Thursday, October 25, 2012

Park Lane, Originals, and Peter Johnsson


On 3rd March, 2012, I met Owen Bush on a rain-washed street surrounded by the high towers of Mayfair, and we strode oblivious of the wet to the auction house at Park Lane for its world-famous annual Arms Fair, where the most incredible feats of antique martial craftsmanship and most advanced modern research thereupon are represented.  Our particular friend, the frankly supreme and absolutely indispensable swordsmith/spathologist/design guru Peter Johnsson of Uppsala, Sweden, was the premier presenter at the event, debuting some of the most seminal and deep research yet done in any kind of spathology, with his usual humility. 

One artifact I handled there is below: an incredibly well-preserved sword from one of my favorite periods of craftsmanship, art and culture: Northern Europe, turn of the millennium, awash in turmoil and pain of war, but bursting with art and movement, trade and change.  Ideological and power struggles abounded between church and state, state and man, church and pagan religions, and around the Church in general.  It has often been cited as no accident that the sword of this period is the sword at its most cruciform; the problem of Christian pacifism seemed resolved when the theories of "just war" were distilled (or perverted) into the call of "Deus vult", and Christian Love became expressed with the sword.  

That blade above is what we in the craft generally refer to as an "original"; that is, a work that came from the craftsman's bench and went to the warrior's hand, in a time when it fit, when it was nothing but a contemporary item and also everything that that meant.  Originals are real.  When we talk about real swords, we are talking about originals, because they have a context that backs them.

When we talk about originals as objects, we are often trying to capture something that's difficult to pinpoint, something outside our ken, some sort of invisible border.  We ask ourselves, "what separates my work from this?"  We know there's a difference.  Is it skill?  Is it materials?  Is it method?  Does working with a coal forge really make my work more legitimate?  When I smelt my own steel, or make my own tools, am I closer somehow?  This last question is important because it asks about the spirit of the weapon, the spirit of the craft, and the spirit of the craftsman.  It is a spiritual question.  What determines the spirit?  Is it the product, the process, the intention, the smith's personality?

I think it is important to note here that there is no academic or official authority on these questions, and that means that any smith or craftsman has the authority to answer them for him or herself, and to determine their work thereby.  

There is one subject, however, on which the swordsmithing community shares a common view, and that if there is any such thing as capturing the true spirit of a sword, the closest man to come to that, whatever it may be, is Peter Johnsson.  As my research continues and more of my journey is laid behind me, I will speak much more on what he has to say.  As it happens, however, all I have is this picture to impart to you the alchemical mysticism surrounding his work, clearly heavy in years of thought, deep in spiritual searching, unwavering dedication to art, respect for the past and fearlessness for the future. 

We, who have held his work, can say this: a Peter Johnsson sword is real.  It is an original, whatever that may be.  It's something you know when you hold it.  Maybe that's all we'll ever know for certain, and maybe that's all anybody ever knew.  There has to be something that cannot be described, or else we'd stop making things.  Let's not do that.

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