Grinling Gibbons (1648 – 1721) is the highly celebrated Baroque Dutch-British wood carver, his name synonymous with a style of decoration that transformed the interiors of the palaces, churches, and institutions of his era. Rotterdam born, he moved to England in his late teens and capitalised on the ostentatious tastes of the nobility as well as the rebuilding of London after the Great Fire (1666) and navigated the changing tastes across the reigns of five monarchs. The exhibition at Compton Verney makes an elegant argument for rooting his dynamic realistic three-dimensional imagery in both the ornate European ship carving and decorating trends of the time, and the exquisite abundance and realism of Dutch still life painters such as Melchior d'Hondecoeter, who exclusively painted dynamic group images of birds. Praised for their realism, they were popular as status symbols among the commercial and political elite of the time, these exotic birds themselves would have been imported on Dutch Merchant ships from newly discovered territories in Asia, Africa, and South America. In lieu of the tonality and palette of a painters’ materials, the physicality of Gibbons' relief sculptural work – equally sought after by the wealthy to embellish and add exquisiteness to their buildings – was heightened by his clever use of the high-contrast colouring that was so fashionable in the Baroque period. By setting his clean, pale limewood carvings against dark backgrounds, they stood put in perfect contrast visually. Details such as fish scales, the detailing of birds’ feathers, fruit, flowers, and tumble down through still life arrangements that could adorn any grand room or cathedral quire. 

A notoriously sardonic work of Gibbon’s also shows off his virtuosity by recreating an opulent lace cravat in delicate limewood. It’s intricacy, precision, and deceptive naturalism is so lifelike that it was worn by aesthete Horace Walpole to tease his guests in the 18th Century. Gibbon’s influence is effectively brought up to date, given this exhibition celebrates the 300th centenary of his death, to closer times when Gibbons was celebrated by Alexander McQueen at his thirteenth collection, (titled, simply ‘No.13’), in 1999. Underpinning the collection was a concern with the handcrafted, inspired by the late Victorian Arts and Crafts Movement, with designs constructed from wood, leather, lace, and raffia. Paralympic athlete Aimee Mullins entered wearing a pair of wooden prosthetic legs, hand-carved in elm, which were reminiscent of the filigree qualities of Gibbons and the workshops at Queen Mary’s Hospital, Roehampton, which were instrumental in pioneering prostheses for casualties of the First World War.

Compton Verney, the venue for this museological endeavour, is an eclectic Georgian treasure house. Rescued from dereliction in 1993 by the Sir Peter Moore and his eponymous Foundation (established by money made by his father in the Football Pools), since 1964 this organisation has funded a broad and compelling list of projects and enabled institutions such as the Slave Museum in Liverpool, and a Barbados project that supported and initiated projects in the Eastern Caribbean in the fields of education, the environment, health, youth, and social activities. The breadth of his subsidy and support is noteworthy. The exhibition at Compton Verney demonstrates that carving – a subtractive process whereby material is systematically eliminated from the outside in – has an ability to embellish, enrich and bewitch is most gratifyingly evidenced in this exploratory exhibition, which amply demonstrates how an astute talent crossed many sectors of the arts.

Visit Grinling Gibbons: Centuries in the Making from 25 September 2021 till 30 January 2022 at Compton Verney, Warwickshire, CV35 9HZ. 

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