As Allan Cunningham ponderously recorded in his Lives of the Eminent British Painters, Sculptors and Architects (1829–33): ‘Those who labour in wood commit their hopes of fame to a deceitful foundation and need not hope to survive in their works’. Well, Grinling Gibbons has survived in his works. True, we know almost nothing about his life or character. True also that some of his best work has been destroyed. But there is quite enough left to establish him as one of the great masters of his craft. Geoffrey Beard – a leading expert on the decorative arts in England during their golden age – has laboured hard and long among the surviving account books, bills, letters, contracts and receipts to produce as reliable and detailed an account of his life and work as we are likely to get.
Gibbons was born in Rotterdam in 1648 and died in London in 1721 – he was married and had ten children, not all of whom survived infancy. That is about all we know of his personal life. In the portraits by Medina and Kneller, he looks self-confident, worldly, even arrogant. He had every reason to be: his skill as a wood-carver brought him lucrative employment in the royal service as Surveyor and Repairer of the Carved Work at Windsor, with a salary of £100 a year, and a Master Sculptor and Carver in Wood to the Crown. He stood out as a great practitioner of his craft even in an age of great craftsmen.
This generally high level of skill makes the task of attribution difficult, particularly as far as his country house work is concerned. At Chatsworth, for instance, a local mason called Samuel Watson carried out most of the sumptuous decoration in