John Haugh

Monday 9 July 2018

John Haugh has a booklet recording the titles, sizes and destinations of his commissioned and freelance carvings. It contains the details of at least 180 pieces dating from 1943, and that doesn't include group carvings where he might have had to carve as many as 20 individual pieces.

You might reason that such a prolific portfolio could only be achieved if he had carved small objects, but while he has done a few carvings as small as 5in, a huge body of work is 5ft tall and above.

For John, while willing and able to carve anything that he was asked, enjoys a reputation for the quality of his religious statuary, and his sculptures can be found in churches on both sides of the Irish border.

According to John, who is now 81 and only retired on doctor's orders in 1999, “I never stopped work. That was for two reasons. My prices were a bit lower and I never refused work.” His work crossed the sectarian divide, coming from all sections of the religious community, from Dominicans and Franciscans to the Anglican church. Indeed, it becomes clear from talking to him that he was and still is passionately concerned with bringing a lasting peace to Ireland. He said that he had been happy to work for anybody, in whatever style they wanted, whether that be traditional, contemporary or abstract, and based his charges on what he felt his clients could afford.

Glenstal scholarship

The Statue of the Sacred Heart, carved by John when he was a 16-year-old schoolboy in Co. Clare, was not only his first major piece of work, but also helped shape his life. For it gained him a five-year scholarship to the Glenstal Benedictine Arts & Crafts School in Co. Limerick to study woodcarving. Afterwards he worked in the community for three years accomplishing 21 large works, mostly statuary. Then in 1946 the monks of Glenstal awarded him a further scholarship, this time to study and travel under the care of the Benedictine Abbey of Maredsous, Belgium.

John claims “That was the greatest thing that ever happened to me, because I was treated as a woodcarver and travelled through Belgium and Holland… seeing those works on the spot was a vision.”

I asked him how studying woodcarving with the monks had affected his work and his subject matter. “With Glenstal being a monastery, you have the silence and the peace,” he replied. “It improves your mind and your thinking. I was delighted to carve anything religious or indeed to do any type of carving.”

In 1949 John began working professionally in Dublin, mainly in churches but also carving trophies, doing portrait sculpture and folk art.

In 1961 he instructed woodcarving at St Joseph's Intermediate School, over the border in Newry. He had earlier told me that he liked young people coming into his workshop to watch him work and commented: “Young people ask very funny questions that I can't always answer. It's a lovely thing watching kiddies. They enjoyed what they were seeing.”

Married twice – his first wife died – his three children have families of their own, and it is clear that he values the place of children in the continuation of the craft.

His job at Newry, he said, was to show the pupils – who were not considered bright – what they could achieve. They told him they would not be able to carve. “So,” said John, “I told them to draw something, anything. Whatever you want. The next stage was to look at a piece of wood, to explain the wood. Now they were ready to begin carving. I had to gain their confidence. They had lost a lot because they thought they were second class. These boys and girls were grand kids and the type of thing we did at the school developed, with the result that when I was leaving they carved a statue of St Joseph entirely by themselves.

“The important thing was not in creating them as carvers but that they had found within themselves the ability to do several little models or drawings over the years and complete St Joseph.” He left Newry in 1971, returning to Eire to start up a studio at Carlingford, where he still lives.

The carving of St Bridget

The 5ft statue was carved in 1995 for the Meadow Chapel of St Bridget's Church in Newry. John recalled: “The first and most important study was to visit the church. I made a note of the architecture, the interior, the sanctuary and the nave; also the lighting and the possible setting for the finished carving.

“Designing a carving is usually done as I sit by the fire after my day's work. To a background of family conversation, youthful laughter and giggles, TV soaps and passing traffic, I slowly create an image of St Bridget in my mind's eye. I make several small sketches of my ideas for the statue from several angles and poses. I then select two or three of these and make accurate drawings, one quarter of the actual size.”

The statue shows the saint standing and looking outwards. On her left arm she is holding a replica of an early Christian stone church and in her right she holds aloft St Bridget's cross.

Said John: “I was fortunate to get a 10ft beam of 12 x 12in Colombian pine. This is softer and a lighter wood than pitch pine. It has a very interesting grain pattern which adds to the overall beauty of the completed carving. This particular block had an earlier existence as the roof beam of a Belfast linen mill. It was about 100 years old.

“When the time came to start carving from full-size templates, I traced on to the block the frontal and side outlines of the statue. Since this was a large block I had to use rip saws and axes and lots of elbow grease to remove the surplus wood. Following the outlines of my design, I made several saw cuts across the width and thickness of the block.”

With squared frontal and side outlines achieved, John measured and marked in with dividers, then taped the main proportions and pose of the head before marking in the position of the hands and the body pose.

“I begin by carving a rough, rounded shape of the head. This process continues throughout the block so that I am left with all the main details carved in the round. After about two months' work the statue is now ready for detailed carving of the face, hands and other features. There is a wealth of artistic inspiration in the lives and folklore of the early Irish saints. Since most of my work is in the field of folklore, I endeavour to create a bond of humanity and homeliness with the people of today.”

On completion of the carving he washed it with warm, soapy water – no detergents as they might discolour the wood.

“I leave it for one day to dry out and then brush on two or three coats of French polish, according to the hardness of the wood. With some carvings I apply three coats of clear matte varnish. When completely dry, I apply wax polish with my hands as the heat of my hands helps to dispense the wax into corners and crevices of the carving.

“The wax is applied liberally and left to soak into the wood for a few days.” Then, “Using tea towels with a hard nap, or brushes, the carving is vigorously rubbed all over. Any surplus wax must be removed from the corners, which takes time. The process is repeated after a day or two.”

After four months' work, the study of St Bridget was complete. John said: “Since its dedication to St Bridget in early 1970, many changes have taken place in Ireland, not all for the good of our society. I feel that this 6th-century saint has a message for all of us – find your spiritual inner self.”

Radio never stops

You might think that a man who carved saints would work in a serious, quiet, contemplative atmosphere. Not a bit of it. “Say I'm doing the Stations of the Cross, a group of 14 panels, I visualise as I do each work. The radio never stops and something comes in to me from the debates.”

He referred to the statue of St Bridget during which he was affected by such news events as a tragic plane crash and the 11th anniversary of the cease-fire in Northern Ireland. In carving, he said, you had to think yourself into the appropriate state of mind.

“St Bridget was powerful in mind and powerful in body. That comes out in the carving. Bridget is looking at you and asking a question. Most of the saints are in meditation but not always in contact with the viewer. Bridget, through her type of living, with the old, the rich and the poor, saw everyone as neighbours. The way I think about sectarianism is the need for neighbourliness. It is a pity for a Christian community to have such differences. I look on everyone who comes to me as a neighbour and this comes to bear on various religious works I do. My motto is ‘In peace reach out'.

“For me church art means that I have to carve a representation for everyone in that congregation. I hope that through looking at the work I do they will have a mind to think about the carving and the story it tells, and be influenced by it but not pray to it.”

So in a long carving life has John achieved what he set out to achieve, and are there any new challenges?

“I think I have done everything,” he said. “I have never been rich and never wanted to be rich. I'm just as happy when I have a challenge. I am preparing a little catalogue of my work, with photography, and am hoping to produce an illustrated book as a record of my carving.”

It would probably contain some introductory lessons for would-be carvers, and would be distributed to schools and galleries.

When he retired, John paid tribute to a carpenter called Tom. He wrote: “His workshop was a place of wonder, with planks of wood, tools, chairs, tables, wheels, sawdust and smells. I watched his hands as he planed and shaped the wood. Then one day he gave me a little Súgán chair for my fifth birthday.

“Now, a lifetime later, I can vividly relive the sheer joy of sitting in my chair… I followed my dream and became a woodcarver, and found a story in the beautiful woods of Ireland. Creative moments come alive at the chisel's touch on the mystic yew, the mighty oak, the beautiful elm and ash.

“The simple beauty of Tom's little chair of my childhood was followed by many whose encouragement and patronage realised my dream to record on wood the folk tales and daily life of Ireland.”