I have never met anyone who knew of this Benjamin among museums-it was only opened the year the war came upon us-except the man of learning who told me that, tucked away in the heart of the manufacturing district of Shoreditch, there was a wonderful collection of period furniture arranged in an old almshouse.
So one day I climbed into a 22 bus at Piccadilly Circus and asked the conductor to discard me at the Geffrye Museum in the Kingsland Road. We travelled for miles along streets where every second shop seemed to be a cabinet-maker’s, and then stopped conveniently at the very gate of the quiet, spacious courtyard where elderly people were taking the air on the old oak benches. It was past six of the clock on a warm evening in June, but a misguided guide-book had said the museum was open till eight in summer.
That halcyon arrangement disappeared with the fashion of the eight-hour day, and the museum now closes at six o’clock like its older confreres. It is also closed on Sunday morning and all Monday.
The people who used to live in the fourteen quaint little brick almshouses have been transferred to a building in the country, and the London County Council has bought this property for their museum from the Ironmongers’ Company, from whose seventeenth-century ” Master,” Sir Robert Geffrye, it takes its name. It is a fascinating place; like a rather badly arranged old curiosity shop. There are old staircases-one from Boswell’s house in Queen Street is the most beautiful-and lovely panelled rooms and all sorts of things that demonstrate how beautiful interior decoration was before the age of machine-made furniture.
There is a charming room from New Court, Lincoln’s Inn, and many other interesting exhibits including a beautiful lacquered Chinese palanquin, but what I liked best were the fragile, unbelievable wood carvings of Grinling Gibbons.
If there were nothing else to see in the Geffrye Museum, it would be worth while to go to look at what a master hand can do with a block of wood. Evelyn thought Grinling Gibbons ” the greatest master both of invention and rarenesse of work that the world ever had in any age.”
I had cherished the mistaken belief that Gibbons was an Englishman for so long that it was with regret I found that this great artist was born in Rotterdam and only came to England in 1667 when he was twenty-four years old.
It is many long years since I was first shown some of Grinling Gibbons’ marvellous workso many that only the effect it had on me remains, while the date and place have gone from me. I never willingly miss seeing what his hand has carved, and if any reader of these pages is in the habit of coming to London often and making friends on each trip with another of the men of genius who have given the city its proud record, I can tell them where they may study the wizardlike work of this master craftsman and great artist.
The most magnificent piece of work he carved is in the choir of St. Paul’s, but there are long festoons of flowers in St. Mary Abchurch, in Abchurch Yard, off Abchurch Lane, a turning out of Cannon Street. In old St. Mary Abchurch you will also find a wonderful painted dome by Sir James Thornhill, Hogarth’s father-in-law, whose house in Dean Street, Soho, has only lately been pulled down. St. James’s, Piccadilly, that suave building that breathes mid-Victorian portliness, broadcloth and self-satisfaction, has a lovely marble font carved by Grinling Gibbons, but the cover was stolen. Later research has destroyed the widely-spread belief that Grinling Gibbons carved the pedestal for King Charles L’s statue in Trafalgar Square, but over the mantelpiece in the vestry of St. Dunstan’s-inthe-East, between Great Tower Street and Lower Thames Street, you will find another carving.
The rest I will leave you to hunt out for yourself. Some of it is in unlikely places, one of them not a hundred miles from Clifford’s Inn. I do not know if there is any trace of the pot of flowers Grinling Gibbons carved when he lived in Belle Sauvage Court on Ludgate Hill, and which Walpole said ” shook surprisingly with the motion of the coaches that passed by.”
He lived for forty-three years in Bow Street, Covent Garden. The house fell down, says an old record, in 1701, ” but by a genial providence none of the family were killed,” and they seem to have propped up their house, for they went on living there till Grinling Gibbons died in 1721.