by Roderick Conway Morris

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Trinity College, Oxford/photo © Bob Easton
Detail from altar at Trinity College Chapel, Oxford by Grinling Gibbons, c. 1693

A name carved in history

By Roderick Conway Morris
LONDON 6 November 2021


'I this day first acquainted his Majestie with the incomparable young man, Gibson, whom I had lately found in an Obscure place, & that by meere accident, as I was walking neere a poore solitary thatched house in a field in our Parish,' wrote the traveller and diarist John Evelyn in his journal during January 1671.

Venturing out during the 'Wett, Stormy & unseasonable' weather of that winter from his estate at Deptford near the Royal Dockyard, five miles downstream from London, Evelyn happened to look through the window of this humble cottage to see a young man carving a limewood panel.

'I asked if I might come in, he opened the doore civily to me, & I saw him about such a work, as for curiosity of handling, drawing & studious exactness, I never in my life had seene before in all my travells.'

Evelyn had stumbled upon the 22-year-old, wholly unknown, Grinling Gibbons, who is still regarded as England's greatest sculptor in wood and whose high-relief works adorn the royal palaces of Windsor and Hampton Court; magnificent country manors such as Petworth House, West Sussex; the Wren churches of St Paul's and St James's Piccadilly; chapels in Oxford and Cambridge, and the Wren Library of Trinity College, Cambridge.

This year, the 300th anniversary of Gibbons's death on 3 August 1721, is the occasion for a year-long series of events, including an exhibition, 'Grinling Gibbons: Centuries in the Making', at Compton Verney in Warwickshire. The tercentenary is also marked by the reprinting by the V&A of 'Grinling Gibbons & the Art of Carving' by the late master woodsculptor and scholar David Esterly, who did more than anyone over the last three centuries to do justice to the artist's triumphs and unravel the mysteries of how he achieved them.

Grinling Gibbons was born in Rotterdam in 1648, his parents, a draper and the daughter of a tobacco merchant, both English but resident in the Netherlands. Their son's singular first name was derived from his mother's maiden name. It was variously mangled throughout his life, as Grinlin, Greenlin, Grinsted, Gringling, Griblin, Grimbling and Grumblin, to list but a few of the misnomers. Though Gibbons's first language was probably English, he seems to have spoken with a pronounced Dutch accent, which may have contributed to these mistaken versions.

By the time Gibbons moved to England at 'about 19 years of Age' he had undergone a first-class training - who his masters were is unclear - which included carving in limewood and boxwood, materials virtually unknown in England where oak dominated. On the Continent the tradition of fine carving in limewood and boxwood stretched back to the German Renaissance and, already a highly skilled and with a better set of tools than most English craftsmen, Gibbons found employment in York carving small statuettes and reliefs. (The limewood in this case comes not from the fruit tree but from the linden, whose name derives from the German 'lind', meaning 'soft'. Lime trees, as they are known in Britain, are still called lindens in America.)

By 1670 Gibbons had moved to Deptford, where abundant employment was available for ships' carvers, and where John Evelyn happened upon him, devoting his free time to a personal project: a relief panel of a Tintoretto 'Crucifixion', based on a print.

It was this panel that Evelyn commended to Charles II when he presented Gibbons to the king at Whitehall. But, although apparently impressed, the monarch declined to buy it. In strongly Protestant Restoration England, religious sculptures associated with Catholicism were a minefield, and Gibbons may well have turned to other genres to avoid such pitfalls.

He was to have another shot at attracting royal favour, after he was commissioned to make ornamental sculptures for the new Dorset Garden Theatre: these were admired by the court artist Sir Peter Lely (a Dutchman by birth), whose close friend Hugh May was the architect of the grandest royal commission, the remodelling of Windsor Castle. This led to Gibbons's being given the chance to present to the king a 'great Chimney piece of carving in wood…representing a feston of many fishes, shells & other ornaments'. The monarch hired Gibbons on the spot and his subsequent opulent high-relief carvings of flowers, fruits, foliage and fauna at Windsor guaranteed their fashionability and made Gibbons's name.

John Evelyn was entranced by Gibbons's work at Windsor and in 1698 Celia Fiennes described the artist's carving in the Chapel Royal there as 'the pattern and masterpiece of all such work…so thinn the wood and all white natural wood without varnish'.

The use of limewood was in itself striking and it was by harnessing this material's unique properties of strength and malleability to produce the finest detail that this virtuoso artist achieved his astonishing naturalistic effects.

Gibbons almost invariably left the pale creamy colour of the limewood without any kind of finish, only very occasionally gilding it or whitening it. Not infrequently he brought together the two traditions of Continental limewood carving and the English use of stained and varnished oak by fixing the former against a contrasting background of the latter, producing stunning effects, as in his carvings for Trinity College Chapel, Oxford, the Wren Library at Trinity College, Cambridge, and St. Paul's in London.

The inspiration for Gibbon's flowers, fruit, foliage and fauna came above all from the flower and still-life paintings of the Low Countries, but the art and architecture of the region also continued to play a central role in his development, long after he had left Rotterdam. His principal promoter Hugh May had spent an extended period in exile in Holland during the Civil War and was responsible for introducing the red-brick Dutch classical style (now more associated with Queen Anne) to England. The plain wainscotting of May's Dutch-style interiors and simple, well-proportioned chimneypieces provided the ideal backdrop for Gibbon's exuberant embellishment.

Although the names of Wren and Gibbons would later become inextricably linked, it was Hugh May who was the first fully to appreciate this artist's prodigious inventiveness and to provide him with the noble architectural arenas in which to display them. Evelyn introduced Gibbons to Wren and Samuel Pepys shortly after presenting his protÉgÉ to the king. The encounter was rich in potential, given that Wren at that moment was engaged in the construction of a score of churches, but the two men were not to work together for over a decade. Their first shared project was for the adornment of the interior of St. James's Piccadilly in 1684, but even then Gibbons's contribution was commissioned and paid for by his patron Sir Robert Gayer, not Wren. Subsequently, it was royal esteem above all that underwrote the joint projects the architect and artist undertook (apparently harmoniously) at the royal palaces at Whitehall, Hampton Court, Trinity College in Cambridge, and St. Paul's.

Ironically, despite Charles II unwavering support of Gibbons, it was not until 1693, during the reign of William III that, upon the death of the now long-forgotten incumbent Henry Phillips, Gibbons at last became the official holder of the post of court master-sculptor and carver.

Within a year of his 'discovery' by Evelyn, Gibbons took on his first apprentice the first of nine to be registered in the records of the Drapers' Company (to which Gibbons had been admitted on account of his father's profession), there being no guild for woodcarvers. By the 1680s, Gibbons commanded the largest woodcarving workshop in England. But he also had a substantial subsidiary workshop to deliver sculptures in other materials.

There were widespread expectations that the wood sculptor would, in John Evelyn's words, 'prove as greate a master in statuary art'. However, when demand shifted to marble and bronze, it became clear that Gibbons himself was not inspired by these materials. As the contemporary engraver George Vertue recorded: 'tho he was a most excellent Carver in wood he was neither well skilld or practized in Marble and Brass for which works he employd the best Arstists he coud procure.' Gibbons's own autograph productions attracted criticism, but his judicious recruitment of other talented hands assured the position of his stone and bronze workshop as the most important in England. Yet on occasion he managed to translate his stupendous high-relief work in wood successfully into stone, as in his imposing exterior adornments of St. Paul's and in his stonework for Blenheim Palace.

Gibbons's limewood works remain without equal in their genre. Horace Walpole was the proud owner of an exquisite Gibbon's trompe-l'oeil limewood cravat. Some forty years after the artist was laid to rest at Inigo Jones's St. Paul's, Covent Garden, Walpole wrote: 'There is no instance of a man before Gibbons who gave to wood the loose and airy lightness of flowers, and chained together various productions of the elements with a free disorder natural to each species.'

Grinling Gibbons: Centuries in the Making, Compton Verney, Warwickshire; 25 September 2021 - 30 January 2022; Grinling Gibbons & the Art of Carving by David Esterly (V&A £35)

First published: The Lady

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023