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Gibbons, Grinling (1648-1721)

Gibbons, Grinling

Rotterdam then London; carver (b.1648–d.1721)

Arguably the most celebrated woodcarver in history, and sometimes described as ‘the Michelangelo of wood’, Gibbons is credited with introducing realistic carving in limewood to England. He propagated an elaborate baroque style of carved foliage, fruits and flowers, often incorporating trophies of military motifs, musical instruments, game and fish. It later became known as ‘Gibbons’ style’. Although Gibbons is mainly associated with ornamental carving in limewood, his workshop also provided architectural carving in oak, ornamental work in stone, bronze statues and stone monuments.

Gibbons was one of seven children born to James Gibbons and Elisabeth Gorling in Rotterdam. His birth date was recorded as 4 April 1648 (Old Style), according to a letter from one of his sisters and to a horoscope cast for him by Elias Ashmole [MS. Ashmole 243 Fol. 333, Bodleian Library, Oxford]. James Gibbons was an English merchant adventurer and a Freeman of the Drapers’ Company in London. Elisabeth was a daughter of an English tobacco merchant in Rotterdam, Francis Gorling. Grinling’s unusual name is a corrupted version of his mother’s maiden name, while his elder brother Dingly was named after their grandmother’s maiden name.

Nothing is known about Grinling’s early life and training in the Netherlands. It has often been suggested that he spent some time in the workshop of Artus Quellinus in Amsterdam, but there is no proof supporting this theory. It is possible that Gibbons trained in his native Rotterdam, at least at the start of his apprenticeship. The city was a major centre of shipbuilding and Gibbons worked as a ship carver at the beginning of his career in England.

Gibbons moved to England about 1667. He went first to York where he worked for John Etty, a leading architect-craftsman in the city. Gibbons’s only surviving carving from that period is a boxwood panel of King David, now at Fairfax House, York. It is not known how long Gibbons stayed in York, but he later moved to Deptford, which was the site of an important naval dockyard. It was in a cottage here that he was discovered by John Evelyn in January 1671, carving a panel of the Crucifixion (now at Dunham Massey, Cheshire). The encounter is described in detail in Evelyn’s diaries. Evelyn introduced Gibbons to Charles II. However, it was the architect Hugh May and his friend, Sir Peter Lely, who secured Gibbons his first important commissions later in the 1670s, at Holme Lacy, Herefordshire (since stripped of its carvings), Cassiobury Park, Hertfordshire (demolished) and Windsor Castle (Gibbons was first recorded there in 1677).

Gibbons reputedly came to Lely’s attention thanks to his carvings at the Dorset Garden Theatre, which opened in November 1671. Around that time Gibbons moved to the ‘Bell Savage’ on Ludgate Hill. He is recorded there in 1672, an important year in which he became a Freeman of the Drapers’ Company by patrimony, took his first apprentice and his first child was born. Together with his wife Elisabeth, he had at least eleven more children, the majority of which did not survive to adulthood.

In 1678 the family moved to a large house on Bow Street, Covent Garden, an area popular with artists. Gibbons would remain here for the rest of his life. The same year he delivered wall carvings for Sudbury Hall, Derbyshire and continued working at Windsor Castle. His work there was much admired, especially the carvings in the King’s Chapel.

Lely died in 1680 and Gibbons was commissioned to make his monument at St Paul’s, Covent Garden (since destroyed). Gibbons’s talent in carving wood was unquestionable and it was expected that he could carve figures in stone too. He certainly had ambitions to do so, for as the demand for funerary monuments grew, Gibbons entered a formal partnership with Arnold Quellin in 1681, which ended acrimoniously two years later. Among other Flemish sculptors who collaborated with Gibbons were Laurens Vandermeulen, Anthony Verhuke and Peter van Dievoet.

Apart from Gibbons’s carvings at Windsor, his most famous commission for Charles II was the Cosimo Panel, completed in 1682 (on display at the Pitti Palace, Florence). This was a diplomatic gift from the king to Cosimo III de Medici and is a tour de force of Gibbons’ naturalistic carving. Another panel was probably commissioned about 1685 by James II or his wife, Mary, and sent as a gift to her father, Alfonso IV d’Este, Duke of Modena (now in Galleria Estense, Modena).

In 1683, Gibbons worked at Badminton House, Gloucestershire, and Burghley House, Northamptonshire. A year later Gibbons supplied the reredos at St James’s, Piccadilly. The church was designed by Sir Christopher Wren. One would expect that Wren, who employed leading British woodcarvers in the project of rebuilding the City churches after the Great Fire of London, would collaborate with Gibbons on a regular basis. In fact, Gibbons’ only known contributions towards decorating the City churches were a spectacular font cover for All Hallows by the Tower (1682) and the reredos carving for St Mary Abchurch (1686). It was only in the 1690s that Wren employed Gibbons extensively at St Paul’s Cathedral.

Gibbons worked at Whitehall Palace for James II and later William and Mary during the late 1680s. The early 1690s was a busy time for him as he was working at Kensington Palace, Petworth House, Sussex, Wren’s Trinity College Library, Cambridge, and on the reredos of the chapel of Trinity College, Oxford. The carvings at Petworth, in the so-called Carved Room, are some of his most famous works. Their current arrangement, however, is far from the original concept and was ‘enriched’ by later inferior carvings.

In 1693, Gibbons was appointed Master Sculptor and Carver to the Crown. Around that time he made drawings for Hampton Court, today in the Hampton Court Album in the collection of the Sir John Soane’s Museum. The works were halted in 1694 due to Mary’s death and lack of money. They resumed a few years later and Gibbons’ main work there dates from c. 1699-1701. In between, he was heavily engaged at St Paul’s where his workshop delivered carvings in lime as well as oak and stone.

1702 was a difficult year for Gibbons. The death of William III and the accession of Queen Anne to the throne marked a gradual change in fashion – the demand for elaborate woodcarvings dropped and from that time onwards Gibbons worked mainly in stone. In the same year his house in Covent Garden was destroyed by fire. It was rebuilt and Gibbons lived there until his death on 3 August 1721. He was buried in St Paul’s, Covent Garden.

Gibbons is mainly known for his ornamental wall appliqués which were typically placed on chimneypieces and over doors. Such large structures required the work of many people. In March 1686, Gibbons and Quellin came briefly back together to work on the altarpiece for the Roman Catholic chapel ordered by James II for the Palace of Whitehall. The contract drawn up for this work stipulated that they were to employ fifty men, or as many as were necessary, to finish the work on time. Unfortunately, little is known about Gibbons’ workshop. Officially, only nine of his apprentices were recorded in the papers of the Drapers’ Company. Since Gibbons’ carvings reveal different hands and different qualities, his master’s role might have been limited on the whole to providing the drawings and coordinating the work.

Gibbons is also known to have carved picture frames and furniture. The superb frame around Elias Ashmole’s portrait in the Ashmolean Museum is generally accepted as Gibbons’ work. Evelyn described a table which Gibbons made for him as a gratitude for his support. The table was illustrated in Boynton (1971), p. 565 and is today in a private collection. Evelyn also mentioned seeing a pendulum clock decorated by Gibbons in the house of his neighbour. Gibbons’ other notable pieces include the famous cravat worn by Horace Walpole and the relief of the Stoning of Saint Stephen, both in the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Gibbons was a collector and had a secondary career as a picture dealer. He organised sales of pictures at the Banqueting House in 1684 and 1686. The posthumous sale of his pictures was held in 1722. Gibbons was described by Evelyn as being musical and the inclusion of sheet music in his carvings proves this. Research on music sheets carved by Gibbons helped in dating some of his work. Gibbons was an active member of the Virtuosi of St Luke – a small social gathering of artists and gentlemen in London and it is clear from Gibbons’ portrait with his wife (mezzotint by John Smith after a lost painting) that he saw himself as a gentleman-artist and not as a craftsman. Significantly, in his portrait by Sir Godfrey Kneller of c.1690, he is shown as a sculptor, not a woodcarver.

After his death, various myths arose around Gibbons. Apart from the one about his apprenticeship with Quellinus, the most popular one is about him using a peapod motif as his signature, which was disproven by Green in 1963. The number of carvings attributed to Gibbons makes his oeuvre impossibly large; today they are usually described as in the ‘Gibbons style’. Among his followers was Samuel Watson, who made the celebrated carvings at Chatsworth. Although Watson is documented as their creator, so strong is their association with the style of Gibbons that Trevor Brighton entitled his 1998 article for the Burlington Magazine ‘Samuel Watson, Not Grinling Gibbons at Chatsworth’.

Ada de Wit

W. Bray (ed.), Diary and Correspondence of John Evelyn, F.R.S., vol. II (London, 1857); W. Bray (ed.), The Diary of John Evelyn, vols. I-II (London, 1901); H. Avray Tipping, Grinling Gibbons and the Woodwork of His Age (London, 1914); G. Sherwood, 'Genealogy of Grinling Gibbons', The Genealogists' Magazine, vol. V (April, 1929 to December, 1931), pp. 322-323; The Walpole Society, Vertue Note Books, vols. I-V (Oxford, 1930-1938); P. Boyd, 'Grinling Gibbons's Maternal Ancestry', The Genealogists' Magazine, vol. IX (March 1940 to September 1946), p. 345; D. Green, 'A Peapod Myth Exploded', Country Life (8 August 1963), pp. 328-9; H.M. Colvin (ed.), The History of King's Works (6 vols., London, 1963-1982); D. Green, Grinling Gibbons: his Work as Carver and Statuary 1648–1721 (London, 1964); L. Boynton, 'Some documented pieces of English furniture', Antiques, vol. XCIX, 4 (1971), pp. 562-5; G. Beard, The Work of Grinling Gibbons (London, 1989); D. Esterly, Grinling Gibbons & the Art of Carving (London, 1998); L. Sayce and D. Esterly, '“He was likewise Musical …” An unexplored aspect of Grinling Gibbons', Apollo (July 2000), pp. 11-21.

See the online catalogue by Gordon Higgott for information about the Hampton Court Album.

The original entry from Dictionary of English Furniture Makers, 1660-1840 can be found at British History Online.