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The Quest For Grinling Gibbons

July 12, 2021
by the gentle author

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At St Mary Abchurch, Hugh climbs up to take a closer look

This August 3rd sees the three-hundredth anniversary of Grinling Gibbons’ death. So, in anticipation of such an august centenary, master wood carver Hugh Wedderburn took me on a quest in search of Grinling Gibbons in the City of London.

Gibbons was born in Rotterdam in 1648, where he trained as wood carver and was exposed to the art of Dutch still life painting before he came to Britain in 1667.

John Evelyn wrote in his diary in 1671, ‘I this day first acquainted with a young man Gibson [sic] whom I had lately found in an obscure place & that by mere accident, as I was walking neere a poor solitary thatched house in a field in our parish neere Says Court. I found him shut in but looking through the window I perceiv’d him carving that large cartoone or Crucifix of Tintoretto.’

John Evelyn arranged introductions for Grinling Gibbons to King Charles II and Christopher Wren, enabling him to set up his workshop on Ludgate Hill – an auspicious and opportune location for a wood carver, beside the ruins of Old St Paul’s.

It is significant that Evelyn described Gibbons carving from a two-dimensional image, transforming it into physical form. Today Gibbons is recognised for his extraordinarily lifelike carvings of flowers, fruit and foliage, which bear a relationship to still life painting yet upon close examination are less naturalistic than they may at first appear.

From Hugh Wedderburn’s workshop in Southwark, we undertook our quest westward across the City, commencing at the Tower of London to visit the Parade of Kings – a sequence of monarchs in armour on horseback – where a wooden horse is attributed to Gibbons and a portrait head of Charles I is by the same hand. While the other horses are lifeless merry-go-round figures, more mounts for armour than sculptures in their own right, it is easy to appreciate why this one particular horse might earn its attribution, with its lifelike flared nostrils and bulging veins visible through the skin. The accompanying head of Charles I possesses a soulful melancholy and presence, in stark contrast to the workmanlike nature of the others.

Just up the hill at All Hallows By The Tower, we admired the elaborate font lid of foliage with two putti gesturing to the large bird atop the construction. When the lid is suspended up above the font for ceremonies and seen from below, it has proportion and balance with everything in place. Yet when it is lowered, the sculpture appears distorted and the putti’s anatomy bulges curiously. This is an example of carving in perspective and evidence of Gibbons’ sense of theatre, creating a visual effect that works from a single view point and is deliberately non-naturalistic.

Just five minutes walk away at St Mary Abchurch, Hugh and I climbed up ladders to admire the swags on the reredos closely. When these swags were first installed the pale lime wood stood in contrast to the dark oak background, throwing them into even more dramatic relief. This is what we imagine when we think of Grinling Gibbons – lush garlands of fruit, flowers and foliage that he carved in a manner which appeared more lifelike than had been seen before.Yet on close examination, it became evident that the definition of the leaves and fruit was only carved where it was visible, with the forms merging into abstraction away from view.

At St Paul’s, we admired Grinling Gibbons majestic quire stalls and epic organ case before climbing up into the roof where trays of bits and pieces that have fallen off over the centuries are preserved. Like the most fascinating jigsaw in the world, here are thousands of fragments that all belong somewhere. Examining them closely revealed the breathtaking detail of the carving by Gibbons and his studio who were responsible for all the architectural decoration in the cathedral. Even the wings on the angels can be identified as derived from different species of birds, revealing the minute observation of the natural world that informs these bravura carvings.

As we left the cathedral, Hugh and I paused to look back at the west front and admire Gibbons’ lavish foliate adornments that provide such a successful counterpoint to the austerity of Wren’s geometry. Somehow the palm leaves on the Corinthian columns are more luxuriant that you might expect. Garlands of leaves and fruit have been hung directly across structural elements of the design, disrupting its formality.

The legend that Gibbons and Wren had a tense working relationship comes as no surprise because the conflict is evident in the dynamic between the two visual languages at play. Yet it is this dynamic between the classical geometry and the presence of organic forms that makes this architecture so compelling and alive. This is Gibbons’ contribution and one of many reasons why we should celebrate his genius this year.

Head of Charles I attributed to Grinling Gibbons

Horse in the Parade of Kings in the White Tower

Font cover at Allhallows by the Tower

Reredos at St Mary Abchurch

St Mary Abchurch

St Mary Abchurch

St Mary Abchurch

St Mary Abchurch

St Mary Abchurch

St Mary Abchurch

St Mary Abchurch

St Mary Abchurch

Missing pieces from Grinling Gibbons’ quire at St Paul’s

Missing wings from putti at St Paul’s

Different designs of cornicing at St Paul’s

Grinling Gibbons quire stalls at St Paul’s

Canopy over the Bishop’s Throne at St Paul’s

Note the repairs to the quire in new lime wood that is still pale in tone

Bishop’s Throne by Grinling Gibbons at St Paul’s

Repairs at St Paul’s

Grinling Gibbons epic organ case at St Paul’s

In Hugh Wedderburn’s Southwark workshop, a frame for designer Marianna Kennedy

Hugh’s collection of chestnuts and acorns to plant trees for generations of wood carvers to come

Hugh plants his acorns and chestnuts

Hugh’s saplings that will be his legacy to future wood carvers

Visit THE GRINLING GIBBONS SOCIETY to learn more about the tercentary celebrations

You may also like to read about

Hugh Wedderburn, Master Woodcarver

13 Responses leave one →
  1. Lewis Jones permalink
    July 12, 2021

    Local to Spitalfields is a remarkable carved oak panel depicting musical instruments, originally from the organ case at St Mary Matfelon, Whitechapel, now displayed at St Botolph’s, Aldgate. Although not firmly attributed, features of, for example, the carving of the violin, resembling that at Petworth, suggest that this is the work of Grinling Gibbons.

  2. July 12, 2021

    I’m pleased to unearth via York, GG’s early days in Rotterdam and Antwerp connection…

    … Dutch-born craftsman of English parents, who at age 20 or 21 came and introduced to England many techniques that he’d learned on the European continent, later establishing a large workshop (in covent garden?)

  3. July 12, 2021

    Thankyou fir this beautiful post .when I was a child my beloved grandmother who was a huge fan of Grinling Gibbons would take me to see his work. Wonderful memories Thankyou greetings from Venice. Italy Fay ?

    Also wonderful to see the ballet shoe makers ??????

  4. Wendy permalink
    July 12, 2021

    Until very recently I lived a hop and a skip from this workshop and would often peer through the window in awe and wonder, not quite able to see through clearly so it is wonderful to read about and see photos. Amazing talent and so utterly beautiful.

  5. Amanda permalink
    July 12, 2021

    Recognising Grinling Gibbons intricate adornments in grand houses or places of worship gives me the the same satisfaction as recognising a Hawksmoor church in passing.

    In top Photo 4 the christening font is just inside the church in its own gated chapel.
    While there, the verger treated our history group to the really fascinating story behind the font’s ornately carved lid and its cost at the time.
    So heavy, that for any baptism, it is lifted from the marble stand by a pulley on the ceiling, hopefully for all solemnly gathered below it appears a sturdy mechanism.

  6. Peter Holford permalink
    July 12, 2021

    In a quest for one of my forebears I went to the church of St James, Piccadilly some years ago. It is a church by Wren and contains some of the most remarkable work by Gibbons. The carvings are some of his most delicate and also includes a beautiful marble font which is not his normal medium of wood. I guess that being adjacent to St James’s Palace the spec and funding may have required a very superior work of art. He delivered superbly.

  7. July 12, 2021

    A wonderful story of two master woodcarvers. Thank you.

  8. David Antscherl permalink
    July 12, 2021

    This appreciation of two master woodcarvers’ work is much appreciated. That Mr. Wedderburn is also quite literally preparing the ground for future woodcarvers is brilliant.

    Thank you for today’s story!

  9. Cherub permalink
    July 12, 2021

    His carvings are superb, Oxford University also has some wonderful pieces of his work. I studied English Archtecture and Furniture from 1603 – 1750 as part of my history degree and was fascinated by the work of Gibbons, Hawksmoor, Wren and the theatrical Vanbrugh.

  10. July 12, 2021

    This is such a treat. I hadn’t ever noticed GG’s rudimentary flowers and petals before. Sort of his personal shorthand. Also, all that evidence of ‘muscular’ dusting over the centuries. Maybe signalling the lack of ostrich feather dusters during those centuries.

  11. Jennifer Newbold permalink
    July 12, 2021

    I recognised the quire stalls and organ case at St Paul’s, but your photos have shown them to me with new vision: if I had been standing in the church looking at the carvings, I might not have noticed the careful repairs. (I’d like to think I was more observant than that, but in St Paul’s there is so much to look at that the details get often lost!)

    Thank you for another fine piece.

  12. Gillian Tindall permalink
    July 13, 2021

    Your lovely photos much admired by someone who is herself a guide in St Pauls [when such activities are allowed again] but who says she has never studied the minutiae of the carvings till now in such rewarding detail.

  13. Ros permalink
    July 14, 2021

    Stunning photos, from stunning angles!

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