Grinling Gibbon died on 3rd August 1721. He was arguably the most famous woodcarver of all time; and certainly in Britain. Born in Rotterdam in 1648, he ‘arrived’ in England in 1670/1. The diarist John Evelyn first discovered Gibbons’ talent by chance in 1671. In his diary for 18th January 1671 he wrote:
“I this day first acquainted his Majestie with that incomparable young man Gibson (sic) whom I had lately found in obscure place, and that by mere accident, as I was walking neere a poor solitary thatched house in a field in our Parish: I found him shut in , but looking into the Window, I perceived him carving that large Cartoone, or Crucifix of Tintorets, a Copy of which I had also my selfe brought from Venice.’
Later that same evening he described what he had seen to Sir Christopher Wren and the pair soon introduced him to King Charles II. That first visit to the King yielded nothing but frustration for Evelyn and Gibbons but it was quite soon after that King Charles gave Gibbons his first commission.
Horace Walpole later wrote: “There is no instance of a man before Gibbons who gave wood the loose and airy lightness of flowers, and chained together the various productions of the elements with the free disorder natural to each species.”
That conversation between Evelyn and Wren also led Gibbons to becoming a favorite of Wren, who used him to supply decorative carving for many of his country house commissions. One such building was Burghley House near Stamford – the home of the Cecil family to this day. Gibbins work at Burghley remains visible to this day and can be viewed by visitors.
The genius of Gibbons is not simply that he had a remarkable ability to mould and shape wood, but that he evolved a distinct style that was all his own. Working mostly in Lime wood, Gibbons’ trademark was the cascade of fruit, leaves, flowers, foliage, fish and birds.