Phrenology Diagrams – Marquetry
These pieces are made by a process called marquetry. Firstly the design is created by using reference material. The book I chose was Phrenology: The Science and Art of Teaching by Lloyd G. Spencer MSD because of its higher degree of detail than most other phrenology textbooks. From here the crappy line drawings were converted to something a little more pleasing to the eye. After the diagrammatic part of the piece had been plotted, the face itself was designed in a way to mimic the overall pattern of the upper part of the head while still being individual enough to ensure visual separation.
Next came wood choice. Phrenology groups “organs” into seven larger divisions of the head . These clusters are represented by various wood and grain types. The social propensities for instance (occipital) are all “burled” woods, meaning they lack symmetrical striation. Secondly the organs are represented by color combinations within the first requirement. Stain is never used simply because that is very much cheating when such vibrant natural colors are already available, the color you see is native to the wood. The choices for the face were strictly determined by color and minimal grain depth. This resulted in the use of maple, oak, mahogany, pecan, and trees for shade variance and vibrancy.
Each wood has a different type of reaction to light, it is important to bear that in mind when placing pieces next to each other and use this to a benefit of the overall piece. After the inlay was complete, I applied several coats of polyurethane being sure to sand everything down to complete uniformity. The gold was then laid in followed by a few more coats of polyurethane. It is true that gold looks better unprotected, but after testing the luster qualities, it appeared to work more consistently with a little gloss to it to tie it to the rest of the piece rather than floating in visual space. Grooves were carved around the perimeter of the veneer and gold cord was embedded. This is also where the velvet blends into the veneer. To counteract the glassy smooth center focus, I decided to apply the opposite in the border. Velvet that was not flatly adhered to the board was the best choice.
The Practice of Phrenology
The Victorian Age allowed for an impressive spark of natural sciences and expression. The permissive environment for the expansion of knowledge in an almost uncontrolled state allowed the passion of discovery to meet with experimentation and a budding technology that was conducive to fantastically utilitarian results. However, whenever passion meets with means; a clumsy, lumbering drunkenness will occur somewhere. Phrenology is the result of one of those nights in which the whole week’s pay went to whiskey, and no one involved could really quite remember the night before by morn. In the case of phrenology, armchair scientific cultish types believed they were able to divine the elusive homosapien power of sentience by feeling the bumps and depressions on a head. Naturally, of course, these cranial landmarks represented a way to determine areas of the brain that were either well developed or underdeveloped. All one need know then is how the brain works, a simple task of course. From this, a living person could be analyzed and, just as knowledge of the future can prevent mistakes, the subject would be illuminated as to his true purpose and aptitudes.
Though this pseudo-science has been fleshed out by way of diagrams, plaster busts, and countless books, it should not be assumed that those living in the scientific world of the Victorians gave phrenology too much serious attention. In fact it was no more respected or popular than the Creationists of today. In many ways the two are extremely similar in thought process, proof, method, and motive. While Neuroscience was certainly in its infancy, we cannot discount that it was there while the phrenologists were asking for donations to support their churches. We did not move from phrenology to the now acceptable study of neuroscience. Phrenology was a shiny coin on the streets of the cities to be picked up by anyone looking for answers the easy way, and possibly turn a profit themselves. In the end phrenology was a fad science, but it shouldn’t be assumed that all of its practitioners were 5 bricks short of a full load. Always remember, the last great alchemist was Newton. Of course if phrenology has no particularly valid scientific historical basis, and presents no germ of a replacement heir dressed in better attire.
Why represent it here? Oftentimes in cultures there are these things that attract physical beauty but lack a distinctive personality worth dating, phrenology is such a thing. There is hardly a more lovely site than an epicyclic solar system orrery describing the rotation of the planets by means of false orbits. At the time it was thought that God could only have created that which was perfect in design, circles are perfect, ellipses are not. Great care had to be taken to make measurements match observation. These models were accurate but they were never right.
The design is beautiful and refined, but in history we often find that the ideas with the prettiest packaging are often lacking in their usefulness or accuracy. After all, does a gluttonous man look gluttonous? A greedy child look greedy? A spiteful woman look spiteful? They are not so because they look it, they look it because they are so. Of course this is a generalization, but very much in the spirit of the thinking during the Victorian era. It got a lot creepier a few decades later though.
There is a darker side to all of this that connects with the idea of humanity’s need to meddle with nature. Phrenology is a precursor to popular eugenics. If one can predict the attitudes and aptitudes of people simply by using the bumps on a skull, then is it not possible to take this knowledge and apply it to the youth? Could we then simply analyze little Johnny and determine he is best suited for manual labor and give him a head start?
It was during the end of the Victorian Age and the beginning of the war years that humanity finally understood it could dramatically affect its environment. The age of human sacrosanctity was again beginning to dissolve and place humans back into the definition of nature. Note that the scientists of the day, such as Darwin and numerous other naturalists were pioneering the discovery of distinct animal social patterns and behaviors similar to our own. Because of this, we began to look deeper into our own psyche and find we too were worthy of the same approach to investigation. Thus an attitude of zoological anthropology began to permeate the membrane of popular thought. This opened up a wave of philosophical debates that removed the distinctive precedence of Man over creation. The world was at a tipping point, as it has been many times before. Sadly, this time around the great potential benefits were suppressed and the dangers became apparent. A collective of destructive elements culminated into the utter loss of innocence… and it was shaped like a mushroom. And now, after sciefizing ourselves back into the game, we tore ourselves out only 100 years later because we became Gods. And now we stride the world as self-flagellating deities.