Victorian Puzzle Box

A sophisticated collaboration of carving and painting.

SHOP OWNER: Lee Grindinger
LOCATION: Livingston, MT

     I had never heard of a Victorian puzzle before Cheryl DePuy Murray ordered 16 blocks from me for this project. Cheryl is a landscape artist of considerable note here in Montana. Cheryl described the puzzle concept to me: A Victorian puzzle consists of cubes of wood with a picture on each of the six faces.
    Back in the old days these pictures were generally decoupaged in place. Decoupage is a process used to glue pictures to wood. The pictures should be similar enough so that determining which face of each block is the right one is a challenge, as well as putting the blocks in the right order once you've got all of them right face up. Rather than decoupage, Cheryl had been commissioned to paint an original work on each of the six faces from photographs supplied by the client--photographs that had significance to the client. When Cheryl described this puzzle to me, I shrugged my shoulders and said, "Ummm, how many blocks and what size?"
Box open, with puzzle
     Months later Cheryl gave me a call and said that Bev, the client, wanted to talk to me about a box for this puzzle. I was just gearing up for the Philadelphia Furniture & Furnishings Show and so I called Bev and said I'd get in touch upon my return. I called her after we'd gotten back from Philly and set up a time for all of us to get together. We met in Cheryl's studio. When I laid eyes on the blocks Cheryl had been working on it was clear that I had underestimated the scope of this project. A couple of the faces were nearly done and they were beautiful! Bev was clearly excited. Her excitement as well as Cheryl's was contagious. We did a couple of sketches and looked at some books I'd brought for ideas and arranged another meeting in a few weeks to discuss the design of the box. With a very general idea in mind, I did three sketches of designs over the next few weeks for another presentation to the client.
     The next meeting took place at my house and studio. Bev and Cheryl arrived and got the tour of the house and shop including furniture I've built. Bev, Cheryl and I looked critically at my furniture, seeking the features that Bev was drawn to. With this knowledge in mind, we sat down and resketched the designs that I'd loosely rendered in the previous weeks.
    Bev loved the color of cherry so it was decided that the box would be made of cherry. I like to discuss money as soon in the process as possible so neither the client nor me waste our time if we are too far apart in terms of money. I tossed out a dollar figure for the box. Bev took in that short breath that clients do when informed of the cost to produce a work but looked solemnly at the puzzle and decided the project was worth it. Another meeting was arranged for a few weeks down the road.
     I arrived at Cheryl's studio with three sketches, again. We sat down and, after an hour and half of discussion, we had altered one of the sketches to fit everyone's image of what this box should look like. This was still a very general and vague sketch. No lid was included in the sketch and although a pattern for the box was agreed upon, the details of that pattern were left to me to work out as the actual scale and size appeared. I asked Bev for half of the cost of the project as a deposit, she wrote a check and I was on my way. The deadline was months down the road and so vague that there was, in essence, no real deadline. Cheryl was moving pretty slowly on the blocks so there was no time pressure at all.
     Early October brought a deadline. I'd been casually plugging away on the box for a while keeping touch with Cheryl and her progress. Other projects came and went and I worked on the box as a therapy project. Therapy projects are a real treat and the utter lack of a deadline, the freedom for design, and the quality of work made this box a therapy project. Bev called early in October and invited us to The Grand Hotel in Big Timber, Montana for brunch. The Grand Hotel puts on one of the top brunches in the state so Bev knew we were not likely to decline. Cheryl brought the unfinished blocks, I brought the uncompleted box and we gorged ourselves as Bev announced she would be leaving for Tuscon, Arizona the first of December. Bev wanted to have a high tea and unveil the finished project to a few selected friends in the middle of November so we all agreed on the 18th of November as a deadline for the project. Bev asked if we could get it done and Cheryl and I responded that we could. We did.
     Cheryl and I arrived at the reception early enough to join the two parts of the puzzle. We stole away and placed the blocks in the box and, under the cover of a veil, we placed the box and it's contents on the central table in the reception room. Once everyone had arrived Bev gave a speech about the project. Bev had not seen the project in it's completed state so she was anxious to remove the veil.
    There was an collective "wow" as Bev removed the veil exposing the box. No one had expected such an ornately carved box and the reaction was audible. Cheryl was next to speak, she opened the box and discussed the paintings, their photographic origins and the tricks involved in painting the faces of these blocks. She spoke of the continuity needed throughout each picture, such as branches tying one block to the next. She also showed the sketches she had worked from in composing each painting. As she spoke she removed the jumbled blocks from the box placing them on the table.

     I spoke next of the structure and design of the box. I described the structure which allows for the movement of wood as this box travels throughout the country. I described how the structure of the base is actually a box within a box, how there is a box with 1/2-in.-thick sides dovetailed together, and the how the carved parts you see are actually attached to this inner structure--and that this was necessary because there was no way to conceal a spline or locking miter in the carved corners. I explained how the box, when exposed to high humidities would react. The corners would open slightly as the pieces swelled in thickness and that the pattern of the carving would conceal nearly all of this at the corners.
    The top of the box is a mitered frame with a groove that contains the top piece, a solid piece of cherry that needs room to move across the grain. A tongue on the top piece fits into the groove and laps over the top of the frame so there is no apparent joint and there is still the room for movement. The frame is reinforced with two splines at each corner that hide well in the contours of the molding. The carved bead and rod molding gives a good grasp for easy removal of the lid. The box is lined with rich red velvet, and there are moldings held in with screws so that should the velvet become soiled or damaged it's easy to replace the fabric.
     I concluded my talk and Bev arose and said that teams of two would play with the puzzle. Time limits were enforced and everyone that attempted the puzzle were surprised at its difficulty; it's a lot harder than it looks.
     This world needs more Bevs. It was a true pleasure to work with this wonderful woman. Bev is a true patron of the arts and will generously support artists whose work she feels warrants her support. Bev takes her responsibility as a patron very seriously and supports only those causes in which she believes.

. . . Lee Grindinger

[EDITOR'S NOTE: You can find out more about this puzzle box at Lee's website, and you can visit Cheryl DePuy Murray's site to see more of her lovely artwork.]



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