Specimens of Fancy Turning (1869)

This early photography book features thirty tipped-in albumen silver prints of geometric designs created on “the hand or foot lathe”. Resembling something between spirograph drawings and textbook diagrams of orbiting electrons, the figures were created using geometric, oval, and eccentric chucks and an elliptical cutting frame. Attributed to “an amateur” on its title page, the book is the work of Edward J. Woolsey (1803–1872), an heir of the mercantile Woolsey family and partner in the New York Patent Sugar Refinery. Along with his wife and first cousin Emily Aspinwall’s businessmen brothers, who built an improbable railway line in the early 1850s linking the Atlantic and Pacific oceans across Panama, he invested in a well-known estate in Lenox, Massachusetts, and furnished it with eight miles of crisscrossed carriage roads.

The preface to Specimens of Fancy Turning explains how Woolsey made these images. Inspired by “an amateur friend”, whose “exquisite productions” were too delicate to be successfully photographed, these “coarser” designs were produced by first applying India ink to an enamelled card with a “flat camel's hair brush”. The card was then fastened to the face of a chuck with tacks or mucilage, whereby a spring tool “cut through the blackened surface of the card, exposing to view the white paper”. The cards were subsequently photographed. “They lack, however, the depth of black background, which cannot be equalled by the solutions of silver employed by the photographer.”

“Fancy” turning is an old artform, thought to originate in fifteenth-century Bavaria, with sustained discussions of the practice first appearing in Charles Plumier’s L’Art de Tourneur (1701). While we may be more familiar with lathes being used to shape staircase balusters and table legs, here an eccentric cutter can create both convex and concave objects from a variety of mediums. These patterns ornament the lids of wood and ivory boxes, bannister newels, and Fabergé eggs. The photographs in Woolsey’s book, on the other hand, focus on fancy turning when it is employed as a two-dimensional technique, as in the metalworks created by Rose engine lathes. There is little sense of depth — were it not for Woolsey's explanation, these designs would appear to be etched directly onto photographic paper. They simply celebrate the texture of light as it spirals out across a surface.

There was precedent in Woolsey’s time for seeking new uses and representational modes of ornamental turning. Due to the difficulty of producing (yet alone reproducing) such filigreed shapes — Holtazapffel’s Turning and Mechanical Manipulation (1884) offers dozens of pages describing precise configurations for the slide rest, mandrel, and chuck — patterns from geometric lathes were included on bank notes and postage stamps as a defense against counterfeiting. The particular lathe used in this process was invented by Asa Spencer, who introduced the machine into general use circa 1818. A British commenter the following year noted how the lathe’s “powers for producing variety are equalled only by the kaleidoscope; but for beautiful patterns it surpasses everything of the kind.”

And these Specimens of Fancy Turning are indeed kaleidoscopic. Perhaps we are drawn to them because they feel at once fundamental and accidental. Like the vortices dripped into existence by a leaky paint can swinging on a string, or the staggering shapes vibrated out of chaos onto Chladni plates, these geometrical figures seem to allow us to peer into certain formal properties of the world that recur at every scale of physical existence. For Woolsey, he hoped his book might “lead to an interminable prairie in the world of mechanical pursuit, where fresh beautiful figures can be brought to light by every one who indulges in the exploration.”

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John Overholt