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Visual arts: Grinling Gibbons: Centuries in the Making (Bonhams, London)

13 August 2021

Nicholas Cranfield sees the Gibbons exhibition


Carved cherubs in St Paul’s Cathedral, which was one of Grinling Gibbons’s most illustrious commissions

Carved cherubs in St Paul’s Cathedral, which was one of Grinling Gibbons’s most illustrious commissions

GRINLING GIBBONS (Features, 6 August) died, aged 73, on 3 August 1721 and was buried in St Paul’s, Covent Garden, a week later. To mark the anniversary, Bonhams offered a reception that day and also, in their second-floor gallery, opened a tercentenary exhibition, “Grinling Gibbons: Centuries in the Making”, which will be in London for August and then transfers to Compton Verney on 25 September 25 (until 30 January 2022).

The exhibition largely concentrates on his school as a woodcarver and passes almost silently over his less successful work as a sculptor in stone and bronze. Few sculptors have been dismissed so comprehensively as by Pevsner; writing of the monument at West Horsley of Sir Edward Nicholas, who died in 1669, he said, “Insensitive, particularly in the careless way details of widely different scale and degree of delicacy are put next to one another. Said to be by Grinling Gibbons, and would fit in well with his pedestrian stone sculpture.”

Gibbons saw himself rather differently; in the late 1680s’ portrait by Sir Godfrey Kneller, the artist is portrayed conventionally as a marble sculptor, measuring a Bernini cast. The London copy from the National Portrait Gallery (NPG 2925) is displayed here; the original is in the Hermitage in St Petersburg and was formerly in the collection of Sir Horace Walpole.

That said, Gibbons (or, rather, his workshop) turned out a number of prestigious statues, including the 7th and 8th Earls of Rutland (1684-86) and Archbishop Richard Sterne of York (1684). Sterne’s monument, alongside those of Archbishops Dolben and Lamplugh (died 1691, and Gibbons charged £100), is featured in the year-long photographic exhibition “Monuments to Glory (until 30 July 2022) at York Minster. The 1st Duke of Chandos (1717) was rather less than impressed, and refused to pay Gibbons in full for his statue (Whitchurch, Middlesex).

Such rather “wooden” pieces are seen in the portrait heads of Charles I and Charles II, carved for the Line of Kings at the Tower of London, in 1685 and 1687. This paying display of 15 kings from William the Conqueror to the present was intended to emphasise the succession of the later Stuart monarchs. Each figure was mounted on a wooden horse, and the frame of both horse and rider was used to show the range of armour in the Tower’s collection. There was no attempt at historical accuracy in the appropriation of armours to any one king, and neither monarch in the hands of Gibbons and his workshop look anything like the subjects portrayed by Van Dyck or Peter Lely with such lascivious colour.

The exhibition traces the woodcarver’s origins from the London shipyards of Deptford and across the Thames at Blackwall. It proposes that he may have trained first in his native Rotterdam with William Van Douwe, whose son Françoise Douwe (1659-1735) drew the stern of a Dutch ship, showing the sheer quality of woodwork that would be expected of any grand sailing vessel.

This drawing is hung next to an anonymous English painting of East India Company ships in the Thames shipyard said to date to 1683 (both National Maritime Museum, Greenwich) when the featured Indiaman, Captain Sir Thomas Grantham’s The Charles the Second (775 tons), was launched. Its stern has the royal arms of Charles II amid a riot of woodcarving.

It is more than a leap of faith from such naval woodwork, undertaken, no doubt, as part of a team, to come to the bravura craftsmanship of the font cover from All Hallows’ by the Tower, in which three naked cherubs cavort, reaching up above swags of grapes and leaves to tease the dove that rests on ears of corn. However incongruous this might have seemed in the Restoration Church, it is not a whimsy.

Fifty years after the carver’s death, Walpole (in his Anecdotes of Painting in England (1762-1771)) saluted: “There is no instance of a man before Gibbons who gave to wood the loose and airy lightness of flowers,” and that airiness is quite as much apparent in the felicitous playfulness of the putti as it is in the crustacea, fish, and fowl of the panel commissioned by Sir Robert Dashwood, 1st Bt., for Northbrook House at Kirtlington, Oxfordshire, seen here on the farthest wall.

Once the Jacobite second baronet, Sir James Dashwood, built the grander Palladian villa Kirtlington Park (1742-48), the old family home a mile away was demolished, but the Gibbons panel was salvaged and brought to the entrance hall of the new estate house.

Elsewhere, there are sensitively displayed fragments that conjure up the sheer wealth of detail wrought by Gibbons. Some of the torsos and broken heads of cherubs from the choir stalls at St Paul’s Cathedral (1694-1706) stand out from the wall; others, no doubt, lie still in the attic above the organ loft in the cathedral. The devastation of the 1986 fire at Hampton Court Palace is clear from the surviving charred foliage.

Other pieces, like the overmantel from Badminton in Gloucestershire (1683) are works of art in their own right. Further works will be added when the exhibition moves to Warwickshire: one to watch.


At Bonhams, 101 New Bond Street, London W1.

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