Woodcarvers: There’s good stuff after the statue.
Another Gibbons sculpture
No, there are no Gibbons woodcarvings in Trafalgar Square, nor even in the National Gallery which stands behind the square. We visited the National Gallery to see other artwork and found this Gibbons statue standing in the front lawn. … another British king dressed as a Roman emperor. King James II in bronze is documented to have been commissioned to Gibbons’ shop by Tobias Rustat, Yeoman of the Robes for Charles II. Documentation beyond that point is scant. Beard tells us that Gibbons farmed out “to model and make it” to two Flemish men. This is yet another instance of not knowing who did the original design work. Gibbons? Quellin? The Flemish artists?
Hmmm. Look at the sandals; the same as on the Charles II statue. I still like them. 🙂
Woodcarving in Layers
What little I know of this I learned from David Esterly’s books. My carving experience is with low relief forms, not the extremely deep and thick high relief forms that Gibbons carved. Esterly has the experience of carving high relief and actually carved a replacement for a carving lost in a fire at Hampton Court Palace. See either of his books for his explanation.
Without using Esterly’s copyrighted material, here’s my interpretation. The problem: How does a carver achieve the extreme “airiness” we see in Gibbons’ work. How can one carve thin leaves and stems that appear to be floating in space without breaking them into many pieces? Undercutting! But, how?
One way is to carve as much as possible from the face of the carving, as all of us do normally. Then, remove the piece from the backing board and carve carefully from the back. This works, up to a point. It doesn’t work when the depth is as deep as some of Gibbons’ pieces. What does a carver do when there are flower blossoms in front of other leaves that are in front of stems that are in front of yet more background material? Or, what does a carver do about a very fragile structure that could be easily broken while working on elements nearby?
Layers. Build the carving up in layers. Here’s an example that I think has as many as three layers. I don’t know for sure. It’s purely my conjecture. At St. James Piccadilly I had the good fortune of being able to move around the work and get pictures from different angles. These two photos show the same cluster of flowers in the middle of the left drop, one photo from the front, the other from its left side. It might be worthwhile taking some time to orient details between the two photos. (click on an image to see a larger version.)
I see a number of objects at the very front that have other elements behind them that would be very difficult to carve as a whole. Perhaps the rose blossoms and the pomegranate are separately attached? Maybe that cluster of leaves in the upper right too? See how it has stems hanging down in front of the rose on the right? And to me, it appears that a stem pierces the rose petals and continues down to support two lily blossoms? There are two rather fragile structures on the left too, the cluster of bell flowers and their stems, and another zenia-like flower that we see from the back? Were they carved separately, too?
Below, I’ve colored those same two photos with overlays to highlight the elements or layers that I think were carved separately. Imagine working without those pieces attached, of carving the underlying details, and later attaching the pieces to “assemble” the carving. In the side view photo, look for the central rose. I see behind it a solid object that I’ve colored a darker red. I think that’s a mounting post for the rose. Maybe?
David Esterly actually handled some of the layered carvings from the Hampton Court Palace. He describes the layers as having been nailed together from the back. I imagine more recent carvers probably use wood pegs and glue for attachment.
For yet another example of layering, watch Patrick Damiaens build up a “Supraporte” (Overdoor) carving from multiple pieces, including an overlay which show a person’s initials depicted as ribbons and attached to the central garland. At 2:48 in the second video, Patrick attaches the layer with the initials with wood pegs.
Supraporte Video 1 — Supraporte Video 2 — descriptive blog entry
Esterly mentions another reason to carve with layers. We don’t know how many people Gibbons employed, but we do have a sense of how much he produced, a staggering number of carvings in the span of only a few decades. He didn’t produce all this work alone. Esterly suggests that since many of these vertical drops have three prominent clusters, if one imagines them being carved in two layers, Gibbons could employ as many as 12 people to carve a pair of vertical drops. Maybe layering was a labor multiplier?
Oh, by the way…
I read a lot of woodworking blogs and often see ancient woodworking drawings, some in the form of woodcuts. I stepped off the the train at the Charing Cross tube station (Northern line, southbound station) and stopped immediately in my tracks upon seeing these “woodcut” murals. The “woodcut” drawings illustrate the construction of a monument to Eleanor Cross that once stood at the Charing Cross railway station in London. Eleanor Cross, also known as Eleanor of Castile, was the queen consort to king Edward I. She died in 1290 while she and Edward were away from London. Edward commissioned 12 monuments to her, one for each day of the funeral procession journey back to London. This was the 12th and last. David Gentleman created the drawings for these subway murals in 1978.
P.S. How did Charing Cross get its name? Charing was the name of a medieval hamlet in London. After construction of this monument to Eleanor Cross, the location became known as Charing Cross.
P.P.S. Just in case you’re near Trafalgar Square and want to snail-mail something from that post office you saw listed over on Regent Street, don’t walk half way to Scotland looking for a big store-front “Royal Post” office. It’s a tiny window at the very back of the Ryman stationer store at #11 Regent Street. DAHIKT
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.