A new exhibition opening at Fairfax House tells the story of how a young man from Rotterdam became an icon of English craftsmanship
It is 1667, one year after the Great Fire of London had ravaged the capital and two years after the outbreak of the plague, the son of an English draper, 19-year-old Grinling Gibbons, left the Netherlands to continue his career as a journeyman craftsman in England. In the following decades he was to change the landscape of British carving.
The diarist John Evelyn wrote that he first discovered Gibbons “in a poore solitary thatched house, in a field in our Parish” in January 1671. The story goes that Evelyn stumbled across Gibbons carving a panel depicting Tintoretto’s Crucifixion and immediately recognising his talent, he introduced him to Charles II, who was in the process of restoring Windsor Castle to its former regal glory.
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It was a match made in heaven. Gibbons’ flamboyant cascades of lifelike blossoms, fruits and foliage transformed the royal apartments into the one of the grandest examples of baroque style in England.
The brilliance of Gibbons, says Hannah Phillip, Director of Fairfax House, “is not only to be found the mastery of his craft”, but in “the way he revolutionised the world of wood carving”.
Working mostly in limewood, he undercut and layered his compositions allowing them to take on an exquisite verisimilitude. Indeed, Horace Walpole once said: “There is no instance of a man before Gibbons who gave wood the loose and airy lightness of flowers.”
The Genius of Grinling Gibbons: From Journeyman to King’s Carver, includes one of Gibbons’ most iconic pieces: a wooden cravat carved to look like lace. The piece is so light and full of detail that when Horace Walpole wore it to greet French, Spanish and Portuguese visitors to his home in 1769 they believed in was the real thing.
“The wooden cravat really encapsulates what’s often said about him: his incredible skill, realism, and a light, delicate, almost translucent quality of the wood,” says Phillips.
But the item Fairfax House will be most proud to show off is its recent acquisition, the King David panel, which was due to be sold in Maastricht last March. After a successful crowdfunding campaign and the help of grants and donors they raised £300,000 to purchase it from a private collection.
The panel, measuring 37cm by 24cm, is the craftsman’s earliest known work (c.1670) and the only surviving piece from his brief time as a journeyman in York.
By 1693 Gibbons held the title Master Carver to the King and was highly celebrated as an unrivalled virtuoso of his art. Contemporary diarist Ralph Thoresby refered to him as “the most celebrated Grinlin Gibbons” [sic] while William Aglionby called him the “Northern Michael Angelo […] best of Modern Sculptors now living.”
More recently, Jonathan Jones of The Guardian named him “the British Bernini” saying he had “an ability to breathe life into still material.”
This remarkable ability catapulted him to fame in the late seventeenth century and during the latter part of Gibbons’ career he had a workshop at the foot of St Pauls, training up to 50 craftsmen to carry out work on his commissions and pass down his distinct and exuberant style.
And while it might be tempting to put his rise to fame and his signature baroque ostentation down to a reaction against the Puritanism of Cromwell and the liveliness and apparent hedonism of the Restoration, but the Phillip warns us not to assume he’s merely a product of his times and circumstance.
“We really don’t know his capacity to move with the fashions,” she says, “but his real legacy is in transforming the way we view wood carving – it is art, it is sculpture. This man had an ability to transform wood.”
It might be impossible to know how much Gibbons was inspired by the political climate, but certainly art reflects life and life reflects art. The times did change and his style eventually fell out of favour. And the odd name? According to David Esterly, who literally wrote the book on Gibbons, his unusual moniker comes from his mother: Elizabeth Grinling.
From Journeyman to King’s Carver: The Genius of Grinling Gibbons opens at Fairfax House, York on the 370th anniversary of Grinling Gibbons’ birth, Saturday April 14th 2018.
Fairfax House Museum
York, North Yorkshire
Come and unlock the splendour within the finest Georgian town house in England. A classical architectural masterpiece of its age, Fairfax House was originally the winter home of Viscount Fairfax. Its richly decorated interior was designed by York's most distinguished eighteenth-century architect, John Carr. Extensively adapted in the twentieth century…