Back in the introduction to this tour of Gibbons’ work I said: “My interest in Gibbons comes from being an amateur woodcarver. Like many other carvers, the first time I saw pictures of his work, I was amazed at the intricacy and delicacy he produced with wood.” The attributes I found interesting are high relief, apparent thinness of leaves and petals, and piercing or layering that produces airiness. Seeing the work in person simply amplified the realization of how deep and thin and airy Gibbons’ work actually is. I also saw during the trip other work that was carved “in the style of Gibbons.”
In the late 17th and early 18th century carving in the style of Gibbons was lucrative. Gibbons had “upped the ante,” raised the bar of woodcarving techniques. Demand for his work was very high. Gibbons employed many carvers in his shop and trained them to work in his style. But Gibbons’ shop couldn’t meet the demand.
Other carvers stepped up to fill the commissions Gibbons could not do. Imitation brought a lot of money to many carvers who worked in the style of Gibbons. Some of their work was quite good, but not as good as Gibbons when you look carefully. For example, the pulpit at All Hallows Church is expressly described as “in the style of Gibbons.” The things that make it “in the style of Gibbons” are flowers, fruit and putti, but what’s missing are depth, thinness and airiness. Other imitations were quite poor. In the end, imitation might have brought money, but history records few of the imitators’ names.
Three centuries later people are still inspired by how Gibbons carved. I’m sure there are many, but I have decided to describe three carvers in particular. I knew of these carvers long before we planned our Gibbons tour and mentally compared their “in the style of” with the real Gibbons pieces as well as the other “in the style of” carvings we saw.
As you will see, each of these carvers expressly mentions Gibbons’ when describing certain pieces of their work. The most important point, however, is that each went far beyond imitation to create their own individual styles and strengths that are not only masterful, but unique, and “beyond” Gibbons. Each of these carvers has developed styles and techniques that are wholly his own. They might have been inspired by Gibbons at some point, but have shaped the carving techniques to their own interests, and stand today not as imitators, but as masters of their own visions.
I must thank them for their generosity. I always ask permission to publish the work of other people. I asked each of these gentlemen for permission to use one or two images. Each of them answered that I could bring you any of their images, and even sent along a few pictures that are better than those on their websites. THANK YOU Patrick, Alexander, and David!
Patrick lives in Maaseik, Belgium and is the only full-time ornamental woodcarver in Flanders. His specialty is carving ornamentation for Liège-style furniture, the classic designs from the city of Liège, originating in the 17th century. His woodcarving education includes several years of study at the Don Bosco Institute in Liège, followed by yet more at the Sint-Jansberg College in Maaseik. He works today with several men who build furniture, staircases, cupboards, etc.; he then carves the ornamentation. The carvings on Liège-style furniture aren’t the high-relief style of Gibbons, but do demonstrate remarkable carving ability.
My first awareness of Patrick came from discovering another line of his work, heraldic carvings. These have the depth and layered construction that derives from Gibbons. Would you like to have your own coat of arms? Patrick can carve it for you.
More like Gibbons is Patrick’s “over door” carving that was commissioned by a dentist. Patrick formed the vertical drops in the trophy genre. “Trophy” carvings combine related objects, be they musical instruments, weapons of war, or in this case, dentistry tools. By the way, there’s a trophy carving of hunting objects on the wall above that Liège cabinet in the photo just above.
The dentist’s over door carving
Videos I found interesting:
Patrick’s website: http://www.patrickdamiaens.be/
YouTube videos: https://www.youtube.com/user/jplully/videos
Discovering Belgium article
Alexander tells of his grandfather teaching him to use chisels when he was only 6 years old, and of studying later with a professional Russian carver, Vladimir Tokarev, who was from Alexander’s home town of Dimitrovgrad, Russia. Imprisoned in Russia for his Christian faith and refusal to serve in the Red Army, Alexander continued woodworking in prison, and after his release started a woodcarving business. He emigrated to the United States in 1996, formed a new company, Aalmark, in Indiana in 1999. Later we find him in Charlotte, North Carolina and more recently in Boca Raton, Florida, always maintaining a woodcarving business.
Alexander mentions Gibbons specifically in one photo, the “Rose Carved in Grinling Gibbons style.” Compare Alexander’s “in the style of” to the pulpit at the beginning of this article.
Alexander labels his work as “Architectural and Ornamental” and works mostly in baroque and rococo style. Yet, he doesn’t limit himself to only those styles. It says on his website, “give him a piece of wood, and he can do anything with it… absolutely anything!”
Videos I found interesting:
If you have read the other articles in this series, you know I mention David Esterly frequently. That’s for a very good reason. David is the world’s foremost expert on the carvings of Grinling Gibbons. So much so that he became the carver chosen to reproduce the carving lost in the 1986 fire at Hampton Court Palace.
David was completing a doctorate in English Literature and planning to become an academic in that field when his fiancé dragged him into St. James Piccadilly to see some woodcarvings. He describes it as “being thunderstruck.” His first action was to change his direction from English Lit to research about Gibbons, thinking he would pursue an academic career of writing about Gibbons. That too changed when, trying to understand how Gibbons worked, he clamped a piece of limewood to a garden table and started passing a gouge through it. As he says, “…the genie flew out of the bottle.” The rest was many years of self learning from a long dead mentor: Gibbons.
Today he lives and works in upstate New York, north of Utica. He only once imitated Gibbons directly, when he was making the replacement for the lost carving at Hampton Court Palace. The rest of his work is distinctively his own. He sent the photo at the right with the note: “Incidentally the most Gibbonsy piece I’ve ever done, to my mind, was this overmantel I carved shortly after returning from Hampton Court. It contains some modified Hampton Court-ish elements in it, as I think you can see.”
His own foliage carving and botanical forms are distinctly different from Gibbons in style, but not in technique. The very high relief, the thinness of elements, the airiness of compositions, and the construction in layers are all derivations of Gibbons’ techniques. But the carvings are purely Esterly’s.
He has recently pursued wunderkammer, or letter racks. Long ago, I was delighted at finding many drawings and paintings of letter racks as trompe-l’œil artworks. Now, I’m delighted in seeing letter racks in wood.
On the topic of imitation, David says:
“Don’t copy Gibbons or Arcimboldo or the Dutch still life painters; steal from them.
Revive the old vessels — letter rack, portrait bust, trophy, overmantel, drop
— but pour new wine into them.” (emphasis mine)
At the carving bench
Videos I found interesting:
David gives us a little glimpse of how to carve in layers in this “Master Class” video.
“Type 2 Creativity – What happens when limitless collides with limited” a TED talk.
Artists Do Not Stand on the Shoulders of Giants
David’s website: http://davidesterly.com/
David’s Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/DavidEsterlyAuthor/ (inactive since 2014 – he’s not a fan)
Harvard Magazine: “The Art of Subtraction”
National Public Radio interview: “Re-Creating the The ‘Lost Carving’ Of An English Genius”
Old blog for pictures NOT in the Lost Carving book: http://thelostcarving.blogspot.com/ (There are also illustrations of layers on this material.)
Oh, by the way…
Again, many thanks to these three gentlemen for use of their stories and pictures. If I have made any mistakes in presenting their information, I hope they set the record straight and help me make corrections. We all have much to learn, much to imitate, and much to steal from.
One last thing… if/when you copy, attribution is important.
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, St. Paul's Cathedral, or particular artists 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.