Saturday, August 17, 2013

Grinling Gibbons : 'The Michelangelo of Wood'

by Grace Elliot

"There is no instance of a man before Gibbons who gave wood the loose and air lightness of flowers, and chained together the various productions of the elements with free disorder natural to each species." ~ Horace Walpole.

In early August I was fortunate enough to be invited to preview the new ‘Line of Kings’ exhibition at the Tower of London. Amongst the exhibits are a number of wonderful wooden horses. These were carved in the late 17th century as props on which to display the armour of kings. At the preview, two historians debated in excited tones which of the carved horses had been created by Grinling Gibbons. Their reverential voices and the way their faces came alive, made me curious to discover just who Grinling Gibbons was.

This horse is the one suspected to be
Grinling Gibbons' creation
The Line of Kings, Tower of London

Grinling Gibbons (1648 – 1720/1) has been described as ‘the Michelangelo of wood’. He was the son of English parents living in Holland and as a young man trained as a stonemason in Amsterdam.

Attracted by the promise of work rebuilding London after the Great Fire, Gibbons sailed for England in 1667. He worked successfully for several years but his big break came in 1671 when John Evelyn found him carving a copy in wood of Tintoretto’s, ‘Crucifixion’.

“I saw the young man at his carving, by the light of a candle. I saw him to be engaged on a carved representation of Tintoretto’s ‘Crucifixion’, which he had in a frame of his own making.” ~ John Evelyn.

Evelyn was so impressed by what he saw that he told a colleague, the architect Sir Christopher Wren. In turn, Evelyn and Wren arranged for their new prodigy to be introduced at the court of Charles II. The quality of his work delighted and amazed. Gibbons's skill was to bring lightness and grace to the cherubs, flowers and fruit he carved in lime wood. Such was his ability that he created a lace-cravat out of lime wood– the detail of which I feel sure you will agree is absolutely stunning.

A lace cravat - carved out of lime
by Grinling Gibbons

Over his career Grinling Gibbons was commissioned to work on royal residences such as Windsor Castle, Hampton Court Palace and Kensington Palace. His carved panels of cherubs and ripe fruit were symbolic of the wealth and prosperity that the monarch brought to the country. (He had a trademark pea-pod which he incorporated into panels of fruit and flowers; if the peapod was open it meant he had been paid for his work, if closed, he hadn’t!) Indeed, his carvings in the royal apartments impressed King William III so much that in 1693 he appointed Gibbons as master carver to the crown.

More of Gibbons work.
The cherubs and fruits symbolised England's prosperity and fertility.

Gibbons also worked widely for Wren, on projects such as the choir stalls and organ case at St Paul’s Cathedral. The cultural significance of his carvings was such that during World War II, it was removed from St Paul’s and stored in a place of safety. Sadly, more harm than good was done when the pieces were replaced in the 1950’s. Clumsy restoration with iron nails led to the panels splitting when the nails rusted – thankfully, recent restoration techniques have undone a lot of this damage.

Portrait of Grinling Gibbons

And now I begin to understand the excitement of those historians at the
Tower of London. A carved horse would have been something of a departure for Grinling Gibbons…and a fine example of the flexibility of his amazing talent. Not only that, but to stand so close to an object that Gibbons would have smoothed and chiselled with his own hand, makes the great man seem so much closer…


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Grace Elliot -
Grace leads a double life as a veterinarian by day and author of historical romance by night. Grace lives near London and is housekeeping staff to five cats, two teenage sons, one bearded dragon and a husband (not necessarily listed in order of importance.)
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