In 1986 a fire raged through Hampton Court, a historic Royal Palace of the British monarchy. Lost in the fire were large portions of a masterwork by the famous British woodcarver Grinling Gibbons (1648 – 1721). Gibbons carved decorative mouldings that adorned the mantels and doorways of his patrons . He became famous for his signature intricate floral patterns of curled leaves and hanging fruit. Gibbons often embellished his designs with stylized ribbons. All of these elements— leaves, fruit, ribbons— were carved. The near life-like results are breathtaking.
The Historic Royal Palaces (HRP) agency was charged with finding someone who could restore the lost art. It was no easy task finding a second Gibbons. Carving a series of leaves from wood, some made to look as though damaged by insects (yes the attention to detail was that meticulous), requires a steady, sure hand. Needless to say the HRP made it known that the less inspired masters of the wood carving fraternity need not apply. The task of finding a suitable carver was made all the harder because no one knows exactly how Gibbons went about creating these masterpieces.
Enter David Esterly, a scholar (think Harvard and Cambridge) who grappled with the philosophy of Plotinus and poetry of Yeats before embracing the art of wood carving at a late age. Today Esterly is a world renowned wood carver and sights Gibbons as one of his inspirations.
The book is Esterly’s memoirs about this restoration project that the HRP awarded him under a cloud of controversy (Esterly is American and some thought the job should go to a Brit). The story is multifaceted. You get bits of philosophy when Esterly contemplates the nature of art and art making. You get intrigue and mystery as Esterly and his associates puzzle over Gibbons’ technique finding clues in old photos, paintings and manuscripts. You get politics as Esterly finds himself unwittingly involved in the intrigues of agencies guarding Britain’s cultural heritage. You also get history as Esterly narrates briefly the life and times of Grinling Gibbons. All of these segments of the story are weaved together brilliantly and make for a compelling read. It doesn’t hurt that Esterly aside from being a world renowned carver in his own right is a very good writer with a talent for crafting inspired metaphors. The book surprises and educates.