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Posts Tagged ‘Grinling Gibbons’

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Photo: David Jennings for the New York Times
David Esterly in 1989. His woodcarvings were in the tradition of a 17th-century English master.

How some artistic geniuses stumble onto their metier is a mystery. This wood carver didn’t even know how to carve wood when he was blown away by the beauty and intricacy of works by a 17th century master. He had to know more.

Katharine Q. Seelye writes at the New York Times, “David Esterly was in London in 1974, walking with his girlfriend to meet her parents for the first time, when she steered him into St. James’s Church, Piccadilly, to see the intricate woodcarvings by Grinling Gibbons, widely considered one of the greatest woodcarvers in history.

“Mr. Esterly, an American who had studied at Cambridge University in England and was trying to figure out what to do with his life, had never heard of Gibbons and knew nothing of woodcarving.

“But inside the church he was mesmerized by what he saw — a cascading cornucopia of delicate, lifelike blossoms, foliage and fruit above the altar, all sculpted in wood by Gibbons in the late 1600s.

” ‘I was seduced by the power of the carving and its capacity to convey the beauty of nature,’ Mr. Esterly told the New York Times in 1998. ‘It seemed to me beyond belief that a human hand had fashioned those seashell swags, drooping bellflower chains, birds with laurel twigs in their beaks and dense whorls of acanthus. My fate was sealed.’

“He decided to learn more about Gibbons, and to do so, he realized, required taking chisels into his own hands. He taught himself woodcarving, becoming so skillful that when some of Gibbons’s 300-year-old carvings were destroyed by fire, Mr. Esterly was summoned to recreate them. He became not only an expert on Gibbons, but also the maker of sought-after sculptures of his own. …

“Mr. Esterly’s life was shaped by his obsession with Gibbons, master carver to the crown, who was commissioned to work in Windsor Castle, Kensington Palace and St. Paul’s Cathedral, among other landmarks. …

“For Mr. Esterly, carving was as much an intellectual exercise as a physical one.

” ‘The wood is teaching you about itself, configuring your mind and muscles to the tasks required of them,’ he wrote in his book ‘The Lost Carving: A Journey to the Heart of Making’ (2012). ‘To carve is to be shaped by the wood even as you’re shaping it.’ …

“He worked slowly, creating only about 50 pieces in his lifetime. But as his literary agent, Robin Straus, said by email, he was ‘equally fluent with words and wood’; besides books, he wrote numerous articles and reviews about art and carving.

“The subjects of his carvings varied. One might be Gibbons-like but with a twist — a spray of delicate roses, but with insect holes in the leaves, or a broken stem; another might be a head covered in elaborately carved vegetation.

“In most cases Mr. Esterly carved to the specifications of a patron. For a buyer who revered Thomas Jefferson, he carved a necklace like one sent back by Lewis and Clark, whom Jefferson had sent to explore the Northwest Territory. In others he whimsically updated traditional themes by inserting, say, a carved iPhone or a set of car keys.

“After a fire in 1986 at Hampton Court, Henry VIII’s palace, Mr. Esterly spent a year creating a replica of a seven-foot-long Gibbons carving that had been destroyed.”

More of the story — and some terrific photos — here.

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