Garlands of flowers, fruit, vegetables, and foliage hang from garlands, that hang from garlands, that hang from great whorls of acanthus. The reredos is very tall, offering an immense vertical space that Gibbons filled well. The prominent pelican, this time gilded, appears in many churches of this era. At a time when lifelike images of Christ and the saints were banned, the pelican was an accepted symbol of Christianity . Here, it becomes a striking center of attention.
Not only the garlands and whorls, but also the pelican, columns, capitals, urns, flame finials, cherubs, the king’s coat of arms, and side panels are from Gibbons’ shop. By this time, he was known to have “a large shop,” but we don’t know how many carvers he employed or how the work, or income, was divided among them.
These carvings date to 1681-1686 when the church was being rebuilt after the Great Fire. Even though the 1680s church rebuilding was a project of Sir Christopher Wren, documentation shows that Gibbons negotiated his work not with Wren, but directly with the churchwarden. Geoffrey Beard tells of a May 1686 letter from Gibbons requesting partial payment of £30, and a later receipt for £10. Beard believes the project cost over £100.
What was £100 worth then? One history source talks about the cost of living in the 18th century. Gibbons worked in the late 17th century, but inflation was so low that we can use the 18th century numbers:
“… a figure close to £40 was needed to keep a family. The middling sort required much more still and could not expect to live comfortably for under £100 per year, while the boundary between the ‘middling sort’ and the simply rich was in the region of £500.”
… stained by Victorian sensibilities.
David Esterly complains about Gibbons’ limewood carvings not being left natural as Gibbons intended. These carvings at Abchurch are known to have been stained during the Victorian era. Compare the visual impact to those at St. James Piccadilly and decide for yourself which you like better.
Finally, a couple of photos showing panels that flank the columns. I apologize for the “soft focus.” The combination of poor vantage points, a simple camera extended to the limits of its range, and low light, leaves us with fuzzier results than I like. Yet, we can see the theme of wheat and grapes signifying nourishment.
Oh, by the way…
John Stow’s Survey of London (1598) describes the church as “called of Saint Marie Abchurch, Apechurch, or Upchurch.” “Abchurch” and “Apechurch” are variants of “Upchurch,” and that “Up” refers to the church being on higher ground than its surroundings. However, when you go looking for it, you won’t find it noticeably standing by itself atop a hill, nor will you even be able to see a rising spire from any nearby street. The church is now completely surrounded by the taller office buildings of the financial district. You’ll struggle to find the narrow “Abchurch Lane,” but once you do, you’ll discover the church and its yard. The yard is a welcome respite to businessmen and visitors who get their lunch at nearby cafes and vendors’ carts.
The church has existed since the 12th century, not quite as long as All Hallows by the Tower (7th century). Unlike All Hallows, St. Mary Abchurch was consumed by the Great Fire and was rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren.
The church suffered bomb damage in 1940, and the vergeress recovered broken pieces of the reredos, which was reassembled in 1948.
When you stop by to see the Gibbons carvings, or to have lunch, enjoy the organ recital held Tuesdays at 12:30.
Books you might like about Grinling Gibbons and his work.
"Grinling Gibbons and the Art of Carving" by David Esterly
A history of Gibbons' woodcarving work through the eyes of an expert carver. David Esterly has become today's leading authority on Gibbons, and carves in ways similar to Gibbons. His book takes us on a very thorough tour of Gibbons' work and how it evolved through Gibbons' lifetime.
"The Lost Carving: A Journey to the Heart of Making" by David Esterly
At its base, this is the story of restoring the Gibbons' carvings that were damaged by a fire at the Hampton Court Royal Palace in 1986. Yet, it is very much more; full of history, analysis, discovery of woodcarving techniques and the art of making art.
"Grinling Gibbons & the English Woodcarving Tradition" by Frederick Oughton
A study of English woodcarvers that uses Gibbons as the center of focus.
"The Work of Grinling Gibbons" by Geoffrey Beard
The description says, "This magnificently illustrated book..." A review says, "Disappointed in the number of photos of his fabulous woodcarving.... But, it does show what an incredible talent he possessed!!"
"Grinling Gibbons: his work as carver and statuary 1648-1721" by David Green
I found little description of this book, but see it in the "Select Bibliography" of one of Esterly's books.
A few Videos and Audios
[Video] BBC Program: "The Glorious Grinling Gibbons - Carved with Love" - in four parts. (about an hour)
[Video] "Grinling Gibbons' carvings at Hampton Court Palace" - a short video featuring Royal Court warder Konrad Jordann talking about "a few of my favourite things." (2 minutes 41 seconds)
[Audio] NPR All Things Considered - "Re-Creating The 'Lost Carving' Of An English Genius" - an interview with David Esterly (7 minutes 5 seconds audio at upper left)
About the photos...
Most of the pictures in this series of articles are mine. Any picture with my photo credit is available for your use, as you please.
Pictures that specifically credit other sources, such as the Victoria & Albert Museum or St. Paul's Cathedral, are published here with their permission and that permission stipulates they may not be copied for commercial use. I appreciate their permission and ask that you honor the agreement I have with them. Thanks.