Considered the most skilled woodcarver of all time, Dutch-English craftsman Grinling Gibbons (1648–1721) served the royal court of England, carving intricate wood embellishments installed at Windsor Castle, Hampton Court Palace, and Kensington Palace. Gibbons carved in limewood, creating cascades of fruits, flowers, foliage, fish, birds, lace, ribbon, and puffy-cheeked cherubs. He carved his art onto door frames, paneling, furniture, walls, mantels, and picture frames. So exquisite was Gibbons's work that it set a new 17th-century standard for interiors across England.
Besides working in castles, Grinling Gibbons added his creative touch to churches across London, including St. Paul's Cathedral and St. James's Church Piccadilly. His work also found its way into country homes across England. In his book The Lost Carving, noted American woodcarver and Gibbons restoration specialist David Esterly summed up Gibbons's legacy by calling him “Britain's unofficial woodcarver laureate, one of those historical worthies by whom the nation defines its identity. A golden codger, almost of the order of Samuel Johnson or Thomas Chippendale, Charles Dickens or William Morris.”
Historians believe Gibbons apprenticed as a sculptor somewhere in Europe; by the time he arrived in England, he was well skilled in the craft. He had a fine set of chisels and he knew how to draw and carve. Many British apprentices were not taught how to draw well, so Gibbons's skill in this area stood out.
Most historians believe that Gibbons apprenticed with the Quellin family, who operated sculpting workshops in Antwerp, Belgium, and Amsterdam, Netherlands. Flemish sculptor Artus Quellin I had studied in Rome under Baroque master François Duquesnoy, well known for his marble sculptures. Around the time Gibbons was a teenager, Artus Quellin I was working on ornate sculptures for the Amsterdam Town Hall, which later became the Royal Palace of Amsterdam. Gibbons could have served as an apprentice for this work.
Alternatively, Gibbons may have apprenticed with Quellin's cousin, Artus Quellin II. Whatever the case, the Quellins were known for introducing the Dutch to the Baroque style of architecture, which flourished in Rome at the start of the 17th century. The Baroque style incorporated extravagance and bold ornamentation; it was complex, dramatic, and evoked emotion. Gibbons's work reflects a clear Baroque influence.
In 1667, Gibbons landed in England and moved to York, where he may have assisted architect John Etty. He then settled in Deptford, a district in southeast London, where he may have worked in ship carving. There was plenty of decorative work to be done in London because the city was in the midst of a large-scale rebuild following the Great Fire of 1666. A devastating event, the fire destroyed 87 churches, and Gibbons may have found work in the rebuilding efforts.
Gibbons married his wife, a woman named Elizabeth, around 1670, and they made their home at Ludgate Hill in London. Their first son, James, was born in 1672, followed by a second son, Grinling, in 1675. By 1689, Elizabeth Gibbons had given birth to ten children, most who did not survive into adulthood.
In 1671, Gibbons was “discovered” by fellow Londoner John Evelyn. A writer, gardener, and diarist, Evelyn hailed from a wealthy family and lived in Deptford. Gibbons rented a cottage on the Evelyn family estate that served as his studio. As the tale goes, Evelyn was out on a stroll when he peered into the cottage window and spied his tenant working with a chisel. At the time, Gibbons had a copy of Tintoretto's famed Crucifixion propped up nearby and was attempting to carve the Jesus image into a slab of wood. Evelyn, who had traveled Europe extensively, had seen the original painting on a tour of Italy and brought back his own engraving of the Crucifixion. Watching the image come to three-dimensional life at Gibbons's hands, he recognized the sculptor's work as being superior to any he had seen.
Evelyn was well connected and knew many noble families, architects, and artisans who could patronize Gibbons's work. Excited, Evelyn took Gibbons and his Tintoretto piece to visit Sir Christopher Wren, England's premier architect, as well as to diarist Samuel Pepys, then a member of Parliament, but they seemed underwhelmed. At the time, Wren was reconstructing some 20 churches damaged in the Great Fire, yet he did not hire Gibbons to work on them. Another decade would pass before Wren commissioned Gibbons for any work.
In his diary, Evelyn documented his account of finding Gibbons as well as of taking the artist to meet King Charles II. In The Work of Grinling Gibbons, author Geoffrey Beard reprinted Evelyn's diary entry from January 18, 1671. It read: “I this day first acquainted his Majestie with that incomparable young man Gibson [sic] whom I had lately found in an obscure place & that by mere accident, as I was walking neere a poore solitary thatched house in a field in our Parish …. I asked why he worked in such an obscure & lonesome place, he told me, it was that he might apply himselfe to his profession without interruption.” After Gibbons became famous, Evelyn enjoyed taking credit for “discovering” him, even though his introductions did not immediately yield commissions for the woodcarver.
The meeting with King Charles II did not go well. When Evelyn escorted Gibbons and his Tintoretto piece to the audience chamber at Whitehall Palace, the king praised it but did not buy it. The queen also admired the carved panel but declined to buy it after a friend pointed out faults.
At this point, Gibbons stood at a career crossroads, questioning his subject matter more than his talent. He had trained—and intended—to make his living crafting religious figurines and pictorial relief sculptures with religious content. Besides the Tintoretto piece, he had created a wood sculpture of King David playing the harp and a miniature, “Elijah under the Juniper Tree.” As he now realized, secular London—unlike Rome, Paris, and Amsterdam—had a limited market for religious figurines. A pragmatist, Gibbons now turned his attention to decorative carving, deciding that flowers, fruit, and foliage would appeal to a larger audience.
After switching his focus, Gibbons found work. Hired to complete ornamental carving inside London's Dorset Garden Theatre, he attracted the attention of architect Hugh May, who hired him to do some carving in two country homes he had designed. May was a close friend of Sir Peter Lely, the king's principal portrait painter and in the mid-1670s was overseeing the updating of the royal apartments at Windsor Castle. May and Lely now introduced Gibbons to the king (again). Instead of bringing examples of his work with religious motifs, the sculptor showed King Charles II his carving of a decorative mantle cover. The king liked the work and Gibbons was hired to work on May's project.
Gibbons soon had enough work that he began taking on apprentices. Besides carving for the king, he stayed busy making funerary monuments. From the 1670s to 1710, Gibbons made more than 30 in his workshop. Between 1677–78, he produced carvings for the royal apartments at Windsor Castle, decorating the king's dining room and the queen's audience chamber.
In The Lost Carving, Esterly speculated about how Gibbons ran his workshop, impressed by the consistent execution of complex features within the studio's output. Esterly also commented on the variation within renderings of simpler forms, noting that the artist's “control over his workshop wasn't sufficient to extinguish the individual personalities of his assistants.” Looking at some of Gibbons's work, Esterly found that “the forward showy blossoms” are “astonishingly consistent in their modeling, as if Gibbons himself had always intervened at critical junctures. Or as if he had a single specialist for each species of flower or leaf. Or as if, over the years, his workers had developed an almost clairvoyant sense of their employer's approach to any given modeling task.” In simpler repetitive forms, however, more variation exists, as the carvers were allowed to express their own individuality there.
From 1681 to 1682, Gibbons worked on the Cosimo Panel, which is widely considered his most exquisite piece. King Charles II commissioned the five-foot-by-three-and-ahalf-foot panel as a gift to Cosimo III, Grand Duke of Tuscany. Made from several layers of limewood, the panel incorporated intricate designs crowned by two doves meant to symbolize the harmony between the royal courts of England and Tuscany. The center of the panel—with a music motif—symbolized the peace and prosperity of the time and was ornamented with cascades of flowers, fruits, and leaves. Gibbons signed the piece and even tucked his quill into the design. Eventually restored, the Cosimo Panel remained on display into the 21st century at the Pitti Palace in Florence, Italy.
In 1682, King Charles II appointed Gibbons “Surveyor and Repairer of Carved Work, Windsor,” a job with an annual salary that involved repairing, cleaning, and preserving the carvings at Windsor Castle. In 1690, he worked at Kensington Palace, making carvings for Queen Mary's bedchamber. Later in the decade, he created carvings for Wren's design at the library at Trinity College Cambridge and also worked on a chapel redo at Trinity College Oxford. In 1693, Gibbons was promoted to “Master Carver to the Crown.” From 1699 to 1701, he worked at Hampton Court Palace, where he carved a staircase and added his decorative flair to other room interiors, including the chapel.
By 1702, Gibbons had returned to working in stone. From 1708 to 1712, he produced marble carvings—gate piers, stone finials, chimneypieces, and door casings—for Blenheim Palace, which was being erected for the duke of Marlborough. 1717 found him creating a stone monument for the duke of Chandos. Although he was touched by tragedy two years later, when his wife died, he was also honored by the royal court, which appointed him “Master Carpenter to the King's Works.” Gibbons died on August 3, 1721, in London, and was buried in the churchyard at St. Paul's, Covent Garden.
Almost 300 years after Gibbons set down his chisel for the last time, his work lives on: examples can be found at St. Paul's Cathedral; St. James's Church Piccadilly; the Wren Library at Trinity College Cambridge; Hampton Court Palace; Windsor Castle; Kensington Palace; the chapel at Trinity College Oxford; Petworth House in West Sussex; and Burghley House in Peterborough. At Dunham Massey Hall, a country home in Greater Manchester, visitors can view Gibbons's ill-fated Tintoretto Crucifixion carving on display.
The examples of Gibbons's work still extant looks different from when it was created. The sculptor preferred working in limewood, avoiding the varnish and glazes that would darken its creamy natural color. To achieve contrasts, he relied on the shadows created by the three-dimensional carvings that give his work exceptional depth and interest. By the 21st century, most of the limewood's natural tones had been darkened to brown by tobacco, wood and coal smoke, and centuries of dust and grime. Some of his carvings were varnished or treated with linseed oil after installation or during restoration efforts, and these processes also darkened the wood.
That Gibbons's work is still admired so many years after his death serves as a testament to his accomplishments. For sure, he was an innovative woodworker who created a new and distinct style. His skill is shown by the detail of his work, many pieces that exhibit arduous undercutting. By using soft limewood, Gibbon created curves unlike those carvers who had come before. As Esterly explained to June Ducas in the New York Times: “He lifted the genre of decorative carving above its station into the high art of sculpture.”
Beard, Geoffrey, The Work of Grinling Gibbons, University of Chicago Press, 1990.
Esterly, David, Grinling Gibbons and the Art of Carving, Harry N. Abrams, 1998.
Esterly, David, The Lost Carving: A Journey to the Heart of Making, Viking, 2012.
Green, David, Grinling Gibbons: His Work as Carver and Statuary, 1648–1721, Country Life, Ltd., 1964.
Britain, November 1998.
New York Times, October 25, 1998, June Ducas, “Art/Architecture; The Carver to the Crown Was a Sculptor.”
Guardian (London, England), https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/jonathanjonesblog/ (September 8, 2010), Jonathan Jones, “Grinling Gibbons: The Wood-Carver Who Took Root in England.”□