Good morning. Greetings from across the Atlantic. The last Grinling Gibbons symposium was held twenty years ago, in conjunction with the Gibbons exhibition at the V&A. High time there was another one! I’m only sorry that I’m unable to attend.

I’ve been asked to provide a picture of myself for the screen while this statement is being read out. You asked for it {Image 1}. I seem to be engaged in a wine-soaked harangue. But don’t worry, you won’t have to look at this for too long before it’s replaced by images of woodcarving.

You know, each of us has our own Grinling Gibbons, the particular face of the man we have chosen to focus on as scholars or curators or carvers or conservators, or simply connoisseurs. But it’s useful and necessary to have our own Gibbons bump up against other people’s Gibbonses. Occasionally yours and mine might come to blows… but always they will enhance and deepen one another, and allow us all to build up a fuller picture of this complex and sometimes conflicted man.

Gibbons is one of those golden codgers (that phrase is Yeats’s) by whom a people define their cultural identity. With his distinctive name (which has expanded to become the name of a style), his easy accessibility (especially to a gardening nation), and his place in folk memory and folk mythology (think of those pea pods), he might seem to be as comfortably familiar as an old shoe. I remember several decades ago the head of a certain art institution in London turned down the idea of a Gibbons exhibition, with the comment “We know about Gibbons”. Well, we don’t know about Gibbons. Back then we didn’t even know what we didn’t know about Gibbons.

These days we may know more about what we don’t know. But many questions remain. Today I thought I might offer myself up as an embodiment of ignorance. I’d like to briefly set out some of the uncertainties that remain in my mind, even after years of marinating in the man. I’m sure that today’s symposium will provide many answers to these and other questions, and shrink the territory of ignorance still further.

Let’s begin with Gibbons’s early years, and the King David sculpture which Fairfax House has so happily acquired {Image 2}. We may be sure that boxwood figure carving, with its specialised tools and techniques and medium, was a skill Gibbons learned not in York but in Europe.

But where and when was this piece actually executed?

I’ve toyed with the idea that Gibbons carved it in Europe at the end of his apprenticeship, as a kind of master-piece (in the original sense) to recommend his talents — in this case, not for entry into a guild but rather for potential patrons in a new country. And that in York, having found a purchaser, he added the Barwick armorial to the harp.

A contrary view is that this entire project is a product of Gibbons’s time at York: that the Barwick or Fairfax family came up with the Sadeler engraving and handed it over to Gibbons to carve — almost as if they were familiar with that exotic medium boxwood and understood that the demands of small scale could be accommodated by it. But how likely is it that the Sadeler engraving {Image 3} had found had its way into the collections of the Barwicks or the Fairfaxes? And if it had, why would they choose this celebration of earthly and heavenly music?

On the other hand we know that Gibbons was musical, and we have abundant evidence that musical subject matter appealed to him. Indeed, his preoccupation with music has given us the most compelling attributional and dating tools we have for Gibbons’s carvings. We also know, from a stray comment of John Evelyn’s about Gibbons’s Tintoretto relief, that there is at least one other example of his bringing an engraving from the Continent to execute in wood, on a one-to-one scale. Could it be that Gibbons carried from Europe not a completed carving but the Sadeler engraving — and perhaps too a prepared piece of European boxwood?

What is certain is that the carver arrived in York as a young man with an agenda. His journeyman status disguised formidable ambitions. He may have had a decorative carving day job, with Etty in York — and it would be illuminating to find late 1660s decorative carving hereabouts that we might imagine Gibbons having a hand in — and he certainly had a decorative job later at the royal dockyard in Deptford. But for him the real action was happening after hours, when he was occupied with European sculpture, using European skills, European tools, and European mediums.

So, what does the King David tell us about Gibbons’s early training? Can we deduce from it the notion that Gibbons apprenticed in a workshop devoted solely to figure sculpture? Or would most North European workshops have been diverse enough to have also produced decorative work? On the other hand, if he apprenticed in, for example, a Quellinus workshop, how could he have emerged with no apparent ease with marble, and seemingly little proficiency in the modeling of the full size human figure?

For example, preliminary drawings survive for his best bronze statue, the James II that now stands outside the National Gallery. Here it is in an old photo {Image 4}. Those preparatory drawings are not in Gibbons’s hand. For statues like this did he turn over to his Flemish assistants all stages of the design and execution? Do we fully understand the dynamic of his figure sculpture and statuary workshop, or how a changing workforce may have changed his workshop style? Especially after the deposition of James II in 1688, when Arnold Quellin had died and Gibbons’s talented Flemish assistants such as Laurens van der Meulen returned home.

So is it true that his later monument work, and for example his chimneypiece work in Scotland, therefore reflect Gibbons own thoughts and skills — for better or worse — much more directly than the work from early years, when his team of North Europeans was at full strength?

(By the way, speaking of that James II statue, which Margaret Whinney says compares favorably with any Roman victor type on the Continent {Image 5}. When is English Heritage going to replace the long-missing baton in James’s hand, a potent object meant to be the focus of his gaze and of ours too? Without the baton the Emperor’s arm extends pointlessly, with his hand making something that looks like a Hip-Hop artist’s finger gesture.)

Though trained in figure sculpture, the young Gibbons must have been at least aware of Dutch carved foliage decoration. So can the forms of Dutch ornament of the time help make sense of the murky world of Gibbons’s 1670s decorative carving, the time of Holme Lacy and Cassiobury, the period when Gibbons’s mature style was struggling to be born?

There are other conundrums from these years still to be resolved. {Image 6} How do we explain these hard conventionalised blossoms in the frame of the Tintoretto sculpture? More unGibbonslike flowers it would be difficult to imagine. Is there a European source that might explain the style of the frame, which shows nothing of the fluency we expect of Gibbons?

And there are still other possible sources of confusion. If Dutch ornamental carving influenced Gibbons, isn’t it also the case that the Gibbons style very soon came to influence Low Countries carving — especially after the return of his assistants? Incidentally, Gibbons’s influence in that part of the world continues to this day. A month ago a Rotterdam carver informed me that he and his colleagues in Holland were founding what they intended to call “The Grinling Gibbons Institute for Woodcarving”.

One other question about Gibbons’s early years: Do his remarkable design drawing skills — evidence of European artists’ standard training, so envied by Wren — tell us anything about where exactly in Europe they might have been inculcated?

And speaking of disegno: What is it that allows us to distinguish a “school of Gibbons” carving from one made by his own workshop? Is it just a matter of fineness of modeling and meticulousness of undercutting? Do we simply sense the thing viscerally and look for reasons later? Or are there identifiable qualities in the mature work’s design (what the era often called its drawing) that are potent attributional tools?

Other questions: Gibbons’s work disastrously loses its ethereal presence when it loses the striking whiteness of unfinished limewood. {Image 7} Have we yet found the best way to recreate this original paleness in old darkened or painted or varnished wood? Can conservation strategies be improved in this respect? Should we dismiss entirely the old technique of lime washing? Is there any scope for bleaching (a process I have used on my own carving that has darkened, and I have even considered using preemptively on new carving)?

And: Was Gibbons’s workshop vertically or horizontally organised? Were his carvers assigned particular forms or simply whole sections of carvings? There does seem to be a single hand, which may not be Gibbons’s own, in the distinctive cherub heads that enter his work in about the 1690s. {Image 8}

And there’s the matter of his patronage: I sometimes wonder about the degree to which Gibbons mixed socially with his patrons. We have conflicting evidence in this respect. Did he end as “a gentleman by genius if not by breeding,” in the phrase of the day, this immigrant who was only barely literate in written English?

Before I finish, I’d like to provide an image of what is perhaps the most significant Gibbons discovery in recent years. {Image 9} Or rather rediscovery. This is the ‘Adrian Panel’, as I’ve been calling it. It was dimly illustrated in 1909 in an obscure book on English furniture. Then it disappeared from view and was assumed to be lost, being mentioned in none of the Gibbons monographs. In fact it was acquiring a glamorous provenance, being owned at one point by old Hollywood figures such as the costumier Adrian and his film star wife, Janet Gaynor. It remains in that part of the world, in private hands.

Am I right in associating this with Gibbons in his 1690s maturity? For me this supplely opulent composition passes the visceral test and checks some specific stylistic boxes as well. There are the cherub heads with their distinctive countenances, supporting a flower basket à la Petworth, the songbirds of dubious quality, the meticulous modeling and undercutting, and above all the wonderfully fluent, loose and open ribbon work in a u-shape that reminds one of the Kirtlington Panel. I commend it to your attention.

Finally, for the practitioners in the room, who in one way or other are continuing the Gibbons tradition of limewood foliage carving: Could it be that the anxieties of the present age are giving a new edge to the old form? A finely carved flower poignantly symbolizes the order and beauty of the natural world. But can we escape today’s awareness that nature in all her beauty is now being catastrophically damaged by mankind? And when you make that flower out of a botanical medium it seems itself almost to become one of nature’s own offspring, which redoubles the poignancy. So Grinling Gibbons, of all people, may speak to our present quandary? The golden codger will outlast us all.


BIOGRAPHY: David Esterly is an American limewood carver, writer and world-leading authority on Grinling Gibbons. Esterly was born in Akron, Ohio but raised in Orange County, California. He received a BA from Harvard and a BA and Ph.D. from Cambridge, where he read English and was a Fulbright Scholar. Rejecting the idea of an academic career, Esterly taught himself to carve in the high-relief illusionistic style of Gibbons.

After the 1986 fire at Hampton Court Esterly spent a year re-carving the seven foot long Gibbons drop destroyed in the flames. The experience inspired his memoir: “The Lost Carving: A Journey to the Heart of Making” (2012). In 1998 he curated the Grinling Gibbons exhibition at the V&A, which was named as one of the exhibitions of the year by the art journal Apollo. His accompanying book, “Grinling Gibbons and the Art of Carving”, was described as “a marvellous study” that has “a rare intimacy with its subject.”

Esterly’s own carving began as decorative foliage work but developed in the direction of still life sculpture, trophy-like tableaus, and botanical heads in the manner of Giuseppe Arcimboldo, which he began carving in 2002 while a guest artist at the American Academy in Rome. He works on commission for patrons in the United States, Britain, and Europe. Retrospective exhibitions took place in 2013 in New York City and at the Munson-Williams-Proctor Art Institute in Utica, NY.


Name: David Esterly

Title: American limewood carver, writer and world-leading authority on Grinling Gibbons

Source: From the 2018 Symposium: Rethinking the Genius of Grinling Gibbons