Saturday, June 27, 2020

Heir Appearent

Summer at Berkeley Series, Lecture 1
"The Heir Appearent"

The Donay Pear (She Oak) by John Berkeley

We’re taking a sabbatical abroad this summer at Boxes and Booze to visit England and shine the spotlight on a very special wood turner named John Berkeley. Many will know his work as the best modern example of Victorian era wood turned puzzles. The original creations, produced in England in the late 1800’s, were marvels of lathe wood turning and featured finely carved “hand-chased” threads, hidden layers, and other secret devices. They required exceptional skill to create but sadly the original artists took no public credit. We know about these puzzles thanks to an English lawyer and avid magician who published a number of books on magic and one seminal work on puzzles of the day. “Professor Louis Hoffman” was the nom de plume and stage name of Angelo John Lewis, (1839 – 1919) who disguised his identity to protect his daily law practice, perhaps surmising that people might not want a lawyer who was also well practiced in the deceptive arts. His compendium “Puzzles Old and New”, F. Warne & Co., 1893, cataloged most of the known puzzles of the 1890’s London Victoria era, and remains the definitive source for these historical items today.

More than meets the eye - three separate compartments with unique locking mechanisms

John Berkeley tried his hand at many trades before finding his true calling later in life. He was a farm laborer, an insurance agent, a Police Constable, and a salesman of many things, including electronics, cigars, tobacco, pipes, fancy goods, jewelry, and even baby chicks. Eventually he settled as a restorer of metal antiques, which is where our story really begins. He was asked by a friend, who had a vintage cribbage board which was missing its pieces, if he could make a set of crib pegs for it out of bone. John’s outlook on life is that “if you do not know you cannot do something, then you probably can” so he took up the challenge. These lathe turned bone pegs led him to working with wood, which he found much more versatile and beautiful. At some point fate and a friend led him to a little antique game shop along the Camden Passage in Islington called “Donay”, where he discovered many vintage cribbage boards in need of sets of pegs. The owners, Donald Goddard and his wife Carol, were delighted to find someone with this skill. A year of cribbage peg making led to chess pieces (“can you make them?” I didn’t know that I couldn’t, so, “Yes, of course”), and one day, to a question about cutting threads in wood.

What's this Napoleonic coin doing inside a Victorian puzzle?

Donald Goddard, an antiques puzzle and games dealer, of course knew all about Professor Hoffman’s catalog of Victorian puzzles, and had already worked with a wood turner named Bob Jones (one of Berkeley's mentors) to re-create some classic Cannons. In John Berkeley, he found the artisan he had been searching for all along. When John said, “Of course I can” to the question of cutting threads in wood (which he had of course only read about) Donald sent him a photo of a Hoffman puzzle. The perfectly turned puzzle John created led to an initial series of six vintage puzzle reproductions, which led to an entire set of twenty-four, all based on photographs of original Victorian era creations that were compiled by collector Edward Hordern in his updated and revised edition of Hoffman’s classic book. 

Extra credit for the Jubilee Penny

These exceptional hand made puzzles were produced by John in various exotic hardwood upgrades (which would have been unavailable in Hoffman’s time) and marketed under the label “Donay Hoffman Puzzles”. After the set of Hoffman puzzles was complete, they undertook another project – creating a series of novel wood turned puzzles in the style of Hoffman but of their own design, to add to the “canon”. Donald Goddard would suggest the ideas, and John Berkeley would “turn” them over in his mind and figure out how to bring the ideas to life in wood. Their first effort, the Donay Apple, won an honorable mention at the inaugural International Puzzle Design Competition in Tokyo, Japan, 2001 and cemented John’s reputation as the world’s “master turner”.

The Spotlight by Jeff Lyons

A follow up to the Apple was another fruit, the Donay Pear. One hundred Apples were made, but only a very few Pears were ever created. These fruit puzzles were actually three puzzles in one, using classic Hoffman era puzzle mechanisms in new ways (and one that Donald and John invented) to create three distinct chambers which hold little vintage coins. John went through many iterations and shapes for the pear before settling on the final version. He relates that “most other turner’s pears were shaped like a light bulb rather than a pear. My first attempt … was only a little less like one. I eventually modeled mine on a Rocha pear, which involved quite a bit of carving and great care to allow space for everything inside.” The pear’s internal mechanics were also refined over a number of attempts. Initial prototypes included a maze-like opening for the two halves, which later evolved into a simpler gravity pin design. Those familiar with the Hoffman “Invisible gift” puzzle would have found something similar in an early prototype, which later changed to a device that Donald and John devised themselves. Finally the spinning bottom chamber initially used a restrictive “washer” system that John ultimately replaced with a brilliant ball-bearing mechanism. The production Pears were made from Ebony (which featured a silver stem) or Pink Ivory (with an Ebony stem). John also loved to use lustrous She Oak wood for his puzzles, and made a single Pear in this wood as his final pre-production piece, identical to the others except for the unique wood.

A drink that pears nicely

Shining the spotlight on this master artisan has never tasted so good. Here’s a wonderful drink with which to toast one of his masterpieces from San Francisco Bay area bartender Jeff Lyons. It has the prerequisite pear ingredient, in this case in the form of a potent pear brandy from Clear Creek Distillery. The pear brandy is a modifier here, however, meant to offset the base of very dry Manzanilla sherry. Rounding it all out is a little sweetener, provided by spicy ginger liqueur, and finally the perfect balance is achieved with a few dashes of savory bitters. It’s an elegant cocktail for an elegant piece of puzzle history. Class dismissed - Cheers!

Almost a full house

The Spotlight by Jeff Lyons

2 oz Manzanilla sherry
½ oz pear brandy
½ oz ginger liqueur
2 dashes celery bitters
Stir the ingredients with ice and strain into a favorite glass over a large cube. Garnish with a thin slice of fresh pear.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for sharing the story. Lots of interesting information. Generally, they always add some detail I either missed, forgot about or never heard before. I definitely didn't know about the difference between the apple and pear. Cheers!!