“… touches the very soul of anyone who first sees it” : the woodcarvings of Grinling Gibbons in the Wren Library

Pediment, north door, Wren Library (arms of William III and other decorative elements)
Pediment, north door, Wren Library (arms of William III and other decorative elements)

Knowledgeable visitors to the Wren Library are quick to spot the magnificent woodcarvings which adorn pediments, alcoves, wainscoting and bookcases.  They often ask for confirmation from the Wren Attendants as to the identity of the carver and smile in the pleasure of recognition and self-congratulation at the answer they receive.  The fact that the name Grinling Gibbons has equal currency with that of Sir Christopher Wren in the context of the library is slightly ironic.  Wren and Gibbons worked together for royal palaces at Whitehall, Kensington, and Hampton Court, and St. Paul’s Cathedral, as well as here at Trinity College.  By the 1690s Gibbons had been appointed master carver by the king, William III.  Nevertheless, Wren, the distinguished polymath, would not have considered Gibbons to be an equal; a craftsman with an outstanding reputation almost certainly, but never an equal.  How, then, has this wood-carver’s name survived the passage of time and all that have come after him?

Gibbons took decorative woodcarving out of the shadows and into the spotlight.  His carvings in his chosen medium, lime wood, a wood naturally light in colour, quite literally stood out from traditional darker backgrounds such as oak and cedar.  His virtuosic technique lent itself to the naturalism he favoured.  He brought an artist’s sense of space and balance.  To illustrate these elements it is educative to compare his work, as shown in the images below, to that of another carver, Cornelis Austin, a respected Cambridge wood-carver who was employed to build the cedar bookcases in the Wren Library and accompanying decorative elements.  Both use the same appliqué technique (making the work separately and nailing or laminating onto the background) and Austin continues the tradition of using the same wood for the decorative elements as for the background (wainscoting in this example).  Austin’s work has a certain limited naturalism but his design remains firmly subordinate to the panelling to which it is attached.  By contrast, Gibbons’ carving in lime wood (which has been bleached) immediately draws the eye; he uses the plain background almost as a blank canvas on which to place his design with an artist’s eye; and his highly naturalistic style evokes a sense of wonder.

Gibbons, who also worked in stone and plaster, was commissioned by the College to provide the carvings as well as the plaster busts which sit on top of the bookcases and the statue of the Duke of Somerset (the most generous benefactor) that fills the niche at the southern end of the library.  He fulfilled this work between 1691 and 1693.  Of course, when we say ‘Gibbons’ work’ it is not correct to assume that everything we see in the Wren is by his hand alone.  So in demand was he that he had a workshop of highly trusted carvers that numbered in double figures by the 1690s.  While few portraits of him exist, those that do suggest a squat, burly figure and this makes sense: woodcarving demands strength and stamina; it is time intensive.  Such a workload could only have been handled in a well-organised workshop environment made up of specialist and non-specialist carvers.

As a carver, Gibbons was innovative (type of wood, naturalism) but also worked within the framework of traditional decorative English woodcarving.  So his work is to be found in the familiar architectural embellishments of the era: pediments, wainscoting (woodwork, especially panelled, on an interior wall), overmantels, picture surrounds, often in the form of crestings (ornamental ridgings to walls or roofs), swags (a wreath or festoon of flowers, foliage, or fruit fastened up at both ends and hanging down in the middle, used as an ornament) and drops (vertical groupings).  He specialised in non-figurative designs, foliage, fruits and arabesques.

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Alcove opening, north-west corner, Wren Library

Lime wood, which comes from the linden tree, is soft, pliable and surprisingly strong.  These characteristics allowed Gibbons to push the limits of thinness of the medium and to produce high relief carving, which depends on shadows and illusions of depth, by means of undercutting.

The carvings that can be seen in the Wren Library are built in layers, sometimes laminated with glue but more often attached mechanically with nails.  As can be seen in the image below this permits each layer to be fastened to the one below by means of a very small platform.  Allowing each layer to be carved separately before assembly rather than from a a single block or a few larger blocks makes the manufacturing process more efficient.  The more that the carvings can “come out” from their backgrounds the more that their three-dimensionality and sense of naturalism can be conveyed.  They are designed to be viewed from multiple angles. 

Undercutting
Foliage carving attached to wainscoting, north end, Wren Library

Part of Gibbons’ commission was to design the coats of arms of the library’s benefactors which are placed on the front of each bookcase.  Here it seems that his levels of invention and technical skill rise yet another level.  Among the signature fruits and foliage we see animals, mythical creatures, heraldic iconography, all the carving in high relief.  Sometimes it is hard to believe they can be made from wood.

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The Wren Library is blessed with the architectural invention of Christopher Wren, the glorious marble sculptures of Louis-François Roubiliac and, fittingly, the unparalleled virtuosity and artistry of the most celebrated British wood-carver of the 17th century, Grinling Gibbons.

Further reading

Esterley, D.,  Grinling Gibbons and the art of carving

Whinney, M.,  Grinling Gibbons in Cambridge

Green, D.,  Grinling Gibbons : his work as carver and statuary, 1648-1721

Title quote by Roger North, contemporary of Gibbons and executor of the estate of artist Sir Peter Lely, used in: Whinney, M., Grinling Gibbons in Cambridge. (Cambridge, 1948).

 

 

 

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