No instance of a man before Gibbons


There are far more famous painters, celebrated sculptors and renowned architects than Grinling Gibbons. He is not as well known as Turner, Moore or Wren. But few craftsmen or artists have so completely mastered their medium as Gibbons. 

Along two sides of the Victoria and Albert Museum are 32 statues representing a pantheon of British artistic greats, master craftsmen and visionary architects. The figures are labelled with familiar names and stare out across Exhibition Road and Cromwell Road. They are the mid-Victorian artistic canon but some are more instantly recognisable than others.

St James' Church, Piccadilly - Sanctuary reredos John Salmon [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

One artist in particular sits uneasily and relatively obscure amidst his great artistic peers. He takes his place with fellow artists such as J M W Turner, William Hogarth, Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough on the main front facing Cromwell Road.. Many of the master craftsmen, tucked away on Exhibition Road, are better known: William Caxton, Thomas Chippendale, Josiah Wedgwood and William Morris.

He is Grinling Gibbons, a peerless wood carver who fashioned some of the most astonishingly beautiful carvings ever to have adorned buildings. Horace Walpole, a man of refined tastes, observed:

“There is no instance of a man before Gibbons who gave wood the loose and airy lightness of flowers, and chained together the various productions of the elements with the free disorder natural to each species.”

In the wild, a bushfire will be intensely destructive but is a necessary part of the natural cycle, permitting fresh growth to emerge amidst the charred remains of the old landscape. So it was with the Great Fire of London. The great, tottering, leaning wooden city was to be remade and reconstruction on this scale would be the great opportunity for some of the great architects and craftsmen.

Grinling Gibbons by Sir Godfrey Kneller [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Christopher Wren, Nicholas Hawksmoor and Inigo Jones would all benefit from the old being swept away and would shape a new city to take its place. Few would benefit as much as Grinling Gibbons who seized the opportunity with a youthful decisiveness. He had been born, raised and taught in Amsterdam and, upon learning of the disaster, decided to cross the Channel and make his mark on the new London.

Gibbons had been born to English parents, his father having crossed to the Netherlands to take advantage of the trade boom that accompanied the Dutch golden age. Gibbons benefitted hugely from exposure to a flourishing artistic culture and learnt his trade with the famous Quelling family under the master Artus Quellin. What the Quelins forged in marble, Gibbons would go onto carve into wood.

Gibbons would also benefit from the Dutch obsession with the natural world and the desire for artistic endeavour to represent the natural world. Rich baskets of fruit, luscious vines and intricate flowers would all find wooden expression through Gibbons’s carvings. He would recreate the heights of the Dutch masters’ paintings in his best carvings.

So, was this the right time for the northern European carving tradition to be imported into England? Not quite: Gibbons spent his first few years in Britain working in Deptford carving mastheads and other ornaments for ships. He was rescued from this jobbing existence when discovered by the diarist Evelyn, who marvelled at the young carver’s skills.

Grinling Gibbons's work at Hampton Court Palace By Camster2 (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Evelyn secured an introduction for Gibbons with Charles II, but his initial portfolio was dismissed by the Merry Monarch when his dour Biblical scenes seemed dangerous Catholic in a restoration England still highly sensitive to religious themes having emerged from the Civil War and Puritan Commonwealth.

Part of Gibbons’s greatness was his decision to shift carving from the traditional English oak to the more pliable limewood. Another source of his greatness was to layer his wooden sculptures rather than try and hew the piece from a single block of wood. This allowed the vivid, lifelike and astonishing three dimensional pieces that became his fashionable trademark.

It is best to let Gibbons’s work speak for itself. If you find yourself in a stately home, baroque church or royal palace, there could well be some examples. If you get a chance to visit the following places you can get up close and personal with some of his most remarkable creations:

  • The Cosimo Panel –  a remarkable survivor of floods and fires;
  • Banqueting House;
  • The Sanctuary at St James’s Church, Piccadilly;
  • Panelling at Hampton Court Palace;
  • The Wren Library at Trinity College, Cambridge;
  • Carved Room of West Sussex’s Petworth House.

The best places to see Gibbons sculptures in London is at the Victoria and Albert Museum, St. Paul’s Cathedral and in situ Hampton Court Palace.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.