On Easter Monday 1986, a fire broke out in one of the grace and favour apartments at Hampton Court Palace. Its progress into the main state rooms of the Wren Wing was slow – Wren had soundproofed his building by filling the spaces between floor joists with tens of thousands of seashells, which acted as a retardant – and crews had time to rescue most of the contents. But the fabulous sets of decorative overmantels and overdoor drops that Grinling Gibbons had carved for the King’s Apartments between 1699 and 1701 were left to their fate. By some miracle, most survived unharmed, apart from damage caused by smoke and water. Others were charred, but restorable. Only one piece, a door drop from the King’s Drawing Room, was completely destroyed.
This 7-foot-long drop, a riot of flowers and leaves and berries, is the lost carving that gives its name to David Esterly’s delightful and thought-provoking book, in which the author, one of America’s finest limewood foliage carvers, describes the year he spent at Hampton Court in the early 1990s, carefully reconstructing that single, beautiful thing.
This is no art-historical monograph on Gibbons. Esterly wrote that 15 years ago, and it is good to see that his magnificent Grinling Gibbons and the Art of Carving (V&A Publications) has been reissued to coincide with the publication of The Lost Carving. The new book is partly a detective story – all Esterly had to work with was a small lump of charred wood and a blurry black-and-white photograph from the 1930s. It is also a hugely entertaining account of his battles with senior figures in the heritage establishment. These grey men tried to block his appointment because he wasn’t a Brit, ‘and we ought to be nurturing British carving’. Then, when he persuaded a friend in government to intervene, they went out of their way to make him feel unwelcome. They refused to listen when he told them the post-fire restoration at Hampton Court was a great opportunity to showcase Gibbons’s carvings and to present them, not with the covering of pigmented brown wax which a later generation had slapped over them, but as their maker had intended, ‘creamy monochrome carvings washed in light, like garlands of flowers gathered in heaven’. They spurned his scholarship. They neglected to invite him to any of the official receptions and exhibitions that marked each stage of the restoration – something which obviously still rankles. Esterly doesn’t scruple when it comes to naming names, either: if he was ever on Simon Thurley’s Christmas card list, for instance, you can bet he won’t be now.
But alongside this narrative of conflict, The Lost Carving offers a series of deeply personal meditations on tradition and individual talent, as Esterly struggles both to reach into the heart of Gibbons’s creative processes and to free himself from the spell of his long-dead master. He rages against a 21st-century notion of art that considers skill in making as something separate, unnecessary. ‘The two most successful sculptors in the Anglo-American world, Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons, can neither model nor carve.’ Nowadays, he says, concept is all. ‘The rest is simply execution.’ Just email a digital file to an art fabricator in New Jersey or south London, and – hey presto! – you’re done. The connection between hand and heart is lost. Compare that soulless, digitised art fabrication with Esterly’s description of the physical act of carving:
Now the first stroke, long and across the grain. A nice zip as the blade cuts, like the feel and sound you get when you turn the crank of a pencil sharpener, but more delicate … The whole body propels the blade, arms and shoulders moving with it, torso moving slightly the other way in compensation. The stomach muscles push the blade.
Occasionally he takes himself and his subject a little too seriously. ‘Carving is a metaphor for everything’ is one of his more baffling aphorisms. He devotes pages to his quest to find the exact abrasive that Gibbons used to smooth his finished work, and he is beside himself when he discovers it was Equisetum hyemale or Dutch scouring rush, a type of grass that takes up silica from the sand on which it grows.
But The Lost Carving never fails to enchant and enlighten. I remember the first Grinling Gibbons carving I ever saw, an overmantel made in 1680 for the drawing room at Sudbury Hall in Derbyshire. As I stared at the astonishing clusters of flowers and fruits and fish and game birds, I thought it was one of the most beautiful things I had ever seen. Thirty-five years later I still do. And thanks to David Esterly, now I know why.