The Reconciliation of Oberon and Titania: A Creative Response

This winter the National Galleries of Scotland received an email from David Bradley in Hampshire. He sent us photographs of his latest wood carving project which was inspired by a work in the Scottish collection and we were blown away! Just look at this:

Sir Joseph Noel Paton The Reconciliation of Oberon and Titania 1847
David Bradley The Reconciliation of Oberon and Titania 2019

Mara Barth, Scottish National Gallery Project Learning Officer spoke to him to find out a bit more about his creation and the process.

It was a real pleasure to speak to David, who told me that he has been whittling and carving wood ever since he was a wee boy. Using his penknife, he would shape cocktail sticks and carve faces into pieces of wood.

He enjoyed carving so much that he even continued his hobby while he was at school, secretly chipping away at a piece under his desk. One day he cut his thumb and had to make a quick escape from the classroom but luckily the teacher didn’t notice!

David Bradley Detail from The Reconciliation of Oberon and Titania 2019

He always enjoyed woodwork at school and preferred it to metalwork as he felt a connection with what he thought was a warmer, more personal material.

Later, he graduated to a slightly better penknife and continued to improve his technique, seeking out more challenging projects.

Just over ten years ago, whilst searching for a new project, he came across the painting The Reconciliation of Oberon and Titania in a book. Following a bit of research, he discovered that it can be found in the Scottish National Gallery. He gave the Gallery a call to enquire about a better image of the artwork and in response was sent a postcard of the painting.

After carefully studying the picture, he began his ambitious project. The wood he chose was a solid slab of oak, one side smooth (like the top of a bureau) and the other rough, waiting to be shaped into the magical figures that inhabit this much-loved painting.

David explained his working process to me. In order to avoid pressure being applied to any elements of the carving as he worked, he started in the top left corner of the slab, gradually working his way down and across. He told me how firstly he carved a rough version of the main characters in the centre of the wood, making sure that these were well placed and that he had truly captured their pose before moving on to surrounding details.

David Bradley Detail from The Reconciliation of Oberon and Titania 2019
David Bradley Detail from The Reconciliation of Oberon and Titania 2019

Given the amount of detail in the painting and the lack of definition in the postcard he was working from, David decided to pause the project as he felt frustrated by his inability to properly see the most minute details.

David and his wife decided to see if other images of the painting could be found online. After finding the image on the Galleries' website, David was able to see details such as spider webs and dragonflies' wings. Exploring the dark corners and figures hidden in deep foliage, David was inspired to dive back into his work, creating detailed studies and notes on areas that needed further attention. Keeping small bridges of support around the more fragile pieces, he ensured that things wouldn’t break off in the process. These were then removed when everything had been finalised.  

I asked David what part of the image was his favourite and he said: 'I love it all. It is marvellous, the expressions on the faces, even the owl has this expression, sort of like fear. There’s fear in that face. I love the essence of the characters and the incredible detail. I went through so many scalpel blades trying to get those faces just right, there is a tension in the painting as if something is about to happen. It also seems violent, there seems to be jealousy too, those are some nasty little characters.'

When I asked if he was already thinking of a new project he said: 'I get bored quickly. It needs to be something that really catches my attention, at the moment I’m having a wee break.'

Over ten years, David has chipped away and revealed a spectacular response to Noel Paton’s painting. We are thrilled that he contacted us to tell us about his work and are delighted to share his story.

By Mara Barth, Scottish National Gallery Project Learning Officer , 15 April 2020