On its surface, this special book is devoted to the subject of woodcarving. But The Lost Carving is much more than that. It's the story of 17th century English woodcarver, Grinling Gibbons. It's also the story of how a Cambridge-educated American magically fell under Gibbons's spell and came to devote his life to carving limewood (linden) in high relief, as did Gibbons. It's the story of the author's attempts to understand Gibbons and, eventually, to think and in a sense become Gibbons. It's the story of the often-trying struggle to replace a Gibbons panel lost to posterity in a tragic fire in the royal palace at Hampton Court. But most of all, it's the story, as its subtitle states, of "a journey to the heart of making."
Fate determined Esterly's life, as it does all lives. A chance visit to St. James's Church in London's Piccadilly found him face-to-face with a Gibbons carving he'd never expected to see, that he hadn't even known existed. In one magical moment, Esterly began his conversion from a man of the mind, for which he was well-trained, to a man of doing, a man of making. He chose to learn from Gibbons both by studying and by carving, thus choosing his own eventual fate.
Gibbons began his career with religious carvings, as was the style of the day. But the religious wars of the time made this problematic at best, and Gibbons turned to the deep three-dimensional carvings of fruits, plants and flowers for which he is most known. They succeeded because they were non-controversial and found favor in all quarters.
Esterly recounts his early lessons in carving, learning by trial how to hold the chisels, how to apply pressure, how to use his whole body in the art of delicate shaping. He returned to England to learn high relief carving in limewood, Gibbons's medium, at a time when nobody else was doing it. His lessons were his own. Early on, he found his weaknesses centered on the use of the tools. Later, once tools were mastered, weaknesses in design came to the fore.
As true for all hand tool workers, Esterly devotes much time to honing his tools to a fine degree of sharpness. As he began to carve more and more, he came to understand that 50 percent of the work of carving gets him to 90 percent completion of a piece. But it's the final 10 percent, requiring half the work, that makes or breaks the quality of a piece. A piece succeeds best when its creation appears effortless. This lesson is applicable to all creative enterprise.
The reproduction of the lost Gibbons panel came with many trials. The English resisted the idea of an American carver being employed to do the work in the first place. Then, parts of the design were hard to discern and guestimates had to be made. The carvings had darkened over time and through the application of wax in different eras. There was, as well, smoke damage from the fire on the uncharred panels. Should the panels be restored to their original lightness? How much of the original carvings should be retained and how much replaced? Should there be speculative carving to replace bits lost entirely?
Who, Esterly wonders, is in charge when one carves: the carver or the carving? The Neoplatonic view that forms are drawn from universal models contrasted in his mind with the romantic view that forms can evolve freely from nature. Thus, the dilemma: is the carver a god or a slave to his or her work? Esterly concluded that he begins as a god but as he approaches the final 10 percent that yields perfection he becomes a slave to the piece. What rankled him most, however, was that with the Gibbons panel he was copying, not creating, and thus became a slave throughout the whole project.
Early in reproducing the Gibbons panel, Esterly made a major mistake of design, one that only became indelibly clear after a charred piece of the original was uncovered in the ashes. From this experience, he took the lesson "first this, then that," a sequence to be repeated endlessly throughout major projects. In short, he concluded to break big jobs down into their subordinate parts and tackle them one-by-one.
Woven into the narrative is Esterly's struggle to understand Gibbons, to know him and his career as well as he could, to emulate him, and eventually to embody his spirit and his art. In the end, however, he gave up his efforts to impersonate Gibbons and was content to copy him instead.
Carving technique is a theme that runs throughout the book. Esterly lays out his carving technique, how he first wastes away large sections of the limewood to reveal the underlying structure, then carving the major elements before turning attention to the tinier details. The Gibbons panels were carved to a special degree of smoothness and it was assumed at first that they were produced this way straight from the chisel. But observation revealed uniform minute scratches in the surface of leaves and petals, raising questions of how they got there. Unable to duplicate the scratches by chisel and rejecting the idea of sandpaper—not invented until much later—Esterly tried sharkskin, as Roubo had suggested, but it did not match the scratches. Finally, Dutch rush, a stem-like plant that absorbs silica in its cambium, was found to duplicate the marks, enabling Esterly and his co-workers to duplicate the fine finish achieved by Gibbons.
Understanding and replicating the detailed depths of the high relief Gibbons carvings posed another challenge. A charred fragment eventually proved that Gibbons had nailed together multiple layers of carvings one atop the other so that deep details became possible to achieve.
This delightful story about Esterly's life and the experience of reproducing the lost Gibbons carving is richly and sensitively told. It's replete with wisdom about carving and creation. Carvers will relish the detail of his struggles to learn, to carve, to create. Artists will appreciate the dilemma around the decision to originate or emulate. Woodworkers will gain from his exhortation to push through the final 10 percent that yields the appearance of effortless perfection. Armchair readers will enjoy his attention to poetry, philosophic allusions and the beautiful turn of phrase he accomplishes. It's the second time I've read this book and I love it. A third reading will, I'm sure, yield yet more rich rewards.
Find out more and purchase The Lost Carving - A Journey to the Heart of Making
J. Norman Reid is a woodworker, writer, and woodworking instructor living in the Blue Ridge Mountains with his wife, a woodshop full of power and hand tools and four cats who think they are cabinetmaker's assistants. He is the author of Choosing and Using Handplanes.
He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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