Master woodcarver and sculptor
Supreme master of carving in wood, Dutch-born Grinling Gibbons emigrated to England in the 1660s to work first in York and then London. The Restoration of the monarchy in 1660 and the Great Fire of London in 1666 provided huge opportunities for craftsmen and Gibbons produced some of the finest carving ever seen to grace the palaces of royalty and the state rooms of England’s leading nobility.
Grinling Gibbons, master woodcarver and sculptor, was born on 14 April 1648 in Rotterdam in the Netherlands, one of four known children of James Gibbons, a draper, and Elizabeth, his wife. Both his parents were English. James Gibbons had been admitted to the freedom of the Drapers’ Company in London in 1638 and Elizabeth (née Grinling – hence her son’s unusual first name) was the daughter of an English tobacco merchant living in Rotterdam. It is uncertain where Grinling received his early training. The most important sculptors in the Netherlands in the 1600s were the Flemish Quellinus family. It is thought that Gibbons was either apprenticed to Artus Quellinus the Elder who had a workshop in Amsterdam or to his cousin, Artus Quellinus the Younger, who worked in Antwerp from 1657 onwards. Grinling certainly had a close connection with the Antwerp cousin, for his son, also Artus but usually called Arnold, worked with Gibbons in England from 1680 until his death in 1686.
Employment in York
In about 1667, Grinling Gibbons came to England and settled in York
where he was employed by John Etty, a leading architect and carver. His earliest surviving work is the small boxwood King David Panel, created in York in c.1667-70, showing King David playing a harp with St Cecilia at the organ, surrounded by cherubs and a heavenly consort of musicians. This prize carving was acquired by Fairfax House in 2017 and so remains on display in the city of its creation. Gibbons’ choice of this subject foreshadows the interest in music shown in much of his later work. Whilst in York, Gibbons is also known to have produced a wood sculpture, depicting Elijah with a juniper tree and an angel, and a boxwood portrait of Charles II but both are now lost. These early carvings suggest that he arrived in England not only with knowledge of working with European woods such as boxwood and limewood and some experience of the carving techniques used in southern Germany but also with a finer set of tools than those possessed by English carvers who carved mainly in oak.
The Genius of Grinling Gibbons Saturday 14 April – 14 September 2018 at Fairfax House
Presentation at Court
Very early in 1671 Gibbons moved from York to the Royal Navy Dockyard town of Deptford in south-east London. Although there was plenty of work here for ships’ carvers, he had set his ambitions somewhat higher. His talent did not go unnoticed for long; he was “discovered” by the diarist John Evelyn whilst carving a relief copy of Tintoretto’s Crucifixion in ‘a poore solitary thatched house’ near Evelyn’s home at Sayes Court in Deptford. Evelyn happened to be walking past the cottage and was amazed at what he glimpsed through the window: ‘[I] saw him about such a work, as for the curiosity of handling, drawing and studious exactness, I never in my life had seene before in all my travells.’ Evelyn took Gibbons to the Court and there presented him to King Charles II. Having to attend a council meeting, the king asked for the carving to be carried to the Queen’s bedchamber assuming that Queen Catherine was likely to buy it ‘it being a Crucifix’. One of the queen’s serving women, however, began to find fault with the work ‘which she understood no more than an Ass or Monky’. Evelyn was furious that the queen was influenced ‘by an ignorant woman’ and immediately took away the masterpiece. This early work of Gibbons is on display at Dunham Massey Hall, Cheshire now owned by the National Trust.
Gibbons married his wife Elizabeth around the time he moved to London. Their first child, James, was baptised at St Botolph’s Church, Aldgate on 23 May 1672 and 11 others followed mostly dying in infancy or early childhood. The baptism of a baby Grinling Gibbons is recorded in the register of St Bride’s Church, Fleet Street on 28 May 1675 and his burial only three days later. Five daughters but no sons survived into adulthood. By 1672 the Gibbons were living at an inn called La Belle Sauvage on Ludgate Hill close to St Paul’s Cathedral but, by 1678, had moved to the more fashionable Bow Street, Covent Garden.
Perhaps thinking that religious themes might not be as popular in Restoration England as they were on the continent, Gibbons began to concentrate on ornamental carving and was commissioned by Thomas Betterton, probably through Evelyn’s influence, to produce the carved ornament for his new Dorset Garden Theatre. Betterton was the leading male actor and theatre manager in Restoration England and his new theatre was the most luxurious in the capital at the time. Here Gibbons was “discovered” again, this time by the court artist Sir Peter Lely who particularly admired the capitals, cornices and eagles in the theatre and enquired about the carver. Lely was a close friend of Hugh May who was to become the architect for the most important royal project of the time, Charles II’s rebuilding of Windsor Castle.
Lely and May found Gibbons the commissions that allowed him to invent his new decorative style. Almost certainly it was Hugh May who secured Gibbons his first major commissions in the mid-1670s and it was May together with Lely who arranged a second presentation to the king, this time at Windsor Castle, at the start of May’s rebuilding (c.1675). On this occasion Gibbons displayed to the monarch not a European-style relief sculpture but a chimney piece of carving in wood with a festoon of fishes, shells and other ornaments; the king hired Gibbons immediately. His subsequent decorative work at Windsor Castle (c.1676–82) set the seal of royal approval on his new high-relief foliage style and established his fame. He began work at the castle initially in collaboration with Henry Phillips, Master Sculptor and Carver in Wood to the Crown, under Hugh May, the Comptroller of Works. By 1679 Gibbons was in sole charge of the contract and employed several assistants from the Low Countries, including Arnold Quellin (an anglicisation of Artus Quellinus), to help carry out the work notably in the King’s Chapel. Evelyn saw his carving there and described it as ‘stupendous and beyond all description’. After the Windsor contract was over Gibbons was retained as Surveyor and Repairer of the Carved Work at Windsor at a salary of £100 a year. This continued to be paid until the end of Queen Anne’s reign.
The genius of Grinling Gibbons is not simply that he had a remarkable ability to mould and shape wood but that he evolved a distinct style that was all his own. Working mostly in very pale limewood which was firm and strong, Gibbons’ trademark became the exuberant cascades of fruit, leaves, flowers, foliage, fish and birds which could be applied to panelling, furniture, walls and chimney pieces. He gave botanical subjects unusual realism with fine detail often pierced through allowing the carving to stand out against the darker wood. As a further demonstration of his great carving skills, Gibbons sometimes created lace-like cravats in limewood to be worn by gentlemen. Horace Walpole wore one in public in 1769 and this example is now on display at Chatsworth House in Derbyshire.\
St Paul’s Cathedral
When Evelyn had first seen Gibbons at work he was quick to take his friends Samuel Pepys and Christopher Wren to meet the artist, but Wren could not have shared Evelyn’s strongly favourable opinion as he did not employ the woodcarver until around 10 years later when Gibbons’ reputation was already well established. For Wren, he worked on the decoration of the new St Paul’s Cathedral in addition to several other London churches which had been destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666. The foundation stone of the cathedral was laid in 1675 and the work completed in 1710. Here Gibbons and his workmen, mainly in the years 1694-7, carved ornaments in stone, oak and lime for the choir, the case and screen for the great west organ and decoration for the library and the Bishop’s throne. Externally they also provided reliefs for the pediments on the west front and festoons under the windows.
After the death of Charles II, his brother, James II, a Roman Catholic, began work on a new chapel at the Palace of Whitehall, the main residence of English monarchs from 1530 until its destruction by fire in 1698. Christopher Wren was in overall charge and designed the high altar, which was executed by Gibbons and Arnold Quellin. It is thought that the standard of Gibbons’ stone carving deteriorated markedly after Quellin’s death in 1686 and that Quellin was therefore the major partner as far as sculpture was concerned. Nikolaus Pevsner describes most of Gibbons’ stone sculpture as ‘stiff and awkward’. A definite example of this can be seen in York Minster today: the standing monument to Archbishop Lamplugh (d.1691) in the South Choir Aisle. Two other monuments have also been attributed to Gibbons: Archbishop Dolben (d.1686) again in the South Choir Aisle and Archbishop Sterne (d.1683) in the North Choir Aisle.
James II reigned only from 1685 until 1688 but Gibbons continued to enjoy royal patronage. For William III, he carried out work on a new range of state rooms at Hampton Court Palace from 1689 until 1694 and further work at Kensington Palace in the 1690s. In 1693 he was appointed Master Sculptor and Carver in Wood to the Crown. Subsequently he worked for Queen Anne and, in 1719, he was made Master Carpenter to George I.
Country house commissions
During the Restoration, the aristocracy set out to re-establish their authority over the country by embarking on an ambitious rebuilding programme. New country houses were commissioned and old ones either demolished or radically redesigned and extended. The nobility vied with each other to employ the best craftsmen in the creation of lavish interiors. Gibbons’ royal patronage meant that he was much in demand. Major non-royal commissions included Badminton House, Gloucestershire for Henry Somerset, 1st Duke of Beaufort (1682-3) and Burghley House for John Cecil, 5th Earl of Exeter (1683-5). Some of his finest work can be seen at Petworth House, Sussex, now owned by the National Trust, where Gibbons carried out work for Charles Seymour, 6th Duke of Somerset (early 1690s). At the time, the Duke of Somerset was Chancellor of Cambridge University and, here, another important Gibbons project is accessible to the public: the Wren Library at Trinity College, Cambridge, completed in 1695, where Pevsner describes Gibbons’ ‘exquisite carving of fruit and flowers’ on the bookcases. Gibbons also carved a statue of the Duke for the library which is not one of his best works.
Grinling Gibbons died intestate at his home in Bow Street on 3 August 1721 and, on 10 August, was buried in London at St Paul’s, Covent Garden, where his wife had been buried two years before.
John Bowle, John Evelyn and his World, A Biography (Abingdon, 1981)
Ian Chilvers, Oxford Dictionary of Art and Artists (Oxford, 2009)
David Esterly, Grinling Gibbons and the Art of Carving (London, 1998)
David Esterly, ‘Grinling Gibbons (1648-1721)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford, 2004)
Nikolaus Pevsner and David Neave, Yorkshire: York and the East Riding (London, 1995)
Margaret Whinney, Wren (London, 1972)
I am very grateful to Dr Sarah Burnage, assistant curator at Fairfax House, for allowing me access to all the material she has gathered on Grinling Gibbons.
© Dinah Tyszka