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Re-Creating The 'Lost Carving' Of An English Genius

Jan 6, 2013
Originally published on January 6, 2013 7:06 pm

On one spring day in the early 1970s, writer David Esterly paused to admire a stunning wooden carving inside a London church.

"On the panel behind the altar, I saw these extraordinary cascades of leaves and flowers and fruits, carved to a fineness and fluent realism, which seemed to me breathtaking," Esterly recalled in an interview with Jacki Lyden, host of weekends on All Things Considered.

The carvings he discovered that day were the work of Grinling Gibbons (1648-1721), who is considered the greatest wood carver of all time. His work can be seen at St. Paul's Cathedral, Blenheim Palace and Hampton Court in England.

Gibbons' wood carvings, in an instant, changed Esterly's life. At the time, he was studying the work of Yeats at Cambridge University. But after his exposure to Gibbons' work, the American-born Esterly immersed himself in Gibbons' art. He even spent a year re-creating a piece lost in a fire at the Hampton Court Palace outside London.

Today, Esterly is a master carver in upstate New York. He has a new exhibition opening later this week in Manhattan as well as a new book, called The Lost Carving: A Journey to the Heart of Making.


Interview Highlights

Recalling the grief of hearing Gibbons' work at Hampton Court had been lost to a fire

I went into a state of grieving at this point and I wrote a sort of obituary at this point and sent it off to a London weekly journal where it was published. And then I started receiving these wonderful phone calls from the palace authorities saying no, actually, extraordinarily enough the carvings had basically survived. There were two or three which were badly damaged in parts, and only one carving that was completely destroyed, which was a seven-foot drop which flanked a painting over a door in the king's drawing room.

Carving is a lonely profession

There's a saying in the trade: Carvers are starvers. Because carving is such a time-consuming activity. And most professional carvers, when they look at Gibbons' work — which is such high relief, and the excavations are so huge and the undercutting is so radical, and the surface detail is so fine — they see this as a shortcut to starvation. So I was just about the only person doing this kind of work full-time, for a living, from scratch. It was a small field then, and it's a small field now.

Dedication is what it takes to make exceptional work

There's a phenomenon with carving which is probably true of other things as well, you can achieve 90 percent of the effect with 50 percent of the effort. But the truth is, unless you do the final 10 percent, which takes another 50 percent of effort, you'll never achieve that fineness which is necessary if it's going to raise the hairs on your neck. So it's a killingly time-consuming occupation.

The effect of seeing Gibbons' work close up

When I first saw Gibbons' work in close quarters ... I nearly came out in hives. I was so astonished by the flamboyance of his modelling, and by the fineness of his cutting and undercutting. And then I went back to my workshop in upstate New York and stood at my desk — I remember, with my hands on my hips — and I looked at my own work almost with a sense of despair.

Battling the palace authorities at Hampton Court over aesthetics

I had certain ideas of how the carving should be presented. Gibbons always left his carving completely plain, and limewood is the palest wood in the forest. ... And it was attached to darker oak panelling, and the effect of this ghostly delicate carving floating above the darker panelling was astonishing. It was much commented upon in Gibbons' time — it was a real innovation.

So I thought it was necessary to the appearance of the carving, and we had tremendous battles over how it should appear. You know, most of us think of wood as brown. We're accustomed, I suppose because of the influence of the Victorians to think of it as brown, and I couldn't overcome that resistance in the end.

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Transcript

JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.

One day in the spring in the early 1970s, a young American named David Esterly had one of those life-changing moments. Visiting a London church, he looked up at botanical garlands made of wood, flowers that seemed to hover in the air. This was the work of Grinling Gibbons, a carver who lived between 1648 and1721.

Gibbons was said to be the greatest wood carver of all time. Today, his work can be seen at St. Paul's Cathedral, Hampton Court and other British landmarks. Esterly, who was at the time a scholar at Cambridge University in England, trained himself to carve in the Gibbons style.

He has a new exhibition opening later this week in Manhattan, as well as a new book called "The Lost Carving: A Journey to the Heart of Making." The book begins when he learns that a fire has destroyed a precious part of Gibbons' adornment at Hampton Court.

DAVID ESTERLY: I went into a state of grieving at this point, and I wrote a sort of obituary for the carvings and sent it off to a London weekly journal where it was published. And then I started receiving these wonderful phone calls from the palace authorities, saying: No. Actually, extraordinarily enough, the carvings had basically survived.

There were two or three which were badly damaged in parts, and only one carving that was completely destroyed, which was a seven-foot-long drop which flanked a painting over a door in the king's drawing room, as it was called.

LYDEN: And that becomes the carving that you eventually will recreate. But it wasn't a straight line. At first, somebody calls you up, and you said it was a great indignation. They wanted a British carver and not an American carver.

(LAUGHTER)

ESTERLY: Well, yes. I thought I was poised to be given the job, but there was a small group among the authorities who felt that they should be encouraging British carvings. I was really just about the only person who was doing this kind of work fulltime for a living from scratch.

It was a small field then, and it's a small field now. As a matter of fact, Jacki, you are talking to the field. The field is in this room sitting on this chair.

(LAUGHTER)

LYDEN: You know, that becomes something that sort of is the elegiac part of this. You will be able to restore the lost carving. However, one of your other aspirations was that you would also ignite the imaginations of other people to carve, to learn as you did.

You had to learn trial and error, ruining a lot of wood. There isn't anyone, really, around. You met a couple of old carvers, but they're not your teachers. And you have all these wonderful things to say about carving - that it's the art of subtraction, that wood carvers revere the god of unseen effort but they're also unseen. Why are you the only one?

ESTERLY: No, there's a phenomenon with carving, which is probably true of other things as well. You can achieve 90 percent of the effect with 50 percent of the effort. But the truth is, unless you do the final 10 percent, which takes another 50 percent of effort, you'll never achieve that fineness which is necessary if it's going to, you know, raise the hairs on the back of your neck. So it's a killingly time-consuming occupation.

LYDEN: Let's go back to Hampton Court. It's going to take you about a year to make this piece, and it's a lovely year. You're commuting down from Hampton to London every day. You describe it as another world when you open the gates. But human considerations being what they are, it's also in some ways kind of a stormy time.

ESTERLY: It was stormy. I mean, I had certain ideas about how the carving, for example, should be presented. Gibbons always left his carving completely plain. And limewood is the palest wood in the forest.

LYDEN: Almost white, like frosting. It's kind of like frosting.

ESTERLY: Absolutely. Ghostly pale. And it was attached to darker oak paneling. And the effect of this ghostly delicate carving floating above the darker paneling was astonishing. It was much commented on in Gibbons' time. It was a real innovation. So I thought it was necessary to the appearance of the carving.

And we had tremendous battles over how the carving should appear. You know, most of us think of wood as brown. We're accustomed, I suppose because of the influence of the Victorians, to think of it as brown. And I couldn't overcome that resistance in the end.

LYDEN: David Esterly, you have learned to carve with a long-dead master at your side. There's this invisible long-departed Grinling Gibbons. Did he make you a better carver?

ESTERLY: Well, he certainly did. Yes. You know, when I first saw Gibbons' work at close quarters, I visited the palace shortly after the fire and got up on the scaffolding. And the first time I saw Gibbons' work close up, I nearly came out in hives. I was so astonished by the flamboyance of his modeling and by the fineness of his cutting and undercutting. And then I went back to my workshop in upstate New York and stood at my desk - I remember with my hands on my hips - and I looked out at my own work, and I felt almost a sense of despair, because I thought I had carved my leaves, for example, with a holographic accuracy.

You know, I would bring a leaf in from outside and put it on the workbench, and I'd copy it. But you know something? They looked like wooden leaves as opposed to Gibbons' inaccurate leaves which looked like real leaves.

And it was the first lesson that he taught me. There always has to be a translation into this new medium, and that you could only make a wooden leaf look like a real leaf by certain selective exaggerations. So even this very realistic form of art actually is artificial in its way.

LYDEN: When your year was finished, and you had created this beautiful seven-foot drop, these rope of botanicals that you were working from charred lumps of wood to reconstruct and a very hazy photograph that you had had blown up to scale, were you satisfied with the way it was mounted and presented?

ESTERLY: Well, no, because, of course, it was darkened to look like the other carving which had darkened over the years. And so, no, I was not happy. As a matter of fact, I didn't go out of my way to see it on the wall.

LYDEN: Maybe someday they will lighten these pieces at Hampton Court in the way that Gibbons would have intended.

ESTERLY: I'm hoping so. I'm hoping that people will someday see the carvings as William III saw them, as these celestially white garlands that looked as if they'd been gathered in heaven. So, no, I haven't given up hope.

LYDEN: Well, David Esterly, it's been a great pleasure talking to you. David Esterly joined us to talk about his new book, "The Lost Carving: A Journey to the Heart of Making." David, thank you so much.

ESTERLY: It's my pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.