Retired schoolteacher Mark Dunham has a new career as a wood artist – Edwina Baines learns more about his work
Woodworking is one of the oldest arts known to mankind: archaeologists have discovered tools which are more than a million years old and contain traces of acacia wood.
In a small workshop near his house in Mere, Mark Dunham continues this ancient tradition – but to describe him only as a woodworker would be doing him a disservice. His designs go beyond the wood itself – every piece uses a combination of skills, including glass, copper and metalwork as he instinctively draws on a connection between his designs and our natural world.
When he left school, Mark took up work as an apprentice wood machinist before progressing to teacher training at Brunel University. For many years he was a teacher of craft, design and technology (CDT) in Poole, later moving north to Port Regis School. He was always eager to tell his pupils that imagination and design are the most important starting points – even before understanding the techniques of working in wood, metal or glass.
At the end of a long career in teaching, Mark now has the time to pursue his personal passion for woodworking – in particular, creating his uniquely organic long-case clocks and lamps.
Each piece starts from either a single piece of wood or a sketched design – which may evolve or change as the work develops.
Shaped by nature
Mark uses wood that he sources locally or that is randomly brought by friends.
Several of the clocks and smaller items Mark has on display were made from an old burred oak. Burrs are the bumps, swellings or bulges that grow on or from the trunk of a tree, caused by the stunted growth of tiny branches which die back. They build up in a bumpy form with a cauliflower-like texture, and the interior burr wood forms swirling patterns that are particularly lovely and much sought after by woodworkers.
A small wax melt-holder is made of the same burred oak, intertwined with copper. It combines Mark’s logo of twin hearts into the copper work. The stylised hearts logo appears again at the base of a small bowl made of holly and old Mahogany spiralling out of the central design.
The hands of an unusual spiral clock are based on the Fibonacci sequence – a shape which appears throughout nature. Mark explains how it ‘fits the flow of the walnut frame and patinated copper markers without spoiling the form of the sculpture, effectively becoming a kinetic sculpture by slowly moving to show the time. It’s a pleasing demonstration of form and function. The clock is read by taking a point from the centre through the spiral tips towards the markers.’
Ripples in Time is another stunning clock (see previous page) made of London plane, otherwise known as lacewood. Mark could not guess at the number of hours he had worked on this beautiful piece. The case has been cut in a way to emphasise the quarter-sawn plank, which exposes the medullary rays of the wood in each ripple – cellular structures visible to the naked eye, more noticeable in certain types of wood.
When timber is quarter-sawn, the wood is cut into boards with the growth rings roughly perpendicular to the face of the board, and the medullary rays often produce beautiful patterns. London plane has a very conspicuous flecking, which gives the wood its nickname, lacewood.
Mark is interested in the pre-Second World War period of design, including the Bauhaus and Art Deco movements. He is influenced by, among others, Victor Horta, a Belgian architect and designer and one of the founders of the Art Nouveau movement, who used curving stylised vegetal forms in his innovative use of iron, steel and glass. Mark loves the organic forms and natural flow of Art Nouveau, and reflects similar lines in his own designs.
For each new design, Mark has to learn different processes. For example, he bought some second-hand shoe lasts on eBay to use for shaping copper sheets.
A modern twist
Standing guard in a corner is a unique six-segment digital display as the face of another longcase clock, this one in yew. It’s a digital clock, but instead of the traditional seven-segment display we usually see, these numbers changed each minute into stylized Art Nouveau characters. Mark explains that there was ‘an electronic device which signals each of the LED arrays through the frame, which is then diffused through the glass to provide the shape of the numbers.’ The number design gives a traditional clock a distinctively contemporary twist – a hallmark of all Mark Dunham designs.
Due to the amount of time he takes over each design, Mark can only cope with a trickle of commissions.
Some of the pieces in this article can be seen at a show at Shaftesbury Arts Centre gallery in July and at Stock Gaylard Oak Fair in August.