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Grinling Gibbons - Master Wood Carver


The "Master Carver to Charles II" Grinling Gibbons was renowned in his day, 17th century England, for his exquisite skill and ability in wood carving.

Gibbons was discovered by Evelyn, "by mere accident as I was walking neere a poore solitary thatched house, in a field in our parish, neere Sayes Court." Evelyn was considerably impressed with the gifts of this brilliant carver and brought his work to the notice of Charles II. The King was pleased to inspect a specimen of Gibbon's carving, in the shape of a large "cartoon or crucifix of Tintoret," and no sooner had His Majesty "cast his eye on the work but he was astonished at the curiositie of it, and having considered it a long time and discoursed with Mr Gibbon ... he commanded it should be immediately carried to the Queenes side to shew her."

Gibbons Carved Statue
Gibbons Carved Statue, circa 1690.
Likely from the London workshop of Grinling Gibbons.

The Queen admired the work greatly in her husband's presence, but afterwards seemed inclined to be swayed by the views of one Madame de Boord, whom Evelyn describes rather uncharitably as "a French pedling woman . . . who used to bring peticoates and fans, and baubles out of France to the Ladys." This French lady found it impossible to resist the temptation to become an amateur art critic and discoursed on the carving to the intense irritation of Evelyn, who writes with engaging frankness on the subject, saying that Madame de Boord "began to find fault with several things in the worke, which she understood no more than an ass or a monkey, so as in a kind of indignation, I caused the person who brought it to carry it back to the chamber, finding the Queene so much govern'd by an ignorant French woman."

Gibbons Carving
Cravat of Limewood, carved by Grinling Gibbons circa 1680 imitating Venetian point lace.

However, Evelyn records that, "His Majesty's Surveyor, Mr Wren, faithfully promised me to employ him." Sixteen years later he records a triumph for Grinling Gibbons, for he describes (24th January 1687) how he saw "the Queenes new apartment at Whitehall, with her new bed, the embrodery of which cost £3000. The carving about the chimney-piece, by Gibbons, is incomparable."

Gibbons fame and expertise led to his being employed by Christopher Wren at St Paul's Cathedral and at other London City churches, at Royal palaces and the manor homes of the nobility. At St Paul's Gibbons was responsible for the huge and ornately carved choir stalls and bishop's throne.

Grinling Gibbons´ speciality was the carving of mirror frames for Venetian style mirrors during the Restoration Period in profuse and exuberant ornamental styles. With a light touch and great delicacy Gibbons´ principal motifs and topics were carvings of armorini (cupids), fruit, flowers, foliage, birds, and heads of cherubs.

Limewood Mirror Frame by Grinling Gibbons
Limewood Mirror Frame by Grinling Gibbons.

Gibbons also did much work applying decoration to rooms panelled in oak, walnut, or olive wood such as at Windsor Castle. For such ornamentation Gibbons used lime or pear wood without additional colouring thus allowing his architectural style work to stand out starkly and boldly against the wood panels.

Gibbons Woodcarving
Carved limewood and lancewood by Grinling Gibbons.

Lime wood especially was chosen due to its even texture and pliability. Some use was also made of marble and brass however Gibbons tended to employ helpers for this purpose.

Grinling Gibbons Carved Table
Grinling Gibbons Carved Table.

Grinling Gibbons was also skilled as a designer and draughtsman.

The final word shall be left to Horace Walpole in describing some of Grinling Gibbons´ work:

There is one room gloriously flounced all round with whole length pictures, with much the finest carving of Gibbons that ever my eyes beheld. There are birds absolutely feathered; and two antique vases with bas-relieves, as perfect and beautiful as if they were carved by a Grecian master.

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