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What a divine carve-up - Loyd Grossman

Blog | By Loyd Grossman | Jul 30, 2021

Master carver: Grinling Gibbons by Godfrey Kneller, c 1690

The great sculptor Grinling Gibbons died 300 years ago. His career was boosted by the Great Fire and the Restoration, writes Loyd Grossman

As unlikely as it sounds, the 17th-century woodcarver and sculptor Grinling Gibbons (1648-1721) is much in the news.

Among the adornments of the chapel of Jesus College, Cambridge, is Gibbons’s large and elaborate funerary monument to Tobias Rustat (1608-1694), Yeoman of the Robes – whatever that is – to Charles II and great benefactor of Jesus College, the University of Cambridge Library, the Royal Hospital Chelsea and St Paul’s Cathedral.

Alas for Rustat, a portion of his fortune came from investment in the slave-trading Royal Africa Company. Those who are currently keen to right what they regard as historical wrongs are now demanding that the Rustat monument be removed from its place of honour.

This one will run and run. The Chapel is Grade I listed and the removal of the monument will require the granting of a ‘faculty’ – the C of E equivalent of planning permission, often a lengthy and opaque process. The monument is of historical importance both to the pull-it-downers and to the keep-it-uppers, but few on either side would say that, in itself, it is of great artistic merit.

It certainly shows Gibbons’s shortcomings as a sculptor in marble. Gibbons was once praised as ‘the English Bernini’: a comparison as silly and unfair as calling Cliff Richard ‘the British Elvis’.

Gibbons was no Bernini, in terms of the Italian’s genius at carving and boldness of conception. But there were things Gibbons could do that Bernini couldn’t. Today we are still awestruck by the finesse and delicacy of Gibbons’s work, particularly in limewood.

More happily than we note the travails at Jesus College, we are about to celebrate the 300th anniversary of Gibbons’s death on 3rd August 1721.

I and many others hope it will give us an occasion to praise and promote British excellence in craftsmanship. Prince Charles, with his long and energetic interest in craft, has agreed to be patron of the anniversary, which will include events, exhibitions and prizes.

Thanks to his unusual and euphonious name, Gibbons has a great deal of recognition today, even among those who are not decorative-arts connoisseurs. Along with his slightly later contemporaries Josiah Wedgwood and Thomas Chippendale, he is one of the most famous of British craftsmen.

This is a good and useful time to ponder the status of craftsmanship as opposed to artistry: a distinction that, in a hierarchical society like ours, is of some importance.

Charles Robert Ashbee, a key figure of the late-19th-century Arts and Crafts movement, tried to define how craftsmanship was somewhere between ‘the independence of the artist – which is individualistic and often parasitical – and the trade-shop, where the workman is bound to petty commercial and antiquated traditions’.

Such fine distinctions are increasingly irrelevant as we begin to realise that great works of art are often created by a complex web of relationships between artists, patrons and craftsmen.

The Romantic myth, fostered in particular by the experience of the Impressionists, of the artist working alone to realise his or her distinct vision, is demolished by scholarship. Great art is as much of a team effort as winning the FA Cup.

Gibbons, the most technically adept woodcarver of his or indeed any other age, was blessed, like most great successes, with excellent timing. He came to the fore in the opulent, showy-offy context of the Restoration, a time when the Court needed to make grandiose statements and the City of London, thanks to the Great Fire, needed rebuilding.

He was doubly blessed thanks to a wacky, memorable and alliterative name and thrice blessed because of his compelling back story.

Who isn’t enthralled by a humble-obscurity-to-great-fame trajectory? It’s been one of the key tropes of art history ever since Vasari described the youthful Giotto’s discovery as that of a young shepherd boy drawing his beloved sheep with a sharp stone.

In Gibbons’s case, we have his discovery reported by the diarist John Evelyn who came across the woodcarving prodigy in ‘a poore solitary thatched house’ in Deptford and whisked him off to the court of Charles II, from which he never looked back. Or so Evelyn claimed.

However it happened, the young Gibbons was soon immersed in Court patronage, thanks to the support of Hugh May, the architect in charge of modernising Windsor Castle, and the King’s favourite portraitist, Peter Lely.

Not necessarily Gibbons’s finest – but certainly his most notable – work was for Christopher Wren at St Paul’s Cathedral, for which Gibbons and his workers carved in wood and stone. There, Gibbons was part of the great team who helped make the self-taught Christopher Wren England’s most celebrated architect.

I am thinking particularly of the relatively unsung Christopher Kempster, the Cotswold quarryman and stonemason whose skill ensured that St Paul’s is still standing.

Indeed, St Paul’s is an object lesson in the blurry threshold between art and craft. Would Wren’s dazzling conception be quite so inspirational were it not for the beautiful and flawless workmanship of the army of craftspeople who actually got the place built and furnished?

Contemporaries could criticise Wren for his adoption of the Baroque style, with its – to them – unpleasant hints of Papacy and absolutism. Paradoxically, Gibbons, Dutch-born (although of English parents) and -trained, consistently charms with a thoroughly English sensibility.

After being discovered by Evelyn in Deptford in 1667, when Gibbons was 19, he was prolific in his English work: from Wren’s City churches to St James’s, Piccadilly, Petworth House, Westminster Abbey, Hampton Court and the Wren Library at Trinity College, Cambridge.

We might even say that his minute and loving observation of flora and fauna, no matter how forced into Baroque compositions they are, strikes an especially strong chord with us now, as the house-arrest mentality of the pandemic has produced a renewed appreciation of natural beauty.

Grinling Gibbons: Centuries in the Making is at Bonhams, London (3rd to 27th August 2021), and Compton Verney Art Gallery, Warwickshire (September 2021 to January 2022)