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Exhibition reveals the life, genius and legacy of the 'Michelangelo of Wood'
Grinling Gibbons, Cravat, made of limewood with raised and openwork carving, by Grinling Gibbons, ca. 1690 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

COMPTON VERNEY.- The remarkable life and legacy of Grinling Gibbons (1648-1721) is being celebrated at Compton Verney, as part of a year-long series of events to commemorate the tercentenary of the most renowned British woodcarver of the 17th century, often called the ‘Michelangelo of Wood.’

The exhibition, Centuries in the Making - produced in partnership with the Grinling Gibbons Society - reveals the life, genius and legacy of this legendary sculptor and craftsman, who died on 3 August 1721.

Arguably the greatest carver in British history, Grinling Gibbons’ legacy over the past 300 years has been to inspire craftsmanship and carving from his contemporaries to modern-day makers. Gibbons remains a potent symbol of inspiration and achievement. He carved with an unsurpassed realism that could literally fool the eye. A fine example of which is a limewood cravat (c.1690, V&A) once owned by Sir Horace Walpole. Exquisitely carved to imitate Venetian needlepoint lace, it was so realistic it is said that when Walpole wore it to greet visitors at his home at Strawberry Hill House, they believed it was the real thing. Walpole is reported to have said: ‘There is no instance of man before Gibbons who gave to wood the loose and airy lightness of flowers.’

Gibbons’ work is usually only seen in situ in Britain’s royal palaces, including Windsor and Hampton Court, its most important churches, including St Paul’s Cathedral and York Minster, and the grandest of stately homes, but now, fine examples can be seen together, including items rarely on public display, curated from national, international, and private collections. Loans are supported by the Weston Loan Programme with Art Fund. Created by the Garfield Weston Foundation and Art Fund, the Weston Loan Programme is the first ever UK-wide funding scheme to enable smaller and local authority museums to borrow works of art and artefacts from national collections.

Centuries in the Making explores the influences that shaped Gibbons’ vision, skills and technique and the stylistic and cultural impact that he had on this country. Through sculpture and carving in wood and stone, drawings and sketches, portraits, still life paintings and documents, the exhibition brings a fresh perspective to Gibbons and shows how his bold new direction changed the landscape of British carving, sculpture and interiors.

The exhibition aims not just to celebrate the ‘known’ Gibbons but also to broaden research around the ‘unknown Gibbons’. An impenetrable mythology surrounds his name; indeed, every beautifully carved piece of wood in Britain seems to demand the question, ‘could this be by the hand of Gibbons?’ Offering an unprecedented opportunity to consider works by Gibbons and his followers together, the exhibition contributes to knowledge of the landscape of 17th and 18th-century carving.

To further show the enduring influence of Gibbons today, works by contemporary artists and designers, plus specially created artworks by talented emerging carvers, also form part of this major exhibition. At a time when we are challenged to think more about sustainability and resources, the tercentenary themes include durability, use of natural materials and handcrafted processes. Gibbons’ incomparable legacy is highly relevant in our technological age, when the shape and context of craftsmanship is reconsidered and our understandings of what this word means are ever shifting and challenged.

What will surely strike many visitors to the exhibition, who may not have a detailed understanding of Gibbons’ career or creative output, is the sheer range of objects he made. A fine draughtsman, his designs for a canopied bed, a chimney piece and monument to Queen Mary II (1662-1694) demonstrate Gibbons’ creativity and the breadth of work he was commissioned for.

However, it is his decorative work for buildings – both secular and religious – that he is perhaps best known. This showcased his sublime ability to carve beautiful garlands, swags and cherubs for grand country houses, royal palaces and St Paul’s Cathedral.

Gibbons was born in Rotterdam to English parents and was educated there until he moved to England around 1667. His arrival in his parents’ homeland may have been prompted by two historic events that created a wealth of new opportunities for skilled artisans - the Restoration of the monarchy (1660) and the Great Fire of London (1666).

While working on Thomas Betterton’s luxurious new Dorset Garden Theatre, Gibbons was ‘discovered’ by the court artist Sir Peter Lely (1618-1680). Gibbons’ capitals, cornices and eagles in the theatre particularly caught Lely’s eye and he recommended his skills to Hugh May, the architect commissioned to rebuild Windsor Castle.

Finding himself presented to the King, Gibbons showed the monarch a carved wooden chimney piece, festooned with fish, shells and other trompe l’oeil ornaments. His reputation was established.

Having completed the Windsor project, Gibbons was engaged by Sir Christopher Wren to work on the new St Paul’s Cathedral and other churches that had been destroyed by the Fire of London.

Under the Restoration, the English aristocracy set about re-establishing its authority and embarked upon a large-scale programme of building or remodelling their country seats. Gibbons’ status as the royal Master Carver ensured that he enjoyed a lucrative career, working on some of the grandest houses, including Petworth, Badminton and Burghley. Gibbons’ royal patronage was maintained after the death of Charles II by James II and then William III. In 1719, he was appointed Master Carver to King George I.
Bringing together a variety of beautiful objects Gibbons carved, including heads of Charles II and the magnificent elm wood horse mannequin on loan from the Line of Kings in the Royal Armouries, cherubs from St Paul’s Cathedral, the famous cravat on loan from the V&A, and swags from Badminton House, Centuries in the Making also features letters, paintings, books, and sketches from his lifetime.

Further demonstrating the skill and artistry in wood that Gibbons inspired, the exhibition includes designs for Chatsworth House by Gibbons’ contemporary, Samuel Watson (1662-1715), several rare 17th century musical instruments, an intricately carved boxwood cradle commissioned by Queen Victoria and made by William Gibbs Rogers (1792-1875) and a carved limewood overmantel made for Windsor Castle by Edward Wyatt (1757-1833).

The exhibition highlights the extent and breadth of Gibbons’ legacy in the present day, showcasing the work of emerging carvers and contemporary artists working in a range of media who have been inspired by Gibbons’ distinctive style. Rebecca Stevenson’s stunning still life Heathen, creates a dead hare, garlanded with fruit and flowers made from wax and polyester resin; Phoebe Cummings’ Ornamental Chronology is another still life, with clay foliage and flowers, suspended by rope and wire; while Paul Ferguson’s carved prosthetic legs and torso were commissioned by designer Alexander McQueen, who sought to deliberately reference Gibbons and traditional craftsmanship.
Hannah Phillip, Grinling Gibbons 300 Director explains “Grinling Gibbons was acknowledged as the ‘Kings Carver’ in his own lifetime - a man who imbibed all the different influences around him and took them forward, brilliantly, in his own style. This Tercentenary celebration is marked by the collaboration of many museums, galleries, churches and collections where his work can still be found and is a reflection on Grinling Gibbons legacy right up to the present day. It’s all about inspiration; where Gibbons got his inspiration from and what he has inspired in others.”

Compton Verney Director-CEO Julie Finch says: “We are delighted to present Centuries in the Making in partnership with the Grinling Gibbons Society and showcase this remarkable man’s creative intent and skill, which have continued to inspire artists in the centuries since.”

She adds: “Like many of our exhibitions, this show explores the connections between historic and contemporary art works, demonstrating that age-old skills such as carving continue to this day but have found new mediums and forms of expression, as can be seen in Phoebe and Rebecca’s beautiful pieces. I hope Centuries in the Making will, in turn, inspire our visitors to explore and develop their own creative aspirations, through workshops, events, activities and schools’ programmes. Ultimately, this exhibition is for everyone and one that shines a spotlight on craft making, its influence on so-called ordinary objects and extraordinary ones too and will inspire others to originate their own original works.”

Sophia Weston, Trustee of the Garfield Weston Foundation, said: “We are so pleased that the Weston Loan Programme is able to support this celebration of this exceptional craftsman who left such an influential legacy. It is wonderful to see works from a number of national collections being displayed for visitors to Compton Verney.”

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