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Master woodcarver: Faith in box and lime

06 August 2021

A Bond Street exhibition celebrates the work of Grinling Gibbons 300 years after his death. Nicholas Cranfield reflects on his talent

Bob Easton

Limewood cherubs surmounting the reredos by Grinling Gibbons in Trinity College Chapel, Oxford

Limewood cherubs surmounting the reredos by Grinling Gibbons in Trinity College Chapel, Oxford

THIS year marks the 300th anniversary of the death of Grinling Gibbons. A noted master woodcarver, his name has recently become more than just a footnote in history, as some of his patrons were involved in the Royal Africa Company and the forcible removal of free Africans into slavery.

One Cambridge college is still debating the removal of the monument designed for a former royal-household employee. The outcome of that process may determine how others feel about past commissions and the future of notable works of art.

Gibbons (1648-1721) was born at a time of crisis and the rise of populism on both sides of the Channel. His father, James, was a draper who had become a Freeman of the Company in London at the end of his apprenticeship (1638), a year after his marriage to Elizabeth Grinling, the daughter of a tobacco merchant in the Low Countries.

This connection, or the increased political uncertainty of a kingdom on the brink of Civil War, may have prompted the older Gibbons to move permanently to Rotterdam. The future master carver was born there ten years later, on Easter Tuesday, in April 1648. It is probable that, like his elder sister, he was baptised in the local Dutch Reformed church.

Within ten months, the king in England had been sentenced to death, and there followed 11 years of a republic.

Although Rotterdam is no distance from The Hague, where younger members of the Stuart Court in exile lived, it is unlikely that the Gibbons family (in trade) had much contact with them. When, aged 19, Grinling first moved to England after the end of the Second Dutch War, he went to live in York rather than join other denizens in London.

Although there was a thriving art scene in York at the time, centred on the painter and sculptor James Etty (c.1634-1708), with whom Gibbons kept a lively friendship for years, and the stained-glass painter Henry Gyles (1645-1709), it may have been family links that brought him back to London.

In a later recollection, the diarist John Evelyn recorded stumbling across the woodcarver working in the royal dockyard at Deptford in an outhouse in the winter of 1670-71: “I saw him about such a work, as for the curiosity of handling, drawing & studious exactnesse, I never in my life had seene in all my travells.”

Hermitage Museum St Petersburg/AlamyPortrait of Grinling Gibbons by Sir Godfrey Kneller, produced in the 1680s

The intricate carving that Evelyn had spotted through the workshop window was a relief of the crucifixion based on an engraving by Agostino Carracci (1589) after a painting by Tintoretto for the Scuola di San Rocco in Venice. In it, Gibbons had closely followed the print’s dimensions: it measures nearly four by two foot — an ideal size for an overdoor.

Evelyn, too, had bought a copy of the same engraving, in Venice, and such was his admiration for the young man’s carving (now at Dunham Massey, in Cheshire) that he offered to introduce the immigrant artist, whom he found to be likewise “Musical, & very Civil, sober and discreete in his discourse”, to Charles II.

At Whitehall (1 March, 1671), the King and his Queen were at once “astonish’d at the curiositie of it”, but no sale followed; it is possible that the King might have been nervous at purchasing such an obviously “Catholic” work of art, even though its creator was decidedly Protestant.


WHERE had Gibbons learned his craft? For years, it was presumed that he had been apprenticed in the Low Countries to one of the Quellin cousins who worked on decorating the town hall in Amsterdam in the 1650s and 1660s, and who ran the leading workshops in sculpture there and in Antwerp.

But Gibbons was never fully at home as a sculptor, and was largely antipathetic to figural work. Such monuments as are credited to him, including the disputed monument of Tobias Rustat (1606-94) at Jesus College, Cambridge, and the statue of James II standing outside the National Gallery, may have been designed by him, but were undertaken by others. They can appear heavy when set alongside the light, pulsing rhythms of his wood-carving.

Rather than look to the Roman Baroque of Bernini and the grand figures of François Duquesnoy, Gibbons, it seems, adopted a style and chose his woods — lime, pear, and box — under the direct influence of the earlier Northern Renaissance traditions of south Germany. He is a worthy heir of Veit Stoss and Tilman Riemenschneider, whose older tradition was already reduced to the domestic market in continental Europe, but came to captivate the English market two centuries later.

St Paul’s CathedralThe quire at St Paul’s Cathedral featuring Grinling Gibbons’s “trademark” motifs of fruit, clusters of flowers and foliage, acanthus, swags, birds, animals, and cherubs

Although his religious carving might not have found favour (only one other biblical panel survives — King David — after the abortive Whitehall introduction), his intricate carved foliage for the proscenium arch of a theatre attracted the attention of his fellow Dutch countryman the leading court painter Sir Peter Lely (1618-80).

Lely soon introduced him to the artistic world of the recently revived St Luke’s Club, and to his bosom friend Hugh May. When Lely died, it was Gibbons who was commissioned for his monument in St Paul’s, Covent Garden, even though he was quite untried in marble.

May (1621-84), an architect, had lived in Lely’s house in Covent Garden, and at the court in exile at the Hague. At the Restoration, he was appointed Paymaster of the Works and later Comptroller (1668), and, even if Sir Christopher Wren, who became Surveyor of the Works in 1669, is more widely known, it was to May that the King turned for the rebuilding of the castle at Windsor, from 1673.

Acting on his friend’s advice, May took Gibbons with him. Recently admitted to the Draper’s Company by patrimony (January 1672), the newly married Gibbons had moved from Deptford to Ludgate Hill and premises that he kept on even once he had moved to fashionable Covent Garden (1678). He, too, was interred at St Paul’s.


GIBBONS resumed his acquaintanceship with Evelyn at a City dinner in August 1679, and took him to meet a rich merchant, Christopher Boone (c.1615-86), a member of the Merchant Taylors’ Company who was involved in the East India and Guinea trades. He had been English Resident in Seville, but returned to live in the parish of All Saints’, Lee, in south-east London, where Gibbons had enclosed for him a pendulum clock “in [the] curious flower-work”, and adorned the ceiling, fret, and chimney piece of the “Ladys Cabinet”.

Like Lee Place, Holme Lacy (Herefordshire) and Cassiobury Park (Hertfordshire) no longer exist, but some of their carving does, showing Gibbons’s outstanding use of limewood to shape leaves, fruits, and flowers, with their thin stems, for overmantels, mirror surrounds, and wainscoting.

Bob EastonThe reredos crest by Grinling Gibbons viewed from below at St James’s, Piccadilly

Such appliqué skills could be managed from the Ludgate Hill workshop, and allowed Gibbons to remain in London even when he was fulfilling commissions elsewhere. Above all, he could work for more than one client at the same time, although the demands on his time meant that much of the work passed to his most trusted associate, William Emmett, a liveryman of the Joiners’ Company.

In addition to his designs for Windsor Castle, and later at Hampton Court Palace (c.1699-1701), his royal commissions with Wren included the ostentatious chapel at Whitehall constructed for James II’s Italian Queen, Mary of Modena, where the extravagant work included a pulpit with the four Evangelists, a throne, and an organ case with trumpeting angels, most of it Emmett’s finest work.

The chapel itself was short-lived, and its furnishings were dispersed after James VII and II was driven into exile. The altar was relocated to Hampton Court, and then passed to Westminster Abbey, where it last did service at the coronation of George IV. Parts are now at Burnham-on-Sea.

In 1691, Queen Mary gave the organ to St James’s, Piccadilly, and, in 1696, the pulpit was offered to the Danish church in Wellclose Square (sold off in 1869). The organ survives in situ.

At Kensington Palace, while Gibbons carved two chimney pieces in the Queen’s Closet and four over doors in the Queen’s Gallery “with festoons & foliage & other ornaments”, Emmett was exercising himself with 942 feet of picture frames over doors and chimneys, and 1405 feet of modelling and hollow corniche.

All Hallows by the TowerFont cover by Grinling Gibbons, at All Hallows by the Tower, one of the exhibits in the Grinling Gibbons Society’s tercentenary exhibition “Centuries in the Making”

Gibbon’s overreaching designs for the chisel can be seen at work at Sudbury Hall (Derbyshire), Badminton House (1683), Burghley House (1684), and at Petworth. In the universities, the outstanding examples of his contributions can be found in the chapel of Trinity College, Oxford, and in the Wren Library, Trinity College, Cambridge.

By 1694, the previously reluctant Wren brought him into St Paul’s Cathedral to work on the decoration of the choir and chancel. A decade earlier, Gibbons had received plaudits for the reredos in the newly built St James’s, Piccadilly. “There is no altar any where in England, nor has there been any abroad, more handsomely adorn’d” (Evelyn, 7 December 1684).

For the phoenix-like cathedral of St Paul, Gibbons elaborated Wren’s designs for two banks of choir stalls either side of the chancel, the Bishop’s throne and stall, and stalls for the Lord Mayor and Dean, and the organ cases, each marvels “for the curiosity of handling”.

A year-long nationwide festival celebrating the tercentenary of Gibbons’s death, “Grinling Gibbons 300: Carving a Place in History”
, was launched on Tuesday with an exhibition, “Grinling Gibbons: Centuries in the Making”, at Bonhams, 101 New Bond Street, London W1. www.bonhams.com

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