundant right now in the floral department of hobby stores.
I like to bring in real oak leaves and acorns to add to taxidermy and bookshelves.
Tip: before starting any project with fresh acorns, prepare them for the long haul, minus any little acorn weevils. To kill any eggs, rinse acorns and pat dry, place on cookie sheets lined with foil and roast 250 degrees for 20 to 30 minutes. Another option is to place them in the freezer for a couple of days.
I like artificial oak leaves as well and tuck them into book shelves.
With like items on tabletops.
This arrangement is made easily by using pine cones to support the oak leaves.
I made an outdoor wreath with artificial oak leaves, pine cones, gold leaf antlers and a pheasant I harvested and dried.
After skinning the pheasant and saving the delicious meat, I scraped any fat away from the skin and washed the whole thing in Dawn detergent to get rid of the remaining oil.
Then, I blew it dry with a hair dryer and sprinkled the inside skin with Borax laundry booster powder. This not only aids in the drying process, but also is a serious deterrent to any bugs thinking they might like my pretty pelt.
If you are interested in learning more about the Black Forest style I recommend 2 books: Swiss Carvings The Art of the Black Forest 1820-1940, by Jay Arenski, and Black Forest Woodcarvings, by Peter F. Blackman.