As we launch an exciting new collection of vessels crafted from a very special yew tree by wood artist, Anthony Bryant, The New Craftsmen explores the story of ancient yews in Britain.
Often surviving centuries of change, these native trees are revered in the UK for many reasons. From edifices of sacred worship, to their historic use in making medieval weapons, some of the oldest yews in Britain date back approximately 9,000 years. It is unsurprising, therefore, that yew trees have come to hold much symbolic meaning and are memorialised throughout history in legend and folklore.
Representing transformation and rebirth for the Celts, these magnificent trees were later adopted as a symbol of death and resurrection by Pagans and eventually, the Christian Church. Anglo-Saxons purposefully built their churches near old yews, and superstitious monks planted many more for the same hallowed reasons. Today, you will find yews standing in many ancient churchyards around Britain.
Sculptural and legendary, it’s no wonder that yews are greatly admired in the woodturning world and famously sought-after. In May 2020, Anthony Bryant received an email about a very special ‘pippy’ yew tree that had sadly been knocked down during a storm in Herefordshire. 'Pippy' is a term used to describe a very tight burr grain. The timber dealer had heard from several sources that Anthony was the only person who could do such a tree justice.
“I have used an awful lot of Yew over the last 40 or more years, including some that were also ‘pippy’ like this, but had never seen a log that was loaded with ‘pip’ from top to bottom”.
Covered in porcupine-like branches, each one representing a small, tight, knot; it was a tree of veneer quality and dated at around 170 years old, possibly closer to 200 years old. Anthony sensed that the yew would be an incredible acquisition, but with its intriguing quirks and details, he anticipated a tough job.
With such a beautiful tree comes huge responsibility to craft objects that live up to its inherent beauty and commemorate the passage of time. Anthony’s vessels are labour-intensive and turned on a lathe using unseasoned green timber. Preferring to work with wild wood, as in the case of his pippy yew, Anthony accepts that the material is tougher, but seeks the reward of elegant grain patterns that are rich in narrative.
It takes a huge amount of skill to turn using green wood; as the wood dries, it warps and splits, so you have to work quickly. Anthony worked tirelessly throughout the summer of 2020, taking great care to preserve unique features of the timber and weaving a beautiful thread of continuity between the sister vessels.
“I worked incredibly hard and sharpened my tools harder and more often than I’ve ever done before. The material was really spectacular”.
Anthony has expertly carved his pieces using the full width of the tree, not only celebrating the wonderful, rippling pattern of the pippy yew’s grain but avoiding sacreligious wastage too.
Each vessel is crafted to contain the heartwood with its splits and ‘shakes’ – flaws which are often viewed as uneconomical as the risk of unusable wood is high. His masterful work has resulted in an extraordinary collection of vessels, steeped in the history and magic associated with yew wood, of which The New Craftsmen have obtained five pieces.
We invite you to visit Anthony’s maker page to read his Q&A, which includes more detail on turning green wood and how this internationally renowned artist has honed his skills. For more information on individual vessels from the collection, please explore below.