The box seen here shows the superb carving of John Kendrick Blogg, a successful and entrepreneurial industrial chemist who was born in 1851 in Canada, settled in the Surrey Hills region of Victoria in 1877 and died in 1936. His day job involved making perfumes and extracting essential oils. Family legend has it that he began making furniture and ornamental wooden carvings after the death of his first wife, Annie, in 1893. This box carries several examples of his carving and, in terms of Australiana, is as good as it gets.

John Kendrick Blogg (1851–1936, carver) and Harry Goldman (c 1872–1939, cabinet-maker), presentation casket with carved decoration, presented to His Majesty Albert I King of the Belgians, 1915 by 809 citizens of Victoria. Blackwood and other Australian timbers, 16.0 x 54.0 x 42.0 cm. The top panel represents the weeping wattle, Acacia saligna.

Until recently, Blogg’s work has been prone to slip under the radar. Perhaps this was because much of his output was made for his family, local churches and/or as war memorials, and rarely appears on the market. However, although Blogg probably did not regard himself as a professional carver, he was involved with several local arts and crafts organisations and, most probably, attended various exhibitions. He also wrote poetry and frequent letters to the editor, signed in his usual fashion as John K. Blogg.

He is best known as being one of the notable woodcarvers to recognise and exploit the beauty and decorative value to be found in Australia’s native flora – and he did ‘his thing’ with amazing dexterity and style. Needless to say, he also had an artist’s eye for placement and proportion.

Blogg often presented pieces of his work to people he regarded as important or significant and this box was presented to His Majesty Albert I, King of the Belgians who reigned 1909–1934 (see following story). It is not too imaginative to suggest that Blogg, who was deeply distressed by the carnage of WWI, eagerly accepted this pro bono commission. Much of his work quietly commemorates the Australian soldiers who fought in World War I – thousands of whom lie in Belgian soil.

Many of John Blogg’s carved pieces feature sprigs, twigs and branches taken from Australia’s magnificent flora. Leaves, often gum leaves, represent all the Australian troops who fought in the ‘war-to-end- all-wars’. Healthy leaves, those still attached to the mother-branch, represent men who returned, unharmed, to Australia. The shredded, tattered, insect- damaged and broken ones speak of the wounded and maimed and those on the ground represent, of course, the never-to-return dead. Flowers and gumnuts represent hope for the future. Blogg is known to have collected much of his subject matter directly from the bush or local gardens and to have faithfully reproduced his chosen specimens scars and all. There are five carved panels (on the lid and on the four side panels) set into a body of top-quality fiddleback blackwood. The timber employed in the carved panels is difficult, at this distance, to identify, but Blogg is known to have used Queensland maple (Flindersia brayleyana), white beech (Gmelina leichhardtii) and Leichhardt tree (Nauclea orientalis) for some of his carvings and all could be contenders. Suggestions would be welcomed. Blogg was a prolific woodworker with about 300 pieces to his name but only two boxes are known, this one and one in a private collection – sadly, not mine!

Detail of Eucalyptus leaves and gumnuts and blossom carved on the sides. Detail of Eucalyptus leaves and gumnuts, with carved inscription ‘THE LEAVES OF THE TREE FOR THE HEALING OF THE NATION’
Signature, ‘John K. Blogg’ and date ‘1915’ on lid.

Blogg is known to have kept meticulous records which included professional photographs of all his work. So, anyone advertising a piece as ‘attributed to John Blogg’ should take care. And ‘Buyer Beware!’ If I ever get to Europe again I may request a personal interview with a box!

It took years to uncover this particular box and its emotive story and I am grateful to all who have helped and have kept me at it. Most particularly I would like to thank the staff of the Embassy of Belgium in Canberra who started the ball rolling. The curatorial staff in the Belgian Royal Collection were kind enough to supply the photographs and to thank me for telling them how their no-name mysterious box reached them. I am grateful to Narelle Russo who curated an exhibition Drawing with chisels: the woodcarvings of John K. Blogg, 1851–1936 at Mornington Peninsula Regional Gallery in 2007.

Born in England, Sarah Guest married an Australian and came to Melbourne in 1961. Soon after, she bought a cedar book box which was the start of an impressive collection of timber boxes. She wrote about plants and gardens in The Age for 20 years, has written seven books and is working on a book about Australia’s timber boxes.

Article courtesy Australiana Magazine

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