I have just returned from a brief trip to Wales, during which time I managed to visit with a couple of lovespoon carvers and spent some research time at the National History Museum of Wales. The museum, which is located in the supremely scenic and romantic town of St. Fagans, just on the Western edge of Cardiff, can be easily reached by car or bus.
Primarily an outdoor museum, it consists of a large number of historic houses and buildings gathered from around Wales and reassembled on a stunning rural grounds of several hundred acres. The buildings have all been furnished to suit their time periods and enthusiastic caretakers can tell you everything you need to know about the history of Wales, its lifestyles and culture. It must rate as one of the best museums of its type in the world and should be a "must do" for anyone visiting South Wales.
For me though, the real treasure is found in nondescript cardboard boxes which are neatly stacked in the archive vaults! St. Fagans is home to the largest and most varied collection of Welsh lovespoons in the world; as a collection it is unrivalled, as a source of information and inspiration it is priceless. I have been very fortunate to enjoy terrific support from the curatorial staff at St Fagans and their help with accessing the archived collection has allowed me to learn a great deal about the lovespoon.
Unfortunately, there remains much we still do not know about the lovespoon tradition. Frustratingly little has been written about them over the many centuries of their existence and most of the information we have on them today is either the result of educated supposition or fanciful exaggeration!
It is my hope that the hundreds of spoons contained in these boxes will one day give up some of their secrets and we will be able to paint a more accurate picture of their rich history, but for the present time, most remain an elusive mystery. One day we might know if there were regional styles to spoon carving, which symbols were understood in the day and which are more modern inventions and what real significance in the courting process the lovespoon held.
I have learned one very important lesson from my rubber-gloved contact with these glorious historic marvels though, and that is lovespoons MUST be made with passion! It is my belief that If there is no feeling for the subject or the recipient, the spoon suffers and inevitably lacks a 'spark'. This is a sentiment reinforced by the unrivaled Alun Davies of Abercynon who carves the finest lovespoons I have ever been fortunate enough to see. He once told me, "A lovespoon is not a lovespoon unless it is made with love; love for the tradition, love for the wood and love for the person who will receive it." I don't think a more accurate and truthful description is possible and it is one I have embraced in my own outlook toward lovespoon carving.
This passion is found in a number of the more basic spoons found in the archives. Although they lack the technical skill of many of the more modern spoons in the collection, many of these roughly made pieces exude a certain magic; they have a warmth and a romance which is quite enchanting. More often than not, I found myself being captivated by spoons which were obviously made by the most amateur of hands but which possessed a real charm.
So if I can offer any advice at all for anyone who would like to try their hand at lovespoon carving, it would be to see it as more than just a carving exercise; let yourself become involved with the piece, don't worry about finishing it in a hurry and most important, throw yourself into it...it is, after all, a lovespoon!!