Save the King

Can you help us save Grinling Gibbons’ King David masterpiece, his first-known, made-in-York carving and bring it to Fairfax House?

Fairfax House is mounting a major campaign and fund-raising appeal to save this precious work of art from international export and sale, and to ensure permanent public access to it in its place of creation.

Grinling Gibbons (1648-1721), The Michelangelo of Wood, is without question one of Britain’s greatest decorative woodcarvers, celebrated for giving the medium of wood the ‘airy lightness of a flower’. In c1668-70 he created the King David Panel. This exquisite York-made work of art is of both incomparable national and local significance. Fairfax House wishes to take this once in a lifetime opportunity to acquire and save it for York, Yorkshire and the nation.

Gibbons’ panel is a remarkable and beautifully carved narrative high relief depicting a visionary concert led by King David, playing a harp, ringed by dancing cherubs and in the heavenly realms accompanied by angelic musicians and St Cecilia, the patron saint of music. Reflecting this master craftsman’s own love of music, the panel is a celebration of Psalms 148 and 150. Making the design even more special, the harp is incised with the armorials of the Barwick family signalling its associations with both this family and the Fairfaxes of Denton.

This artwork is believed to be the earliest known work by Grinling Gibbons. Greater still, it is the only known artwork from this master craftsman’s three formative years in York when he was learning his craft under carver and architect John Etty. The magnificent King David carving offers a rare and incomparable insight into Gibbons’ early beginnings and development before he rose to fame for creating artworks across Britain’s houses and palaces and became the ‘King’s Carver’. In the words of David Esterly, the leading expert on Gibbons’ work, ‘this sculpture is a key piece of evidence about the early trajectory of Gibbons’s career’. Indeed the York-made panel visually reveals how Gibbons was pioneering a direction radically different to any other carvers in England at this time, as well as celebrating the richness of York’s creativity and craftsmanship.

This masterpiece is currently for sale with a private gallery, and would otherwise be at risk of leaving the UK and entering a private collection. Fairfax House is seeking to raise enough funds to buy this piece, and to secure it for the nation in perpetuity. If saved, it would become the focal point of the museum’s forthcoming exhibition: ‘Made in York: Inventing and Enlightening the Georgian City’, and a lynchpin of its own collection cherishing Britain’s legacy of exquisite craftsmanship in the long-eighteenth century. Until now this artwork has been held in international private collections and this represents the first and only opportunity to secure it for the nation, and in David Esterly’s own words to ensure that it goes ‘on permanent public display rather than hidden away in a private collection as it has been throughout its life.

So far we have managed to raise just over £240,000 thanks to grant support from the HLF, Art Fund and V&A Purchase Fund. We now have £60,000 left to raise towards acquiring and displaying the panel. Could you help support us in this campaign?