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Grinling Gibbons
MastercarverLondon
1648-1721

 

 

The wood carvings of Grinling Gibbons are extraordinary and distinctive. He is best known for his realistic and fluid lime wood carvings of swags and festoons of fruit, flowers and game for architectural interiors.

Early Life
We do not know a lot about his early life but we do know that he was born in Rotterdam, Holland to English parents and that his father was a Draper. He may have been apprenticed to a sculptor.
 
Move to England
At age 19 he moved to England and after a short time at York, he moved to Deptford near Greenwich in London in 1671.
 
One evening, while strolling around the village of Deptford, John Evelyn, the famous diarist, saw young Gibbons carving, by candlelight, a most beautiful crucifix copied from a painting by Tintoretto.
 
A Royal Introduction
In 1672, John Evelyn introduced him to King Charles II and the king’s surveyor-general, Sir Christopher Wren, thinking Gibbons would get some commissions from the massive amount of rebuilding work going on after the Great Fire of London.
 
Royal Commissions
The King’s wife was not impressed with Gibbons’ work and forbade Charles to spend any money on the carvings. Wren, however, did employ Gibbons to decorate St Paul’s Cathedral’s Quire. Eventually the King got his own way and used Gibbons extensively at Windsor Castle, Kensington Palace and Hampton Court Palace.
 
Gibbons’ carvings embellish many Stately Homes such as Petworth House (NT) in West Sussex, Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire and Chatsworth House in Derbyshire.
 
Family Life
Grinling Gibbons married his wife, Elizabeth, and in 1678 the first of 12 children was baptised in St Paul's Church Covent Garden. By 1685 he had a flourishing workshop in Covent Garden providing decorative carvings in wood, marble and stone.
 
Carving Techniques
Before Grinling Gibbons arrived in England, most carving was done in oak – a hard, utilitarian type of wood. Gibbons was used to using a much softer, lighter coloured wood from the lime tree. It was strong, could be carved against the grain so was very versatile and did not warp. Its grain favoured the curves and outlines of the Baroque style.
 
It was the ideal wood for creating graceful garlands of flowers, and swathes of cascading fruit, leaves, game and musical instruments so typical of Gibbons’ carvings.
 
By laminating layers of wood (sometimes using three or four pieces) to creat a block each about three inches thick, for a single work, Gibbons was able to achieve a three-dimensional effect. No matter from what angle a carving was viewed, it appeared natural and lifelike.
 
Another feature of his work is the polished surface of the carvings achieved without sandpaper which wasn’t invented until the 19th century. What was the secret? Gibbons used the leaves of a common Dutch weed known as ‘horsetail’ or ‘scouring rush’ to finish off his carvings.
 
Gibbons’ Workshop
There is such an abundance of work attributed to Grinling Gibbons that he couldn’t possibly have carved it all himself. He had a workshop with many woodcarvers working for him, trained in his techniques, who did the groundwork of the carvings. Gibbons did the very special jobs himself and his initials have been found worked into pieces.
 
Eventually, Queen Anne and public taste turned to less elaborate decoration and the volume of Gibbons’ work declined. By the time he died, Georgian restraint was in vogue.
 
St Paul’s Church, Covent Garden
St Paul's Church Covent Garden was obviously the Gibbons’ family parish church because both Grinling and his wife are buried there. A wooden memorial plaque inside near the front door features a piece of his beautiful work.