Ernst Gamperl: Oak Vessels
Master wood turner and artist, Ernst Gamperl, presents an exhibition of new work in the UK titled, “Oak Vessels”, a series of 21 unique objects made from a 310-year old felled tree that was once on the property of Houghton Hall.
From the hundreds of years a tree has grown, to the process of preparing the wood and then turning the vessels, time takes on new meaning in the work of sculptor and master wood turner, Ernst Gamperl. For over 20-years, Gamperl has applied a rigorous process of repetition and detail that has given him a deep intuition and appreciation of wood and his craft. “There is a respect for the material and its history”, he notes, about this unique experience of giving new life to this precious material.
This sense of history comes full circle in a new exhibition on view at Houghton Hall, an historic Palladian style property originally built in 1721 for Britain’s first Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole, in Norfolk, UK. Titled, “Oak Vessels,” Gamperl used wood from a 310-year old felled oak tree that was planted on the property the same year of its construction, and transformed it into 21 unique objects in various sizes and shapes.
In 2018, Gamperl went to Houghton Hall, which serves today as an historic museum as well as being a space for contemporary art exhibitions, and home to extensive and award-winning gardens, a vast contemporary sculpture park, and an artist-in residence program, and toured the property with Lord Cholmondeley, a descendant of the original owners, and curator and gallerist, Anthony Slayter-Ralph, who initiated the “Oak Vessels” project. “In many ways this project was born out of ‘Tree of Life,’ says Gamperl, referring to his nearly 10-year project that involved a 230-year-old oak tree which had been uprooted after a hurricane. Because of its heft, the experience was intense, a new kind of challenge that required new equipment and a patient, insightful awareness of the wood, which gave way to dozens of vessels and eventually led him to win the Loewe Craft Prize in 2017. Gamperl’s idea for “Tree of Life”, was to have all of the vessels made from that tree installed together in an exhibition, and Slayter-Ralph felt this idea could be translated to an English Oak at Houghton Hall.
The three went out into the lush, beautifully landscaped grounds to see the selection of recently felled and dried trees. After selecting ‘his’ tree, it was then cut into pieces onsite and shipped to his studio, a total of 24 tons of wood, which included the trunk and one large branch. Gamperl typically uses wood from Northern Europe, and often more the branches than the trunk, so this English Oak was slightly different. It had a big side grain and, he explains, “was calm in the movement, meaning fluid, but not extremely fluid.”
The 21-vessels are hollowed with scored and patinated surfaces; the natural fissures and breaks in the wood are held together with wooden butterfly keys. On the bottom of each vessel is Gamperl’s mark and work number, the year it was made and the age of the tree. Gamperl was not sure how the objects would look in the great stone hall in Houghton, with their massive bronze sculptures and classical busts, but in the end, there was a “kind of natural harmony between the objects”, he says. A kind of reuniting of history and materials, “from Houghton for Houghton.”
“Oak Vessels” is on view through September 25, 2022.