Grinling Gibbons and the golden age of woodcarving

Date of news: 30 May 2022

Grinling Gibbons (1648 -1721) is regarded as one of the most gifted woodcarvers of all time. He worked on iconic buildings in England such as Windsor Castle, Hampton Court Palace and St Paul's Cathedral. Yet little is known about him. With her research, art historian Ada de Wit sheds new light on the master carver and the Dutch-English context in which he operated. De Wit will defend her thesis on 31 May.

In the 17th century, woodcarving represented the social status and ambitionsPortrait_of_Grinling_Gibbons of those who ordered it. It was used in interiors, warships, carriages and churches. The work of woodcarver Grinling Gibbbons is considered to be in a class of its own in the English Baroque. He was born in 1648 in Rotterdam to an English family. He was educated in the Netherlands, and like many artists and craftsmen of that time, he moved to England. There he began a spectacular career, working on some of England's most iconic buildings, including Windsor Castle, Hampton Court Palace and St Paul's Cathedral. He specialised in carving wood, but also worked in stone. Gibbons employed an exuberant and true-to-life style of flowers, fruit and birds that became hugely influential in England.

New light on Grinling Gibbons

‘Despite his enormous fame, little is known about his background and the origin of his style’, says Ada de Wit. For her research, the art historian delved into Grinling Gibbons' work and placed him in the English-Dutch context of the second half of the seventeenth century. In doing so, De Wit not only sheds new light on his origins and style, but also on those of his contemporaries in the Netherlands and Great Britain. De Wit: 'I have taken Gibbons as the starting point for a study of woodcarving and English-Dutch relations between 1650 and 1700. This subject is not only unknown in the United Kingdom, but even in the Netherlands it has been little studied.'

And yet woodcarving was ubiquitous in the Netherlands and England in the seventeenth century. Carvers decorated architectural elements of interiors, such as staircases and mantelpieces, secular and ecclesiastical furniture, picture and mirror frames, scientific and musical instruments, ships and carriages. For her research, De Wit visited museums and historic sites in the Netherlands and the United Kingdom and conducted archival research to demonstrate the importance and richness of woodcarving in the second half of the seventeenth century. ‘In the third quarter of the seventeenth century, Rotterdam was home to a large community of English merchants, including the Gibbons family,' says De Wit. ‘The city played an important role in trade relations with England and was also a major centre of shipbuilding. The loss of historical buildings in Rotterdam made it necessary to look beyond the city. In that period, many Dutch artists and craftsmen left for England. By looking at wood carvings in England before and after Gibbons' arrival, I was able to investigate his influence there.'


Master carver for William III

A second important city in De Wit's research is The Hague, where there was a relatively large group of excellent carvers in the fourth quarter of the seventeenth century. The Hague played a crucial role in the English-Dutch political relationship thanks to its court life. William III was first Stadtholder at The Hague and later became joint ruler of England with his wife Mary.  'By this time Gibbons had established a prosperous workshop in London and completely dominated English woodcarving,' says De Wit. Gibbons worked extensively for King William III. During his reign, he was given the royal title of Master Sculptor and Carver in Wood.

Artistic talent and entrepreneurial skills

Woodcarving was incredibly important in the second half of the seventeenth century, De Wit's research shows. Private individuals and institutions went to great lengths to have their interiors, carriages and ships decorated. De Wit: 'As for Grinling Gibbons, it appears that he owed his success not only to his artistic talent, but also to his entrepreneurial skills. He brought the Dutch tradition of ornamental and realistic woodcarving in limewood to a higher level in England.'

Ada de Wit defends her thesis Grinling Gibbons and his Contemporaries (1650-1700). The Golden Age of Woodcarving in the Netherlands and Britain on 31 May at 4.30 pm. Her thesis was published in book form by Brepols. De Wit holds two Master's degrees, one in art history (University of Wroclaw, Poland, 2010) and one in applied art and historic interiors (University of Buckingham, United Kingdom, 2012). She is Curator of Works of Art and Sculpture at the Wallace Collection, London.