Grinling Gibbons - Sublime Master Woodcarver

by KathleenDuffy

Grinling Gibbons, influenced by the Baroque style of the Netherlands, created realistic still life woodcarvings from limewood. His skill has never been surpassed.

Gibbons’ unique trademark ‘cascade’, a tumbling profusion of flowers, fruit and animals, could be applied to panelling, furniture and walls.

As a result, his influence on the interior design of the English country house was immeasurable and his artistry, although copied and even faked, has never been surpassed.

Wood carving by Grinling Gibbons in the apartments of king William III at Hampton Court Palace
Wood carving by Grinling Gibbons in the apartments of king William III at Hampton Court Palace

Although of English parentage, Grinling Gibbons was born in the Netherlands in 1648. He was apprenticed to a family of master carvers called Quellin. Here he learned to carve not only in marble, but in lime wood.

The Baroque style was in full flower in the Netherlands. Gibbons incorporated this style into his work, being deeply influenced by the lush fullness of realistic fruit and flower paintings, popular at the time. Influences included the paintings of Flemish Masters like Jan Phillips van Thielen and Daniel Seghers, as well as Rubens.

Cartouche with the bust of Nicolas Poussin in a flower garland by Daniel Seghers
Cartouche with the bust of Nicolas Poussin in a flower garland by Daniel Seghers

At the age of nineteen Gibbons moved to England where there was less competition. He worked in York, then moved to Deptford in London.

London had been destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666 and there was plenty of work for a craftsman of Gibbons’ talent and originality.

He rented a cottage in Sayes Court, Deptford from the diarist, the ever-generous John Evelyn.  One evening Evelyn happened to be passing the property and glanced in at the window.

John Evelyn Discovers Grinling Gibbons

Grinling Gibbons

Sometimes the fates smile kindly on us! Through the window Evelyn saw Gibbons carving a representation of Tintoretto’s Crucifiction. Deeply impressed, Evelyn introduced the young Gibbons to Sir Christopher Wren and King Charles II.

Eventually these meetings would result in important commissions. (Poor John Evelyn would also rent out his property to the flamboyant Russian Czar, Peter the Great, with disastrous consequences - but that's another story!)

Grinling Gibbons Finds Success in England

Grinling Gibbons established a flourishing workshop in Covent Garden, he and his team producing limewood and stone carvings for stately homes.

In 1672 he was admitted to the Drapers’ Company, by which time he was happily married and would go on to have a large family of twelve children.

Portrait of Grinling Gibbons by Sir Godfrey Kneller
Portrait of Grinling Gibbons by Sir Godfrey Kneller

Charles II was only one of Gibbons’ patrons; he would also be employed in varying degrees by Sir Christopher Wren, James II, William and Mary, Queen Anne and George I. William III gave him the title of Master Carver.

Design for a Monument for King William III and Queen Mary II by Grinling Gibbons
Design for a Monument for King William III and Queen Mary II by Grinling Gibbons

Gibbons’ superb techniques with soft limewood, the degree of protrusion of the design and greater
curvature, including using layers of lamination to give realism from every angle, became more popular than the English tradition of carving in the less malleable oak. (Some of the work Gibbons did for Wren
was created in oak, and protrusion and detail is less.)

Woodcarving of a Cravat by Grinling Gibbons

Woodcarving of a Cravat, by Grinling Gibbons (1648-1721)

Grinling Gibbons Influences English Interior Design

 

Gibbons created the limewood decorative trophy thus giving status to woodcarving as an art form in itself rather than as mere decoration.

An example of this work is the limewood panel commissioned by Charles II as a gift to Cosimo III de Medici, known as the 'Cosimo Panel'.

Gibbons’ unique trademark ‘cascade’, a tumbling profusion of flowers, fruit and animals, could be applied to panelling, furniture and walls. As a result, his influence on the interior design of the English country house was immeasurable and his artistry, although copied and even faked, has never been surpassed.

Gibbons died in 1720 and is buried in St Paul’s Church, Covent Garden,
the area where he first found fame.

Where to See Work by Grinling Gibbons

 

There are examples of Gibbons' work in the places listed below, although these are only a few of the places where his work can be seen. The ones below are not too far apart if you are on holiday in or around London or the South-East.

 

  • St James’s Church, Piccadilly, London  - there are shell-festoons decorating a reredos (an ornamental wall or screen), as  well as an organ case festooned with angels and putti.
St James Church, Piccadilly, Grinling Gibbons Carved Reredos
St James Church, Piccadilly, Grinling Gibbons Carved Reredos
  • Petworth House in Sussex - in the Carved Room, visitors can see faultless representations of musical instruments, doves,      baskets of flowers, whorled scrolls and cornucopia.
  • St Paul's Cathedral - the choir stalls are his work as well as the Bishop's two thrones, and the seat of the Lord  Mayor.
  • Hampton Court - commissions include  frames, door cases, cornices and the frieze in the King’s Bedchamber.
Hampton Court - Grinling Gibbons Carving
Hampton Court - Grinling Gibbons Carving
Wren Library Cambridge with Carvings by Grinling Gibbons
Wren Library Cambridge with Carvings by Grinling Gibbons
  • Chapel of Trinity College Oxford - there is a reredos  executed in lime and pearwood.
  • St Nicholas & St Luke's Church at Deptford Green, London SE8 3DQ has a Gibbons carving of The Valley of the Dry Bones (Ezekiel Ch 37). People are welcome to visit and the best time and day without needing to make prior arrangements would be on a Saturday morning between 10.30 - 1.00, or Sunday for their morning service from      10.30 - 11.30 with the option of tea, coffee, cake and conversation with      the congregation afterwards. (Tel: 020 86922749 - email: office@deptfordchurch.org)
St Nicholas Church, Deptford - Grinling Gibbons Carvings
St Nicholas Church, Deptford - Grinling Gibbons Carvings

Sources

  • 'Grinling Gibbons,      Master Carver to Royalty' by David Green in Discovering Antiques (Purnell, undated)
  • 'Grinling Gibbons,      Aspects of His Style and Technique' by Miriam Kramer in Magazine Antiques (October 1998)

 

Updated: 01/06/2014, KathleenDuffy
 
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sheilamarie on 04/10/2013

These carvings are really beautiful!

KathleenDuffy on 04/10/2013

There are some amazing woodcarvers today who emulate his style.

wrapitup4me on 04/10/2013

I have seen carvings like these (maybe even Gibbons') and they are awe inspiring!

KathleenDuffy on 04/09/2013

Yes! Breathtaking talent! :)

dustytoes on 04/09/2013

Wow, this is absolutely amazing! Grinling Gibbons certainly had a unique talent.

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