2021 marks the 300th anniversary of the death of Grinling Gibbons: legendary artist, sculptor and craftsman – the greatest decorative carver in British history.
Grinling Gibbons had an unequalled ability to transform solid, unyielding wood and stone into something truly ethereal. His genius may be rooted in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but, three hundred years after his death, his legacy lives on. His masterpieces adorn palaces, country houses, churches and museums around Britain, and his example has inspired craftsmanship and carving from his contemporaries to present-day practitioners. Today this Michelangelo of Wood, as he was dubbed, is universally regarded as the greatest of decorative carvers in British history. But how and why did Gibbons come to such pre-eminence?
Details of Grinling Gibbons’ earliest years are scant. However, courtesy of a horoscope cast by Elias Ashmole (1617–1692) antiquary, politician and astrologer, we know with unusual precision that Gibbons was born in Rotterdam at Easter time on Tuesday 4th April 1648 at three or four o’clock in the afternoon.
His parents were English; his father a merchant adventurer, and his mother, after whose maiden name he was christened, the daughter of a tobacco merchant. Yet in spite of his familial links to trade, Gibbons did not pursue this career path.
In Rotterdam he would have been surrounded by ship-building, a commercially-thriving industry which required highly-skilled carvers to provide the elaborate decoration which adorned the sterns and interiors of the great ships of the time.
In her exciting new research on Gibbons, Ada de Wit, Curator at the Wallace Collection, has suggested that he may have been apprenticed locally to the van Douwe family of sculptors. Historically it has been commonly assumed that he trained further afield in Amsterdam under the leading Baroque sculptor, Artus Quellinus (1609-1668). Whichever direction his training took, Gibbons’ craft and style was undoubtedly honed in a rich and fertile artistic milieu. His Anglo-Dutch heritage exposed him to Flemish and Dutch sculpture, their language of carved ornament, and works by leading still-life artists. All of these, as well as wider continental stylistic and cultural influences, would evolve into his own approach and translation of the British Baroque.
What brought Gibbons to England is not exactly known, but by 1667, aged about nineteen, Gibbons had completed his apprenticeship. Now a journeyman, he may have decided to try his hand in his father’s homeland and a country which offered rich opportunities. Certainly, timing was on his side; the British Baroque saw an explosion of artistic activity, while the rebuilding of London after the Great Fire required inestimable amounts of skilled craftsmanship.
However, the young sculptor’s first destination was not the capital but rather, as George Vertue (1684-1756) recorded, the burgeoning city of York. Here, most likely under the leading architect and carver, John Etty (1634-1708), Gibbons had his first taste of English craftsmanship and practice, and would have been exposed to York’s own artistic and intellectual scene. Coming from this brief period is Gibbons’ earliest-known work, and only example of his creative output from his brief time in York – ‘The King David Panel’ – a high-relief narrative panel in boxwood depicting King David, Saint Cecilia and a heavenly concert. This panel, breath-taking in its precision and intricacy on a miniature scale and three-dimensional qualities, shows his fully-fledged talent at an early age. It also reveals a love of music which continued to be referenced through his sculpture across his career.
Fifteen years later, as a renowned carver, Gibbons wrote to Etty addressing him as his ‘deare frind’ and assuring him that ‘noe man haes A hier vallu for You then my sealf’. A strong bond had clearly been formed with his master during his time in York.
discovered by John Evelyn
Even so, three years later Gibbons had moved south, settling in Deptford, the ship-building and main administrative centre of the Royal Navy. Perhaps his roots and early training led him back to the dockyards where ready work could be found. It is at this point in 1671 that Gibbons almost enters into legend with his fairy-tale, chance ‘discovery’ by the influential writer and diarist, John Evelyn.
In a remarkable account, Evelyn records how he happened upon Gibbons ‘by mere accident, as I was walking neere a poore solitary thatched house in a field in our Parish neere Says-Court’ – his own grand house.
The young artist was working upon the extraordinary biblical relief panel The Crucifixion, after Tintoretto – regarded as one of his finest works, and today held at Dunham Massey, Cheshire. Evelyn was captivated by ‘such work, as for the curiosity of handling, drawing & studious exactnesse, I never in my life had seene before in all my travells’. He went on to ask ‘why he worked in such an obscure & lonesome place; he told me, it was that he might apply himselfe to his profession without interruption’.
This fantastic ‘rags-to-riches’ tale of fortuitous discovery perhaps eclipses a more accurate evaluation and inspirational story; that of an aspiring artist, whose immense talent and determination enabled him to raise himself from insignificance to heights of great success. Evelyn’s immediate fascination with the young artist, subsequently followed by even more influential notice from court artist Sir Peter Lely and architect Hugh May, certainly helped bring him to the attention of Charles II and set the course for an illustrious career. Within a remarkable space of time Gibbons’ fortunes had changed from being marked with obscurity to royal favour.
The remodelling of Windsor Castle was Gibbons’ first great royal commission and a symbol of professional triumph. It marks the dawn of his pre-eminence as a carver, underlining the patronage that Gibbons enjoyed from the Crown, and his service as royal carver and sculptor to succeeding monarchs from Charles II to George I. The Crucifixion panel and figural sculpture may have been the pivot for Gibbons’ meteoric rise in royal favour, however, the form of carving which Gibbons is credited with introducing to this country was altogether different.
Gibbons brought a new decorative style to Baroque Britain: elaborate high-relief ornamental carvings in limewood, featuring riotous cascades of fruit, clusters of flowers and foliage, fish, birds, game, cherubs, musical instruments and trophies. His carvings were marked by dramatic projections, under-cut, three-dimensional carving, and, above all, a realism and profusion of detail taken from nature. Gibbons’ passion for naturalism and abundant use of still-life motifs drew from Evelyn the title of ‘an original genius, a citizen of nature’.
As the late David Esterly (1944-2019), master carver and life-long scholar of Gibbons reflected, he ‘brings to blossom and fruit and leaf all the sculptural skill his early training had provided him.’ His quintessential swags, drops, overmantel and surrounds offered the supreme vehicle for his foliate carving. These ‘trademark’ elements recurred throughout his work in the palaces, churches and great houses of Britain, including, most spectacularly, Petworth, St Paul’s Cathedral, Hampton Court, Whitehall and Kensington Palaces, St James’ Piccadilly, Blenheim, Badminton, and numerous other great country houses, in addition to Trinity College Oxford and Trinity College Cambridge. He was also commissioned to produce the spectacular Cosimo and Modena relief panels, royal diplomatic gifts bursting with iconography and motifs of splendid realism.
Vertue described a carving that was of ‘light wood so thin & fine that the coaches passing by made them shake surprisingly’. Horace Walpole, one of Gibbons’ great admirers, judged his sculpture as ‘the art even unto deception’. His ability to deceive the eye could not be better appreciated than in a virtuoso carving of a cravat (V&A), imitating fine Venetian needlepoint lace, which was famously worn by Horace Walpole to fool dinner guests.
Gibbons’ portraits by Sir Godfrey Kneller and John Baptist Closterman reveal something of his personal outlook towards his profession and contribution to the artistic scene. In Kneller’s rendering, Gibbons is not only identified as a sculptor but, through references to Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini, as a British Bernini. This portrait visually elevates him to the echelons of classical art and sculpture, and distinguishes him beyond a mere ‘craftsman’. In Clostermans’ portrait, Gibbons is depicted alongside his wife, Elizabeth.
They were married around 1671; of their twelve children, only five girls survived to adulthood, leaving no son to follow in his footsteps. While this portrait can be seen as showing the precedence of his family bonds (incidentally, his sister fondly addressed him as ‘loving brother’ in a letter to him), the classical architectural setting, along with the trappings of wealth and status in the couple’s clothing and stance, signal to the world that Gibbons, and by extension his family, had achieved a position of success in his sphere of work, and consequently, within society.
Yet, in addition to exceptional talent and skill, Gibbons clearly also had something else – an astuteness for business.
Gibbons was adroit in nurturing his associates and garnering personal introductions from the likes of Evelyn to secure new business. He sought Elias Ashmole’s horoscope to guide whether a business project and ‘a Consarne of great Consiquins’ would have good success or not.
His fruitful partnerships and collaborative projects with Hugh May, Sir Christopher Wren and Nicholas Hawksmoor brought a succession of illustrious projects and ambitious schemes not only at Windsor Castle, but also Cassiobury, Holme Lacey, St Paul’s Cathedral and Hampton Court Palace.
Indeed, just a year after his ‘discovery’ by Evelyn, he had taken an apprentice, followed by a second in 1675. Gibbons followed in the footsteps of his father by becoming a Freeman of the Drapers’ Company, and it is in the Drapers’ rolls that both his apprentices are recorded, as well as his increasingly high offices within the company.
He built a thriving studio capable of coping with the demands of major lucrative projects and the varied commissions that came his way – including the carving of two life-sized horses for the Line of Kings at the Tower of London. At the height of his career, Gibbons’ workshop on Ludgate Hill, near St Paul’s, employed as many as fifty assistants. Obviously open to other profitable sources, Gibbons did not limit his workshop output to sculptural or decorative work. It produced a wide array of architectural elements, cornicing and fireplaces.
Although primarily famous for his use of soft, close-grained limewood, Gibbons and his workshop produced work in other woods and media, including stone and bronze. However, his own stone-work and statuary, and the rendering of the human form are often regarded as being less successful than his ornamentation in wood. Arguably, with great savoir-faire (and an understanding of his own limitations), Gibbons instead brought in the expertise he needed, engaging a series of leading Flemish sculptors. They helped produce a catalogue of high-profile public statues, including those of Charles II and James II, and elaborate funerary monuments.
There is still much to understand about the dynamic and practice of Gibbons’ workshop, the output of his apprentices and assistants, and distinguishing Gibbons’ own hand and that of others from amongst complex carvings. In considering Gibbons’ work today, there are challenging questions about the approach to its presentation and conservation, especially when sculptures form part of the building fabric of working collections and sites. Greater investigation is needed into the different finishes he used (from bright, white limewood to painting and gilding), how this was a key part of the planned overall effect, and, crucially, what conservation strategies to apply today to enhance the way in which Gibbons’ work is viewed and understood.
Grinling Gibbons achieved legendary status in his lifetime, but, with legend, myth often goes hand-in-hand. There is the commonly-popular, but apocryphal story of his use of carved peapods to denote whether his work had been paid for or was awaiting payment by a tardy patron.
His distinctive style has been widely imitated, bringing with it vexed issues around authenticity and attribution, and a pervading desire to credit much more to the hand of this seminal artist than possible. To quote David Esterly, ‘Gibbons is a figure by whom a people define their cultural identity. With his distinctive name, which has expanded to become the name of a style, his accessibility (especially to a gardening nation), and his place in folk memory and folk mythology, he might seem to be as comfortably familiar as an old shoe’.
What is unequivocal is that Gibbons’ changed the landscape of British carving, sculpture and interiors. He raised decorative carving to unsurpassed prominence. His creative output was a source of inspiration both in his lifetime and beyond: from Samuel Watson working at Chatsworth, to the iconic fashion designer, Alexander McQueen. Gibbons died on 3rd August 1721 and was buried at St Paul’s, Covent Garden.