David Esterly - The Lost Carving: A Journey to the Heart of Making

In March 1986, a disastrous fire swept through the royal palace of Hampton Court. Started by an overturned candle in the grace and favour apartments on the top floor, it did enormous damage to the apartments below that had been built for King William III at the end of the 17th century. Among the decorations of these apartments was a superb set of carvings by Grinling Gibbons, the greatest of the English sculptors in wood.

Across the Atlantic the news filtered through to David Esterly, also a carver in wood, but rare among his contemporaries in that he specialised in the same type of flamboyant and intricate carving that was the hallmark of Gibbons’ work. He feared the worst, the total destruction of the carvings, and was relieved to hear that, despite much damage, only one seven-foot drop that had graced the side of a door had been totally lost. The others could be repaired but this one had to be recreated from new.

Esterly won the commission to create the new work and this is his finely written and meditative account of the journey to its completion. He had come to carving late, after years of academic study of literature that had focused on the relationship between the poet Yeats and the 3rd-century mystic philosopher Plotinus. A chance visit, when he was thirty, to the wonderful altar carving by Gibbons in St James’s Piccadilly (image above) transported him to the ‘still centre of the universe’ and a new course for his life was set.

A carver needs wood, from the linden tree, or limewood as it is normally known, a set of tools and his or her own skills. The relationship between the three is constantly changing as the wood, at first so vulnerable to direct attack, tries to craft its own patterns against the power of the tools and their master. So carving is never dull and Esterly works longer and longer hours in the room designated to him and his co-workers in the palace. His studies of Plotinus alerted him to the possibilities of a perfection that transcended what his own efforts were shaping and so this is indeed a meditation into the core of creativity. One mark of perfection is to carve what cannot be seen to the same quality as what can be seen as if the invisible permeates the visible and so leads to a yet higher excellence. Esterly ridicules the conceptualism of Jeff Koons, who can imagine an idea in wood and then commission inept carvers (Esterly wonders whether they carved so badly as a deliberate prank) to shape it before an undiscriminating buyer parts with nearly six million dollars to own the finished article.

There are other stories running alongside the patient work of recreation: the inevitable bureaucratic conflicts, the decision whether to leave the new work as it would have been created by Gibbons or whether to match the colour to the remaining carvings. Had Gibbons used any form of sandpaper to finally smooth his work? The conventional view had been that he had not—but then what were those parallel striations which could be seen close up? The combined expertise of the Victoria & Albert and Natural History Museums finally brings up ‘Dutch rush’, a plant that incorporates silica on its stems and which once dried can indeed be used as sandpaper. An experiment shows that the striations match perfectly and a new understanding of Gibbons’ methods has emerged.

The Lost Carving reminded me of Orhan Parmuk’s My Name is Red, where his 16th-century miniaturists debate whether the end of their art is to achieve the perfection of their forbears or to risk evolving new forms. A phrase from an ancient Egyptian text also returned to me: ‘Take counsel with the ignorant as with the wise, for the limits of excellence cannot be reached and no artist fully possesses, his skill’. Esterly, sensitive as he is to the mystery of beauty, would certainly drink (a pint of Adnams Mild at the King’s Arms by the Lion Gate of Hampton Court) to that.

Reviewed by Charles Freeman, historical consultant to the Blue Guides. To read more about Hampton Court (as well as Charles Freeman’s own account of Eton College), see Blue Guide London.

The Lost Carving: A Journey to the Heart of Making published by Duckworth is the UK, Viking / Penguin in the US is now out in paperback.

The image at the head of this review shows a detail from Grinling Gibbons' limewood reredos in St James's Piccadilly. Photo © Blue Guides

To see more details about this book, check the Amazon links below.

  •  
  • 0 Comment(s)
  •  

Your comment

Notify me when someone adds another comment to this post

back

Latest

A tale of two Camparis
Food and drink notes - Brescia
Budapest Art Nouveau
Transylvanian Book Festival
Flawless ... and 100 years old
Extreme dairy farming in Sauris
Islamic Art in Florence
The Seuso Roman silver: on display at last
The Wonders of Pontormo
Builders of Budapest
Crowded Times
Good news from Florence
The Heartwarming Middle Ages
Waves of Art Nouveau
Bookshops in Budapest
Budapest at the Biennale
Living with Leonardo
The Zeugma Mosaics Saga
News from Syracuse
Raphael in Bergamo
Titian in Brescia
Comments and Updates on Blue Guide Budapest
Heroism on the Danube
The 'Romanesque Hall' in Budapest
Dürer in Milan
Re-interpreting the Trojan Horse
Charles I: King and Collector
Fleming and Honour Remembered
Pictures from Lake Maggiore
A late Art Nouveau treasure in Budapest
Anna: Female destinies in Transylvania
What’s on in Florence
Art Within Limits
A Time in Rome
Diana Athill, 'A Florence Diary'
Season’s Greetings
Christmas with the Gonzaga
Aegean Turkey: Troy to Bodrum
Collectors in Florence
European rail changes 2018
A people who changed history
Return to 'A Room with a View'
Italian island food
The Scythians at the British Museum
Rogues' Gallery by Philip Hook
Ferragamo's Return
Silence of the looms
Grammar and Grace
The Seuso Saga
Giuliano da Sangallo
The Black Fields of Kula
Leonardo's "Adoration of the Magi" restored
Venice before Easter
Selectivity at the Uffizi
Guide to the Via Francigena
What Ariosto could see
News from Florence: Giovanni dal Ponte
More than just the David
The formidable Empress Matilda
Life, Art and Kenneth Clark
Hedonist's travel, Hungarian wine
Remarkable Manuscripts
Abstract Expressionism at the RA
Comments on Hungarian Wine: A Tasting Trip to the New Old...
Transylvania Launched
Which 50 Sites of Antiquity?
A Treasure in Cagli
The Transylvanian Book Festival
Comments on Travels in Transylvania: The Greater Târnava...
Roman Brixia
The new Museo degli Innocenti
Wine guide wins prize
Jesters at the Court of the Medici
Budapest, Freedom and the Olympics
The Roman Forum Reconstructed
Bernini's Beloved
Blue Guide Paris on Amazon
The Imperial Ramp in the Roman Forum
Sabbioneta, Cryptic City
Secret delights of Florence: the Bellini private museum
Cutting-edge mosque design in Albania
St Francis in Florence
To Austria’s Lake District by rail
Pilgrimage pathways to and from Rome
Five major London museums
Napoleon and Paris: Dreams of a capital
Whither Tate Britain?
The many lives of Nasreddin Hoca
Lesley Blanch: On the Wilder Shores of Love
The Middle Ages on the Road
Hellenistic bronzes in Florence
Europe by rail - an introduction
Frescoes in a convent of a closed order of nuns
Michelin starred Paris
A Michelangelo discovery?
Jan Morris: Ciao, Carpaccio: An Infatuation
The Venus de Milo fights back
Winter in Florence: a new look at Donatello
Tea (or coffee) with the Sultan
Artwork of the Month: January. Medieval stained glass
Which? ranks Blue Guides #2
Giacomo Leopardi: A poet in film
Sassoferrato and the Aion Mosaic
The Aventine and Turner in Rome
Artwork of the Month: December
Rendez-vous with Art
Rembrandt and the Dutch Golden Age
Giovanni Battista Moroni
London The Information Capital
Changes to European rail services for 2015
Comments on Blue Guide London
Egypt, Greece, & Rome
The Medici Villas of Tuscany and Tourism
Artwork of the Month: November. Reason, Unreason and the...
The first collectors of 'Primitives'
From Pompeii: The Afterlife of a Roman Town
Artwork of the Month: October. The Arch of Constantine
Sorting out the Uffizi
Waging war with a view
Dull London? Surely a mistake
Artwork of the month: September. Watercolour of the Great...
Italian Venice: A History
A tale of three museums
Rissëu
All Aboard the Cheese Train
National Gallery London to allow photography
Artwork of the Month: August. Bust of Augustus Caesar from...
Sacred Splendours: reliquaries of Florence's pious grand...
Book Review. Helena Attlee: The Land where Lemons Grow
Holiday reading
Artwork of the Month: July. The Phaistos Disc
Budapest to Vienna and Salzburg by Railjet
Marvellous and Macabre: the art of Jacopo Ligozzi
David Esterly - The Lost Carving: A Journey to the Heart of...
Artwork of the month: June, Pordenone's Noli me Tangere
Budapest to Serbia by EuroCity Avala
Saving the Great Bear: Trieste's floating crane
News from Florence
Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
Baccio Bandinelli: a rehabilitation
Artwork of the month: May. "Flora", Pompeii
Travelling around Britain in style
In praise of plague cakes
Princesses from the Trabzon Empire
Artwork of the month: April. The Seuso Silver
Uffizi selfies come to Budapest
Florentine Mannerists at Palazzo Strozzi
Rome: seasonal stations
Sustainable living in Bolzano
Artwork of the month: March. Murillo's Flower Girl
Tastes change
Francesco Laurana's serene beauty
Being Mithridates
Florence and Buda: two cities of learning
Thoughts on Rome
Copyrighting Heritage
Food is the new Florence
A Grumpy Visit to Westminster Abbey
The Honey Of Hybla
So what is the Turkish Van?
The Pike: by Lucy Hughes-Hallett
Smoothly off the buffers
Under Another Sky
'Art under Attack' at Tate Britain
Comments on Smoothly from Harrow
Renaissance art from Florence to Paris and back
Comments on Blue Guide Venice
Hepworth's "Winged Figure": 50th anniversary
Tying the Knot in Urfa
Venice and the Politcs of Washing
Comments on Staten Island: A Blue Guide Travel Monograph
Comments on Short Guide to London 1953
Turin restored and rejuvenated
A palatial art museum in Trieste
The cloisters of Santa Maria Novella
The wonderful Palazzo Grimani, Venice
Pope Benedict: an unorthodox farewell
Obscure St Valentine and his famous Feast Day
Burano in February
The St Agnes lambs
Leonardo’s “Adoration of the Magi” in restoration
Cathedral picks: Exeter
The real Patrick Leigh Fermor?
The joy of Giambattista Tiepolo
Leonardo’s “Battle of Anghiari”
In praise of Venice’s water transport system
The Red Rooms at the Uffizi
The Blue Rooms at the Uffizi
A trip to the Port of Trajan, outside Rome
Pour l’honneur de la France
An early-morning visit to Sant’Andrea delle Fratte, Rome
Church of SS Luca e Martina reopens above Roman Forum
How the tide turned at the Milvian Bridge
A compelling reason to visit Trapani province
St Augustine and his mother at Ostia
Visiting St Paul’s in London
Hadrian, Antinoüs and the Christian Fathers
Earliest-known image of a martyrdom
Can’t face the Vatican crowds? Try San Lorenzo
Turin, Pisa and mathematics
Ideal cities are all around us. It’s simply a matter of...
On Canaletto and Guardi and Venetian Light
Mithraism: a Roman Mystery Religion
Random Musings on Pontormo and Vermeer
The Amphitheatre of Londinium
Edward Lear and Crete
A handful of favourite things to see in Sicily
The mystery of the veiled virgins
Venice without the crowds
Cividale del Friuli and the Lombards
The Trouble with Snake Goddesses
The tragedy of Maximilian, Emperor of Mexico
Oranges, lemons and relic cults: an escape from the queues...
City Picks: Verona
Hitherto unknown language discovered in east Anatolia
Painting of the Day
Museo Barracco: a little-visited gem
Santo Stefano Rotondo in Rome
Staten Island: Upcoming Exhibition …
International Gothic at the Uffizi
Celebrating Santa Rosalia, patron of Palermo
Delhi Ghost Trail
Comments on Pilgrim's Rome: A Blue Guide Travel Monograph
The Roman Villa at Balácapuszta (Baláca, Nemesvámos,...
The Bard of….Messina? Was Shakespeare Sicilian?
Rereading Ruskin
Sicily’s emblem: the Trinacria
Luca Signorelli on exhibition in Umbria
The Tribuna of the Uffizi reopens
The Venice equivalent of the anonymous Tweet?
Comments on Blue Guide Sicily
Sicilian Holiday Reading
Attila the Hun and the Foundation of Venice
Death in Venice cocktail a hit
The Gentry: Stories of the English
381 years ago this June
Brooklyn Bridge: a New York landmark
A Venetian Update
Sixth-century church to reopen
Roman Aquileia
Springtime in Friuli
Northern Italy dining and accommodation recommendations
Al Dente: Madness, Beauty & the Food of Rome
A celebration of Lucca
Romantic music in a Baroque setting
Blue Guide India Delhi Launch
Nikolaus Pevsner: The Life
The Man of Numbers: Fibonacci’s Arithmetic Revolution
Comments on Blue Guide India
The Roman Forum
Whispering City: Rome and its Histories
The 15th-century Health Museum at Edirne
City of Fortune, How Venice Won and Lost a Naval Empire
Books about Istanbul
Comments on Blue Guide Istanbul
Comments on Blue Guide Florence
Constantine: Unconquered Emperor, Christian Victor
Comments on The Venice Lido: a Blue Guide Travel Monograph
Comments on Blue Guide Literary Companions: Rome, London,...
Comments on Blue Guide Italy Food Companion
The 54th Venice Biennale stars Tintoretto
Holy Bones, Holy Dust
RECOMMENDED PLACES TO STAY AND EAT ON CRETE
Delhi: Adventures in a Megacity
Full Circle: How the Classical World Came Back to Us
Comments on Blue Guide Turkey
Comments on Blue Guide Rome
Comments on Blue Guide Hay-on-Wye
Comments on Blue Guide Greece the Aegean Islands
Comments on Blue Guide Crete
Comments on Sites of Antiquity: from Ancient Egypt to the...
Comments on Blue Guide Tuscany
Familiar face
Comments on Blue Guide Concise Italy
Comments on Blue Guide Paris
Comments on Blue Guide New York
Comments on Blue Guide Central Italy
Comments on Blue Guide Southwest France
Blue Guide Northern Italy
Comments on Blue Guide The Marche & San Marino
Comments on Blue Guide Museums and Galleries of London
A day trip to Ostia Antica from Rome - highly recommended
Comments on Blue Guide Southern Italy
Comments on Blue Guide Concise Rome
A day trip from Venice up the Brenta Canal
A day trip to Murano from Venice
Pietrasanta, Pisa: in search of Stagi
Reading list for Venice
Reading list for Florence and Tuscany
The Best Credit / Debit Card for Travel
Ruskin on Venice
Reading list for Rome
Comments on Blue Guide Greece the Mainland

Archive

follow us in feedly