Today (January 18) in London History – a piece of wood that could pass for lace

And so it came to pass that a youthful Grinling Gibbons – the greatest wood carver in the history of the British Isles – was “discovered” on this day (January 18, 1671). Here’s the tale.


London calling.

Here’s the progression.

First, the diary entry.

Second, Grinling Gibbons for beginners.

Third, Grinling Gibbons for Advanced Learners.

Fourth and last, the much needed corrective.

Ok. The diary entry.

It’s January 18th, 1671. The diarist is John Evelyn. The place he’s talking about – Says Court – was in Deptford. Which, if you think about it, gives Deptford a second major league claim to fame. The first being the murder of the great Elizabethan playwright Christopher Marlow, stabbed to death, in the eye, in a tavern brawl in Deptford.

Here’s what John Evelyn wrote on that January day in 1671.

“I this day first acquainted his Majestie with that incomparable young man, Gibbons, whom I had lately found in an obscure place and that by mere accident, as I was walking near a poor solitary thatched house in our parish near Says-Court: I found him shut-in, but looking into the Window, I perceived him carving that large Cartoon, or Crucifix of Tintorets, a copy of which I had also my selfe brought from Venice, where the original painting remains: I asked if I might come in, he opened the door civilly to me, and I saw him about such a work as for the curiosity of handling, drawing, and studious exactness, I never in my life had seen before in all my travels: I asked why he worked in such an obscure and lonesome place; he told me, it was that he might apply himself to his profession without interruption; and wondered not a little how I came to find him out. .. Of this young Artist, together with my manner of finding him out, I acquainted the King, and begged of his Majestie that he would give me leave to bring him and his work to Whitehall that he had never seen anything approach it and that he would be exceedingly pleased and employ him.”

It’s a moment of discovery, isn’t it? To make a breathtakingly vulgar comparison, it’s the art history equivalent of teenage Lana Turner being discovered in a Hollywood soda fountain. 

Ok, Grinling Gibbons for beginners, for people who haven’t made his acquaintance. In one sentence, Grinling Gibbons was the greatest woodcarver ever to grace this green and pleasant land. He’s worth getting to know.

Shall we continue our progression? Grinling Gibbons for advanced learners.

He was born in Rotterdam of English parents. His biographer, David Esterly, says the spectacular high-relief foliage carving by which Gibbons is remembered has its roots in an early training in European wood sculpture techniques. That was a matter of different, finer tools – and different wood. English carvers worked in oak. Their continental counterparts were carving in boxwood and limewood.

It was a combination of the finer tools, the different quality of the wood and Gibbons’ long apprenticeship and inherent genius that enabled him to work his magic. 

Basically, he created – in David Esterly’s phrase – a new kind of carved decoration. Carved decoration that exhibited unprecedented realism. 

His work has been described as “a carved picture in wood.” A still-life painting turned into a three-dimensional tableau.

There are any number of ways of illustrating this. But let’s pick a couple that are London-specific. They’re both worth savouring. There’s documentary evidence that just a year after Evelyn “discovered” Gibbons in Deptford he had relocated to La Belle Sauvage, a famous inn on the northside of Ludgate Hill, just down from St. Paul’s. It’s an intriguing detail. For several reasons. First of all, today’s St. Paul’s did not exist in 1671. Work on it was not started until 1675. And of course old Saint Paul’s had been destroyed in the Great Fire of London, in 1666. Five years before Gibbons was at La Belle Sauvage. And indeed, the old inn itself would have been destroyed in the Great Fire. So what the detail does suggest is that the Inn must have been one of the first buildings to have been rebuilt. And both inns – the old mediaeval inn and its replacement that Gibbons knew – are soaked in London history. For example, plays were performed in its yard. Pocahontas stayed there. She would have caused a sensation and it’s tempting to think that’s where the name comes from, that it was originally called The Bell as in a bell that rings and then this native American woman out of the savage wilderness of Virginia comes to England stays there and the name of the inn gets altered slightly from bell that rings to bell – beautiful – savage. Well, that’s a fun speculation but it’s almost certainly a stretch. John Stowe tells us that the name derives from the landlady’s name, Mrs Isabel Savage. Easy enough to imagine, though, that Pochohontas’ staying in an inn called La Belle Sauvage was deeply pleasing to any Londoner who had at least a smattering of French. Anyway, there’s also a nice Dickens Pickwick Papers connection there. And on it goes. But I digress. The Grinling Gibbons telling Grinling Gibbons detail is that he carved a pot of flowers for the inn – a pot of flowers  ‘of light wood’  so thin & fine that the coaches passing by made them shake surprizingly’

And the other stunning detail is the cravat. Which can be seen in the Victoria and Albert Museum. Gibbons carved it to imitate Venetian needlepoint lace. When its owner, the aesthete Horace Walpole, wore it, people were fooled, they thought it was the real thing. Let that sink in, a piece of wood that could pass for Venetian needle lace. 

Walpole’s considered judgement about the man who carved his wooden cravat is probably the best assessment ever made of Grinling Gibbons’ achievement. Walpole said, ‘There is no instance of a man before Gibbons who gave to wood the loose and airy lightness of flowers, and chained together the various productions of the elements with a free disorder natural to each species.’

There are two things about him that are crying out to be mentioned, especially in a London Walks podcast about Grinling Gibbons. One, Grinling Gibbons was also a sculptor. The exceptionally accomplished James II statue outside the National Gallery is a Grinling Gibbons.

In David Esterly’s words, Grinling Gibbons’ workshop introduced the ‘Roman emperor’ figure to Britain.

Two, the next time you’re in Covent Garden, in the piazza, take a look at the church, St. Paul’s, Covent Garden. And give maybe just a passing thought, a wisp of a thought, a thought with the loose and airy lightness of flowers – to Grinling Gibbons, England’s greatest woodcarver. He’s in there. St. Paul’s Covent Garden is his final resting place.

Finally, the promised corrective. You hear it said all the time. Guides who ought to know better, say “the pea pod was Grinling Gibbons’ signature. If you’d settled up with him – paid for the carving – there’d be an open pea pod in the carving. If you hadn’t paid, it’d be a closed pea pod. An open pea pod is harder to carve than a closed one.”

It’s a nice story. But it’s not true. 

And on that note, let me bid you – with the loose and airy lightness of flowers – best wishes from London. And from London Walks. Stay safe. Stay healthy. Come back soon. We miss you.

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