In the Autumn of 1671, John Evelyn, in the course of his rambles at Deptford where he lived, discovered a hitherto unknown and unappreciated wood carver who in order to perfect himself in his art had taken a small cottage in the rural village, as Deptford then was, so that he might devote himself in peace and quiet absolutely to his work.
Evelyn was so delighted with what he saw in the workshop, that he was convinced of the talent and genius of the worker, and a few weeks afterwards obtained the King’s per-mission to bring the young artist to the palace to show specimens. Two of Evelyn’s personal friends, Wren and Pepys, were also invited to be present at the interview. On March 1st, the young artist was ushered into the Royal presence bringing a selected example with him, but alas, the Queen displayed an entire absence of appreciation, and so the royal husband, well broken like many another ordinary man, had to content himself with admiring only, as madam would not allow him to spend money on mere carvings. Gibbons later on sold this particular specimen of his work to Sir G. Viner, but it is satisfactory to know that the King ultimately asserted himself and employed Gibbons at Windsor, Whitehall and Kensington, much to the advantage of these buildings. Before then, however, Wren had taken advantage of the services of the great carver, and as the building of St. Paul’s was being actively pushed forward the wood carving and various enrichments of the fabric both internally and externally were entrusted to Gibbons who managed to impart his skill and enthusiasm to his assistants, so that although much of the work is not by his own hand it yet bears the impress of the master.
Many of the houses of the nobility and aristocracy dating from this time are enriched with the work of Grinling Gibbons. Cassiobury, Burghley, Petworth, and Chatsworth have notable examples which now constitute possibly their greatest ornament.
The ceiling at Petworth is considered by many to be his masterpiece, and it was here that his pupil and assistant, Selden, lost his life in endeavouring to save the carving under his care from being destroyed by a fire which suddenly broke out in the mansion.
Upon completing the work at Chatsworth, and as an expression of thanks to the Duke of Devonshire, Gibbons presented the Duke with the wonderful carved point lace Cravat which is still exhibited there.
Fame and fortune quickly came and commissions poured in upon him. He was made master carver to the Court, and this appointment lasted from the time of Charles II. to George I.
The wood Gibbons employed was, for his characteristic scroll work, generally lime wood; for panels and mouldings, oak; and for medallions, box or pear wood. But he did not confine himself exclusively to wood; several beautiful marble fonts, as noted elsewhere, are to be found in the City; that at St. Margaret’s, Lothbury, being perhaps one of the most charming, and the font cover at All Hallows, Barking, combines all the grace and lightness of his wood carving translated into stone. His best known statues are those of Charles II. at the Royal Exchange and Chelsea Hospital, and James II. (in lead) which stood behind the Banqueting Hall in Whitehall, and remained untouched during the Bloodless Revolution, and was taken away at the time of Queen Victoria’s Jubilee. Fears were entertained as to whether the Office of Works had converted it into drain pipes, but now after an absence of of some years it has re-appeared outside the Admiralty Offices in St. James’ Park.
The light interlaced scroll work which Gibbons introduced and which is seen in nearly all of his most important works died with him. No one seems to have learned the secret of his arrangements; there have been several imitators, but none really successful.
The reredos of St. Mary Abchurch is one of his richest designs in the City of London, it consists of pendants, masses of. leaves, and festoons of fruit and flowers carved full life size, and they cover almost the whole of the reredos.
On the upper part of the reredos of St. James’s, Piccadilly, is a marvellous specimen of foliated scroll work, and there is also in this Church a very charming marble font from his hand.
The carvings in the Library at Trinity College, and Trinity Chapel, Cambridge, and the stalls of the Bishop and Lord Mayor in St. Paul’s Cathedral, mark the high water mark of his genius, and by universal consent are acclaimed the finest that this country can show.
Gibbons died on August 3rd, 1720, and is buried in St. Paul’s Church, Covent Garden.
Many of his carvings have been spoilt or very much damaged by being painted or varnished. It has taken from them their great charm and instead of preserving has tended to destroy them. Fortunately the paint which disfigured the reredos of St. Mary Abchurch has been removed, but it is a shock to notice that in St. Paul’s, owing to the Ritualistic revival, his beautiful roses and vine leaves have had to submit to gilding or distemper this of course a later day will see removed.