Friday, September 21, 2012

The Great Grinling Gibbons, master wood sculptor 1648-1721

I've been reading about William Blake over the last couple of weeks, dipping in and out of his life and work when I have time, via his own words and Peter Ackroyd's biography.

In the serendipitous way these things go, I was interested to learn that Blake was baptised in a font carved by Grinling Gibbons. It jumped out at me because that man with the incredible alliterative name had been in the back of my mind since last summer when I went to Petworth House in Sussex.

Grinling Gibbons was a Rotterdam born sculptor who worked in stone and wood but is chiefly remembered for his wood carvings. Wood carving, *yawn*, you may be thinking, but his skill at making wood look like objects has never been surpassed, and it's truly amazing to see in reality.

Discovered by the diarist John Evelyn (who crosses over with another book I'm reading on Samuel Pepys) when he rented the sculptor his cottage, Grinling Gibbons was then introduced to Christopher Wren the architect who gave him his first commission. Further meetings with Charles II cemented his career, and you can now find his incredible work in Hampton Court Palace, St Paul's Cathedral, Windsor Castle and Blenheim Palace, amongst others. He died in 1721 leaving 12 children, having run a large and successful workshop in Covent Garden for many years.

Petworth House is a huge 17th Century mansion dwarfing the small, extortionate village of Petworth in West Sussex. Petworth is beautiful and full of prosperous Cherry Menloves. You could never afford to live there but it's nice to sit outside a charming tea room, buy a cup of the cheapest coffee and survey the bunting and antique shops.

Glimpse of a town garden behind a gate in a streets of Petworth
Petworth House is National Trust owned, and going there made up for my membership in one fell swoop as it's so expensive to get in. It's got a whole wing built for art, tonnes of paintings and sculptures, a private own chapel and a tea room filled with antlers.

Looming down upon one while you eat your cream tea

The Chapel 

The art wing

 Gulliver's Travels  

A wonderful old globe teeming with sea monsters

A tiny bit of William Blake - The Last Judgement - see, see! It's all connected!

The most impressive thing however, is the carved room. Grinling Gibbon was set loose into a large rectangular space and produced this incredible room in which all the walls are covered floor to ceiling with dark, intricate wood carvings. It really is extraordinary and you could spend many hours in here picking out the images and trying to imagine how it was made. Horace Walpole apparently said of him "There is no instance of a man before Gibbons who gave wood the loose and airy lightness of flowers, and chained together the various productions of the elements with the free disorder natural to each species."

The room was very dark and it was impossible to take clear pictures however I hope you can get the idea from these two:

Musical instruments, leaves, branches, food, cornucopia, scrolls, baskets, wings, animals, birds - all delicately and meticulously carved from soft lime wood. It's amazing to see in person the lush Baroque style rendered this way.

Grinling Gibbon made decorative wood carving into an art form in its own right and to this day his skill has not been matched. Well, now you know.


  1. Thanks Eleanor, just read about Grinling Gibbon and your photos are very good and have helped me appreciate his amazing talent.

    1. glad you enjoyed and thanks for commenting!


Thanks for commenting!