WoodCentral's Book Reviews
Grinling Gibbons 
and the Art of Carving

Grinling Gibbons And The Art Of Carving
by David Esterly

Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1998
Hardcover, 213 pp, $49.95
ISBN: 0-8109-4142-2

    Grinling Gibbons (1648-1721) was the master of foliage carving. Many woodworkers "can't do carving; haven't the patience for it." Leaf through this volume of color plates and black/white photos of work during a time the artist had to fight for recognition in all the royal courts of Europe, and you'll know what patience is. Biography, gallery, technique…this book covers it all.
     Gibbons was not just an artisan; he was also an innovator. Early in his career, after experimenting with solid and pre-carved laminations, he gave up on existing methods of dealing with wood movement and excavating the depth of a solid field, in favor of mechanically attaching layered work. He used nails.
     This innovation affected his workshop organization. Esterly says, "There is a chicken-and-egg quality to this subject: a certain kind of design encourages a certain division of labor for its production, and certain divisions of labor encourage certain kinds of design."
     By the time he was thirty, Gibbons had at least four apprentices registered to him in London, and he had many more in his sixty-year career. His early commissions show a diversity in styles that indicates he may have assigned individual artisans to each project, but by the mid-1680s, a consistent 'signature' style evolved in what Esterly describes as "a rigorous standard of modelling and undercutting."
Cosimo Panel Detail

     The photo at right is a small detail of Gibbons' famous "Cosimo Panel" (1682), a 55-in. x 42-in. carving at the Palazzo Pitti in Florence. The layered and attached limewood is, at some points, a massive eleven inches deep!
     Esterly reveals how proud Gibbons was of his new techniques: "The ribbon in the Cosimo Panel has the raised inscription 'G Gibbons Inven(tor),' the latter letters disappearing behind the ribbon's curve; 'inventor' is a more inclusive term than 'fecit,' which might imply that Gibbons executed another's design."
     There has been a serious renewal of interest in Gibbons' work, especially after an exhibit in 1998 at London's Vicoria and Albert Museum, which was curated by David Esterly. (See Woodwork #54, Dec'98). His book has extended its reach now, through three printings in England and two printings in the U.S. Of interest to history buffs as well as woodworkers, this volume would be a valuable addition to anyone's library.

...Barb Siddiqui