A late 17th and early 18th century wood carver and sculptor, the curiously named Grinling Gibbons is remembered for his magnificent carvings in numerous English buildings including such London icons as St Paul’s Cathedral and Hampton Court Palace.

Not much is known about Gibbons’ early life. The son of English parents (his father was apparently a draper), he was born in Rotterdam in The Netherlands on 4th April, 1648, and, as a young man, is believed to have undertaken an apprenticeship as a sculptor in that country.

Around the age of 19, he moved to England – first to York and to Deptford in the south. It was the quality of his work which led diarist John Evelyn, having discovered Gibbons working on a limewood relief of Tintoretto’s Crucifixion in a small cottage near Deptford in early 1671, that led him to introduce him to Christopher Wren, the architect of the age, and fellow diarist Samuel Pepys and to eventually present him (and his relief) to King Charles II at Whitehall Palace on 1st March the same year.

But Gibbons’ work apparently failed to initially impress at court and it was only following his ‘discovery’ later that year by the court artist Sir Peter Lely that he began to receive major commissions.

It’s apparently not known when Gibbons married his wife Elizabeth and moved to London they were living there by 1672 and were having the first of their at least 12 children (while at least five of their daughters survived into adulthood, none of their sons did).

In 1672, they were living in an inn, called La Belle Sauvage or The Bell Savage, located on Ludgate Hill near St Paul’s, and, while Gibbons continued to maintain a workshop here into the 1680s, the family moved to Bow Street in Covent Garden around the end of the 1670s (the house here apparently collapsed in 1702 and was subsequently rebuilt in brick).

Gibbons, who was admitted to the Draper’s Company in 1672 and held various posts within it over ensuing years, reached the pinnacle of his success when he was made master sculptor and carver in wood to King William III in 1693, and was later made master carpenter to the king, then King George I, in 1719.

Having worked mostly in limewood, Gibbons, recently called the “British Bernini”, is known for his distinct and exuberant style which features cascading foliage, fruit, animals and cherubs. While he worked on numerous important buildings outside of London – including carvings in the Chapel Royal and king’s dining room at Windsor Castle, in a chapel at Trinity College in Oxford, at Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire and a famous ‘carved room’ at Petworth House in Sussex – and beyond (he also created two presentation panels – known as the ‘Cosimo’ and ‘Modena’ panels which were sent to Italy as royal gifts), Gibbons is also noted for his work on a number of prominent buildings in London.

Among the buildings he worked on or in around London are the churches of St James’s in Piccadilly, St Mary Abchurch, St Michael Paternoster Royal and, famously, St Paul’s Cathedral (where he carved choir stalls, the bishop’s thrones and choir screen) as well as Hampton Court and Kensington Palaces.

While he is primarily remembered for his limewood carvings, Gibbons’ workshop was also responsible for sculpting statues, memorials and decorative stonework. A couple of the workshop’s statues can still be seen in London – one of King Charles II in Roman dress at the Royal Hospital in Chelsea and another of King James II outside the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square – while the magnificent Westminster Abbey memorial to Admiral Sir Clowdisley Shovell is also attributed to him.

Gibbons died at his Bow Street home on 3rd August, 1721, and was buried in St Paul’s Church in Covent Garden (his wife had been buried there several years before).

For more on Grinling Gibbons, check out David Esterly’s Grinling Gibbons and the Art of Carving.

Advertisements

Opened to the public last week, Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination – a landmark exhibition at the British Library – features a “treasure trove” of illuminated manuscripts collected by the kings and queens of England between the 9th and 16th century. Highlights include 16 illuminated manuscripts of King Edward IV, what the library calls the first “coherent collection” of royal books; the Psalter of King Henry VIII, A History of England by Matthew Paris, a 13th century monk, scholar and advisor to King Henry III; Thomas Hoccleve’s Regement of Princes – a early 15th century instruction book on how to be an effective ruler; a 14th century Genealogical Chronicle of the English Kings; and, The Shrewsbury Book, created in Rouen in 1445 and presented to Margaret of Anjou on her marriage to King Henry VI by the renowned military commander John Talbot, 1st Earl of Shrewsbury. An impressive series of public events featuring well known writers and historians – including Eamon Duffy, Michael Wood, and Andrew Marr –  is taking place alongside the exhibition. Runs until 13th March. An admission charge applies. For more, see www.bl.uk.

PICTURE: The Coronation of Henry III, Images of English Kings, from Edward the Confessor to Edward I, England, c. 1280-1300, Cotton Vitellius, A. xiii, f. 6 © British Library Board

• Leading 18th century landscape gardener Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown has been honored with a blue plaque at his former home in Hampton Court Palace. Brown, who designed more than 120 landscapes during his lifetime, lived at Wilderness House after King George III appointed him Chief Gardener at the palace – he lived there from 1764 until his death in 1783. Brown’s legacy can still be seen at country houses around England – including at Petworth House in West Sussex, Alnwick Castle in Northumberland, Chatsworth House in Derbyshire and Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire. He had earned the name ‘Capability’ by the 1760s – apparently he often spoke of a property’s capabilities when speaking of it. English Heritage unveiled the plaque last week. For more, see www.english-heritage.org.uk.

A second blue plaque worth mentioning this week is that marking the former home of actor Richard Burton. Michael Sheen – currently playing Hamlet at the Young Vic – was among those who last week attended the unveiling on the plaque at the home Burton and his wife actress Sybil Williams lived in from 1949 to 1956, the period during which he rose to international fame. While living at the house 6 Lyndhurst Road in Hampstead, Burton was a member of the Old Vic theatre company – performing, to the acclaim of critics, roles including that of Hamlet, Othello, Coriolanus and Henry V – and in 1952 made his Hollywood debut with My Cousin Rachel. Other films he appeared in during the period include The Robe (1953), The Desert Rats (1953), and Alexander the Great (1956). Following the close of the Old Vic season in 1956, Burton moved to Switzerland and went on to even greater public fame following his role in the 1963 film Cleopatra alongside his then lover (and later wife) Elizabeth Taylor. For more, see www.english-heritage.org.uk.

• On Now: Grayson Perry – The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman. This exhibition at the British Museum explores a range of themes connected with the ideas of craftsmanship and sacred journeys and includes 190 objects from the museum’s collection selected by the artist along with a works by Grayson himself, many of which will be on public view for the first time. They include everything from Polynesian fetishes to Buddhist votive offerings, a prehistoric hand axe to 20th century badges and a re-engraved coin from 1882 featuring a bust of Queen Victoria with a beard and boating hat. At the heart of the exhibition sits Grayson’s own work, The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman, a richly decorated cast-iron “coffin-ship”. Runs until 19th February. An admission charge applies. For more, visit www.britishmuseum.org.