Skill of craftsmanship has been despised by intellectuals for a long time now, but one of the most popular exhibits in the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) continues to be the hyper-realistic lace cravat carved in limewood by the seventeenth-century sculptor Grinling Gibbons. Its superstar status began with the wit, collector and antiquarian, Horace Walpole, who received some foreign visitors with it hanging round his neck, and in the nineteenth century, its sculptor was grouped with Donatello, Raphael and Palissy in the museum’s Pantheon of great artists.
In 1986, royal apartments at Hampton Court decorated by Grinling Gibbons were damaged by fire, and in the subsequent restoration, his work was more closely studied than ever before. As a result, the V&A asked American wood sculptor David Esterly, who played a key role in the restoration, to mount an exhibition of the more movable pieces of Gibbons carving. The show is also an unprecedented opportunity to see more than thirty fine architectural drawings by Gibbons for the royal apartments at Hampton Court, which have been unbound from the Christopher Wren volumes in the Soane Museum.
The carvings include, among other things, the entire canopy from the Bishop’s Throne in St Paul’s Cathedral, panels from the Wren Library in Trinity College, Cambridge, and sculptures from country houses such as Chatsworth, Burghley and Badminton.
The star of the show is the exquisite panel from the Pitti Palace, which was given by Charles II to Grand Duke Cosimo de’ Medici in 1682. It is in remarkable condition, considering that it was buried in mud by the 1966 Florence flood and then caught in the gas explosion which severely injured several museum curators in 1984. It has been conserved at the expense of the V&A, taking advantage of the experience gained by David Luard in his restoration work at Hampton Court.
The exhibition is from 22 October to 24 January 1999 and there is an accompanying book by David Esterly (Grinling Gibbons and the art of carving V&A Publications, £35), which is a well illustrated and scholarly study with a practical chapter on how Gibbons actually did his carvings. The V&A is holding sessions where you can learn how to make a Gibbons-style floral swag, watch carvers at work, as well as make your own seventeenth-century wig, collar and cuffs.
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as ‘A superstar rediscovered'