Peter Heinrich Mansbendel, woodcarver, was born to Johann Peter and Valeria Siegrist Mansbendel on August 12, 1883, in Basel, Switzerland. The elder Mansbendel was a businessman who gave his children little beyond three meals a day and a grade school education.
At ten, Peter had determined to become a woodcarver and was apprenticed to a local master named Ulrich Huber, with whom he trained for the next six years. There followed a period of study at the Industrial Arts School and then a stint of compulsory service in the Swiss Artillery. Once discharged, Mansbendel yielded to wanderlust and set out for London to examine the woodcarvings of the seventeenth-century English master, Grinling Gibbons.
He then departed for Paris to complete his education at the Coquier-Roland School of Art. Mansbendel immigrated to America in 1907. He worked first in Boston and then in New York, where he executed woodcarving for L. Marcotte and Company,an interior-design firm. During this time he also taught night classes in clay modeling at the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art. At tea in his studio he met Clotilde Shipe, whose father, Monroe M. Shipe, was a prominent Austin real estate developer. Mansbendel followed Miss Shipe to Austin, where they were married in 1911. Mansbendel opened a studio in a corner of the former Swedish consulate at 109 West Ninth Street, where Swante Palm once housed his library. He worked out of this studio until ill health overtook him late in 1939.
During the 1920s and 1930s leading architects in Austin, Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio would summon Mansbendel to put finishing touches on their most important projects. His fireplace mantels were especially popular. In addition to architectural detail work, he also made furniture and decorative household items. He frequently interpreted Texas themes-historic persons, places, and events as well as the flora and fauna of his adopted land. His pieces are noted for their fidelity, strength, and spirit. He was always the seeker of the quick, spontaneous effect, always careful to avoid chiseling the life out of an object. Except for portrait carvings, surfaces were never sanded; crisp tool marks were left for texture and effect. The market for Mansbendel’s kind of artistry was in decline during his lifetime, however. Texas had only recently emerged from its frontier past, and the children of its pioneers had just begun to develop a serious interest in the fine arts. Moreover, Mansbendel was at the peak of his ability just as the Great Depression settled over the country. Nonetheless it was during these hard times that he produced some of his most notable public work: the magnificent carved doors of the Spanish Governor’s Palace and of Mission San José at San Antonio, as well as the portrait medallions of former University of Texas presidents which are located in the Texas Union on the University of Texas campus in Austin. In addition to his career in woodcarving, Mansbendel was actively engaged in the Austin Community Players, both as a set designer and performer, in the Austin Sängerrunde, and in St. David’s Episcopal Church. He died of cancer on July 20, 1940, in Austin.