The aesthetic ideals, if not always the moral and political ones, of the British Arts and Crafts Movement were embraced in Tasmania by a diverse group of amateurs and professionals in the very late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The Art and Crafts Society of Tasmania, Australia’s first, was formed in Hobart in 1903. For two decades the movement flourished and woodcarving, particularly by women, featured prominently. Carved by Sarah Squire Todd (née Mason; 1861–1959), this fire surround is an excellent example of the movement’s influence in Australia.
The unity of the arts, including architecture, was an important Arts and Crafts principle and many works were made for specific architectural contexts. While this fire surround is unfinished and it’s intended destination unknown, there are many examples of Todd’s work made for Tasmanian homes, schools and churches.
Truth to materials, visible workmanship and original, personal expression were also fundamental Arts and Crafts principles. The former can be seen here in the undisguised chisel marks that give the carving a fresh and lively quality. The emphasis on personal expression meant that designers drew upon their own immediate experience to develop motifs and patterns, rather than those inherited from European traditions, such as classical architecture or borrowed from other cultures. The Arts and Crafts provided a platform from which Australians could experiment with symbols drawn from the local environment. Combined with the nationalist sentiment around Federation, this meant that many designs were drawn from Australian plants and animals. Australian designers searched for motifs that would have the symbolic and visual strength of the acanthus leaf in the classical tradition. Many, including Sarah Squire Todd, chose the gum tree, focussing particularly on the leaves and gumnuts.
Here, the artist has taken a thick slab of Tasmanian blackwood and carved it vigorously to produce a dramatic depth to the gum leaves and gumnuts. In places the wood is millimetres thick. Despite this realism, the overall design has been formalised with a loose symmetry controlling the arrangement of the branches and leaves. Australian Arts and Crafts came later than the British movement and was also influenced by the later Art Nouveau style. Its influence can be seen in the sinuous curving branches in Todd’s fire surround.
Sarah Squire Todd studied woodcarving at Hobart Technical College, probably under Lucien Dechaineux and W. Russell. She exhibited woodwork and needlework at the International Exhibition of Industry, Science and Art in Hobart in 1894/5, and exhibited at the first exhibition of the Arts and Crafts Society of Tasmania in 1903.