This year marks the tercentenary of the death of the master carver Grinling Gibbons (1648-1721) described as the Michaelangelo of Wood. With a year of planned events in prospect, Antique Collecting considers the man and his legacy.Back when we were able to visit country houses and stately homes, nothing was more exciting than the sheer visceral joy of encountering, amid the portraits and roped off furniture, a Grinling Gibbons’ carving.The realistic limewood carvings of foliage, fruits and flowers and the occasional lobster literally leapt out at you – casting you back to the lavish meals, swaggering decoration and opulent ornamentation of 300 years ago.2021 marks 300 years since the death of the Dutchborn carver whose work left such an indelible mark on British baroque. The year will celebrate his achievements in a succession of exhibitions and events dedicated to the UK’s best-known woodcarver.During and after his death he spawned ‘Gibbons’ style’ both in his trademark ornamental carving in limewood, as well as work in stone, bronze statues and stone monuments. Gibbons’ signature cascades of fruit, leaves, flowers, foliage, fish and birds were applied to panelling, furniture, walls and chimney pieces.So ornate was his skill he even created lace-like cravats in limewood, one of which Horace Walpole wore in public in 1769 (currently on display at Chatsworth House in Derbyshire).V&A director and president of the Grinling Gibbons Society, Dr Tristram Hunt, said: “Grinling Gibbons is rightly revered as one of the greatest woodcarvers in the history of European sculpture. He helped to shape the aesthetic of the British baroque and set the benchmark for craftsmanship, naturalism and technical proficiency.”
Grinling Gibbons – the early yearsGibbons was one of seven children born to James Gibbons and Elisabeth Gorling in Rotterdam. His birth date was recorded as April 4, 1648, his father, James Gibbons, was an English merchant adventurer and a Freeman of the Drapers’ Company in London. Elisabeth was a daughter of an English tobacco merchant in Rotterdam, Francis Gorling.Grinling’s unusual name is a corrupted version of his mother’s maiden name, while his elder brother, Dingly, was named after their grandmother’s maiden name.Little is known of Grinling Gibbons’ earliest training. The most important sculptors in the Netherlands in the 1600s were the Flemish Quellinus family. It is thought that Gibbons was either apprenticed to Artus Quellin the Elder (1609-1668) who had a workshop in Amsterdam or to his cousin, Artus Quellin the Younger, (1625-1700) who worked in Antwerp from 1657 onwards.Grinling certainly had a close connection with the Antwerp cousin, for his son, also Artus but usually called Arnold, worked with Gibbons in England from 1680 until his death in 1686.
Gibbons in YorkBefore his 20th birthday, around 1667, Gibbons moved to England, first settling in York, perhaps through connections in the wool trade. York at the time was a vibrant commercial, artistic and intellectual milieu.Here he worked as a journeyman for three years between 1667 and 1671 under the pre-eminent York architect, builder and carver, John Etty (c.1634-1708).Gibbons’ only surviving carving from that period is a boxwood panel of King David, now at Fairfax House, York. He is also known to have produced a wood sculpture, depicting Elijah with a juniper tree and an angel, and a boxwood portrait of Charles II, now lost.These early carvings suggest that he arrived in England with a knowledge of working with European woods, such as boxwood and limewood, as well as some experience of the carving techniques used in southern Germany. It showed he must have used a finer set of tools than those possessed by English carvers who carved mainly in oak.Etty remained close to the young carver who, in a letter dated July 10, 1684, long after he’d left the city addressed him as his ‘Deare frind’, writing, ‘I hartely beg Youer pardon for not writing to You in dead my business is so great … but You may be Asuer noe man haes A hier vallu for You then my sealf’.
Capital ThinkingThe Restoration of the monarchy in 1660 and the Great Fire of London in 1666 provided huge opportunities for craftsmen, many of whom flocked to the UK from Europe and the Low Countries. While opportunities there may have been in the north, looking to broaden his horizons Gibbons left York in early 1671 and moved to Deptford in southwest London where he saw the opportunities presented as a ships carver in the Royal Naval dockyard.Although there was plenty of work available Gibbons had set his sights even higher. His talent did not go unnoticed for long and he was soon “discovered” by the diarist John Evelyn (1620-1706) while carving a relief copy of Tintoretto’s Crucifixion in ‘a poore solitary thatched house’ near Evelyn’s home at Sayes Court in Deptford.On March 23, 1682, Evelyn wrote: ‘[I] saw him about such a work, as for the curiosity of handling, drawing and studious exactness, I never in my life had seene before in all my travells.’Proud of his new protégé Evelyn took Gibbons to the Court to present him to Charles II, who was somewhat subdued in his enthusiasm. On presentation of a carving, he suggested Gibbons take it to the queen’s bedchamber, assuming Queen Catherine was likely to buy it, ‘it being a Crucifix’.
New DawnGibbons soon realised his religious depictions misjudged the prevalent mood of restoration England and its ‘Merry Monarch’, Charles II. He started to concentrate on more flamboyant ornamental carving and was soon commissioned by Thomas Betterton (1635-1710), probably through Evelyn’s influence, to produce the carved ornament for his new Dorset Garden Theatre. Betterton was the leading male actor and theatre manager in Restoration England and his new theatre was the most luxurious in the capital at the time. Here Gibbons was “discovered” again, this time by the court artist and Dutch-born Sir Peter Lely (1618- 1688) who, admiring the carved capitals, cornices and eagles, enquired about the maker.Lely was a close friend of Hugh May (1621-1684) who was to become the architect for the most important royal project of the time, Charles II’s rebuilding of Windsor Castle.The influential pair arranged a second presentation of Gibbons to the King, this time at Windsor Castle, at the start of May’s rebuilding of the medieval building (c.1675) in the prevalent Baroque style. Steering clear of religious icons, Gibbons presented a carved chimney piece in wood with a festoon of fishes, shells and other ornaments; the King hired Gibbons immediately.His subsequent decorative work at Windsor Castle (c.1676–1682) set the seal of royal approval on the ornate style and established his fame. Charles II also commissioned Gibbons to create the Cosimo Panel, completed in 1682 (on display at the Pitti Palace, Florence) – a diplomatic gift from the King to Cosimo III de Medici, which is another tour de force of Gibbons’ naturalistic carving.
Country House CommissionsDuring the Restoration, the aristocracy set out to re-establish their authority over the country by embarking on an ambitious rebuilding programme. New country houses were commissioned and old ones either demolished or radically redesigned and extended.The nobility vied with each other to employ the best craftsmen to create lavish interiors and Gibbons’ royal patronage meant that he was much in demand.Major non-royal commissions included Badminton House, Gloucestershire for Henry Somerset, 1st Duke of Beaufort (1682-1683) and Burghley House for John Cecil, 5th Earl of Exeter (1683-1685). Some of his finest work can be seen at Petworth House, Sussex, now owned by the National Trust, where Gibbons carried out work for Charles Seymour, 6th Duke of Somerset in the early 1690s.
WILLIAM III and Grinling GibbonsAfter the death of Charles II, his brother, James II, a Roman Catholic, began work on a new chapel at the Palace of Whitehall, the main residence of English monarchs from 1530 until its destruction by fire in 1698. James II reigned only from 1685 until 1688 but Gibbons continued to enjoy royal patronage. For William III, he carried out work on a new range of state rooms at Hampton Court Palace from 1689 until 1694 and further work at Kensington Palace in the 1690s and, in 1693, William appointed Gibbons Master Sculptor and Carver in Wood to the Crown.But his time in the ascendancy did not last. 1702 was a difficult year for Gibbons. The death of William III and the accession of Queen Anne to the throne marked a gradual change in fashion – the demand for elaborate woodcarvings dropped and from that time onwards Gibbons worked mainly in stone.
Gibbons DeclineWhile the sculptor’s baroque carvings would ultimately go out of fashion during the Hanoverian period as tastes started to favour the more restrained and austere classical style, his incomparable talent and the immense contribution he made to the artistic scene in England in the period cannot be overstated.
In the style of…Gibbons spawned a style of woodwork that inspired many disciples whose work is more affordable than that of the legendary carver.One such was Edward Pearce (1635-1695) an architect and sculptor who, like Gibbons, flourished in the building boom that followed the Restoration and the Great Fire of London.Pearce also carried out work at the now demolished Cassiobury House in Watford, the contents of which were bought by a benefactor of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The exuberant carving of the staircase is attributed to Pearce, but it is very similar to the work of Grinling Gibbons. A set of four carved panels in oak by Pearce sold for £7,800 at Sotheby’s in 2005.
Did you know?It is a myth Gibbons used a peapod motif as his signature, which was disproved by a historian in 1963. The sheer output of Gibbons and his studio makes attribution difficult as many followed his carving style, including the peapod motif.