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Grinling Gibbons and The Art of Carving

by David Esterly

Reviewed by Vic Hamburger


As wood carvers we have likely all heard of Grinling Gibbons and his carvings from the late 1600's. We may know a bit about his work and style, but mostly just that he was perhaps the best carver ever born.

An article about a year ago in Woodwork magazine featured David Esterly from upstate New York and his carving. Esterly is arguably the most knowledgeable person alive with regards to Gibbons, having studied his work and carving style for many years. When a devastating fire claimed some Gibbons' carvings in 1986, Esterly was the one called upon by British Royalty to reproduce the work.

When a British museum wanted to feature a review of Gibbons' work, Esterly was asked to put the show together and write the book on Gibbons and his life and times and progression of his work. The Woodwork magazine article, along with a article of Gibbons' carvings, and another describing how to carve a three layer rosette in the Gibbons style, were enough to cause me to search out the book that the article only briefly touches on. That book is Grinling Gibbons and The Art of Carving.

With some 60,000 words and breathtaking photographs, Esterly has written a treatise on Gibbons that captures both his rise to fame amid shifting political sands, and his evolution of style, as other carvers tried to duplicate his work and capture the lucrative market for carving masterpieces at some of the huge estates then occupied by the aristocracy.

This book is not written for woodcarvers. There are no specifics here on how to carve a vine, or create a vegetable in Linden wood. There are only a few pictures that even show a carving amid workbench and tools. Fewer still that show a tool close enough to show the variety of edges and shapes, and then only to explain to the uninitiated what a spoon bit or fishtail gouge is. This book is, however, for every woodcarver that wants to understand how far you can take a woodcarving in terms of scale, detail, scope, and magnitude! Some of Gibbons' work is huge, and only the views with the full wall included gives a hint of that scale.

A number of pieces are discussed with both full views and then close-ups. It is the close-ups that give you wonder and pause as to the time-consuming task that lay ahead at the start of each piece. I tried to estimate what it might take me to carve a grouping of seashells, draped with a string of pearls, with a fully carved lobster beside the grouping, and realized that I would have to work 15 hour days for weeks to accomplish anything close to what Gibbons did in just a small section of one carving in one country manor.

To be fair, Gibbons did work with apprentices for much of his life, and had a shop full of competent carvers who knew his style and probably could produce most of his work. Esterly details Gibbons history with the carving guild and his registered apprentices and talks about the same themes and details, carved over and over in different pieces until the best workmen could reproduce a nearly complete carving working from Gibbons' charcoal sketches. Nevertheless, Gibbons was the master at showing how wood could be worked like putty in the hands of an artist, and his drawings were far ahead of the other carvers in style, composition, and form. It is Gibbons' ability as an artist that Esterly describes in his work, and it is verified in his woodcarvings used as examples of the text. Clearly in Esterly's mind, Gibbons is an artist who found his voice in wood, not a carver who happened to be artistic.

The first part of the book is a history of Gibbon's life and rise to fame. It chronicles his early work, including some relief carvings that are wooden executions of already famous artistic prints and paintings from other parts of Europe. From his early work, we are taken on a tour of his work in the order that it was executed, with stops along the way to discuss how the style and character of the carvings were changing. His later triumphs are the best documented, with pictures of the full carving, detail pictures, and in some cases, pictures taken during restoration when the various layers of his organic and ephemeral masterpieces were taken apart to show how pieces fit together

It is only in the final chapters that any details of the craft are shown or discussed. Here a bit about the tools and shapes needed in these monumental pieces is discussed, and the myth that the secrets of this carving style were lost forever is debunked. Esterly notes that many other carvers emulated Gibbons, and were good enough that many pieces cannot be attributed to him except for bills and receipts found at the estates, and then it is uncertain what carvings are by his hand or only by his design and someone else's chisel. The clear statement made in the commission to Esterly by the Crown for the repair work in 1986 and later speaks to the fact that the art is not lost, but is still alive and available to those with the resources to seek it out and pay for it.

This book is not cheap. It lists for $49.95, $65.00 CA, but it is an inspiration and eye-opening summation of carving that most of us can only hope to achieve with huge effort and concentration. If you can't afford to buy it, try your library and their inter-library loan service. It may take a while, but they may be able to find the book for you. Your local carving club may want to purchase a copy for their library as well and make it available to their members. I highly recommend that you make the effort though to find a copy and read it through to understand how these carvings came to be. It is fascinating reading!

Grinling Gibbons and The Art of Carving
David Esterly
Harry N. Abrams, Inc.

ISBN 0-8109-4142-2