You wait for ages, then two exhibitions open at the same time about the same man in London – Grinling Gibbons, probably the most famous woodcarver in England.

The impetus for two exhibitions is that this year marks the 300th anniversary of his death, so there’s both a look back at his work, but also a look forward at the woodworkers of modern times.

Grinling Gibbons unique gift wasn’t just being a master carver, but that he switched from the oak that predominated and leant itself to solid but fairly flat carving, to limewood which allowed him to really run riot with the wood carving it into exceptionally intricate designs.

Although mostly famous for wood, in later years as fashions changed, he also worked in stone.


This exhibition, put on by the Grinling Gibbons Society brings together a lot of works by Gibbons from buildings around the UK, and some more recent works that are usually privately owned. Probably the best advantage of this exhibition is being able to get really close to carvings that are usually in grand rooms and high up above heads where they can only be seen from a distance.

A set of carvings from Petworth hang on walls and as an opening, they’re astonishing in the depth of detail in the carving. Not just the quality of the work itself, but how everything is carved so deeply to create the 3D effects. In places it looks more like someone has painted real plants and animals a brown paint and mounted them.

A huge panel thought to have been commissioned by Sir Robert Dashwood to go above his fireplace (seems dangerous) really shows off Grinling’s genius with wood. A wooden larder to hang in the living room.

Grinling’s workshop expanded over the years as he won more commissions, and although his work appears in churches, most of it is fairly secular and that makes it more interesting to my mind as it’s not the “same old ecclesiastical stuff”, although there is a bit of it here in places. One of the items on display that’s not by Gibbons is a remarkably detailed and very regal looking panel, which unsurprisingly turns out to be owned by The Queen.

Gibbons was very much a businessman, and there are a couple of paintings, one he commissioned of himself, to promote his image as a successful businessman to potential clients. Do check out the books on display from when he was admitted to a City of London livery company, and the one when as Warden he had to swear an oath that he wasn’t a Catholic. His signature is easy to read in there.

As an exhibition, it’s a rare chance to get up close to the works he created, and then you get a real understanding as to why he was called the Michelangelo of wood. The exhibition also does something which isn’t immediately obvious, but by removing the wood carvings from their usually wooden backgrounds and mounting them on plain backgrounds, the detail of the woodwork seems to jump out more dramatically than when it’s lost in a surrounding sea of even more wood panelling.

The exhibition, Centuries in the Making is at Bonhams on Bond Street Mon-Fri 10am-4:30pm until 27th August. It’s on the second floor, so just go in and up the wooden (of course) staircase. There’s also a small display of award-wining modern carvings in the ground floor reception.

St Mary Abchurch

This church in the City of London is host to a short exhibition by the Master Carvers’ Association of modern carving by their members, mostly in wood, but also some samples of stonework.

There are a number of music stands around the church, one rather delightfully decorated with birds in a tree – to represent birdsong. A music stand by Ben Nemo is astonishing, being based around motifs of the sea with an octopus at the base rising up to the stand, that rewards looking around the side to see what will be holding the music.

Pay attention to the table in the centre, the rippling was all hand-carved. However probably the most amazing item is right next to the altar, and the exceptionally delicate bird’s tail.

Something that’s easy to miss as it’s in a small box on a table to the right of the altar contains a sample piece showing the stages of carving a modern replica of Gibbon’s famous cravat.

And something on the other side of the room that could set a trend, are lapel broaches, all carved from wood. So much nicer than diamonds!

It’s a fairly small exhibition, and dotted around an already richly decorated church can mean you have to walk around a couple of times to isolate the exhibition from the church, but a guidebook at the back of the church will help identify who carved each of the works.

The exhibition, Art & Ornament is open at St Mary Abchurch near to Bank tube station Mon-Fri 8am-4pm until 20th August.


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