Oud Holland

Review of: 'Grinling Gibbons and his contemporaries' (2021)

June 2023 


Review of: Ada de Wit, Grinling Gibbons and his contemporaries (1650-1700). The Golden Age of woodcarving in the Netherlands and Britain, Turnhout [Brepols] 2022

Ada de Wit recently defended, at Radboud University in Nijmegen, her dissertation on the decorative woodcarving arts produced in England and the Dutch Republic during the second half of the seventeenth century, with particular attention given to the virtuoso carver Grinling Gibbons (1648-1721). Recently, the luxuriously executed and richly illustrated trade edition of her dissertation was published, which is the subject of the book under review here. The name Gibbons will ring a few art history bells, at least in the Netherlands, though also in England, where the artist is regarded as a major figure – to whom a very active society is also dedicated.1 The 300th anniversary of the artist’s death, in August 2021, for example, was generously commemorated with a ‘Gibbons year’ under the patronage of the then Prince of Wales, extending well into 2022. The publication of Ada de Wit's book is, therefore, well-timed.

That Gibbons has a central role in this book, is not only due to the high quality of his hyper-naturalistic and sometimes illusionistic carvings (fig 1.), though also because of his connection to the Dutch Republic. He was born in Rotterdam, albeit of English parents, and moved to England at age 19, first to York and later London, where he built a particularly successful career. His patrons included Charles II (1630-1685), as well as his successors, William (1650-1702) and Mary (1652-1694). However, Gibbons’ apprenticeship took place in the Netherlands, which makes some questions De Wit focuses on in her dissertation, of particular relevance.2 For example, to what extent should Gibbons be seen as an exponent of the high-quality Dutch carving tradition, who had cleverly adapted his virtuosity and inventiveness developed in the Republic, to specific English tastes? How and where precisely was he educated? How was his own workshop organised? And, finally, was Gibbons indeed a revolutionary artist of unparalleled talent, or primarily a shrewd entrepreneur with a strong sense of self-promotion –  whose style was, after all, less exceptional than his present reputation suggests? In other words, De Wit's starting point was, as she herself put it, a demythologisation of Gibbons, by nuancing his qualities in the context of the high level of decorative woodcarving, on both sides of the North Sea.3

Cover of: Grinling Gibbons and his contemporaries (1650-1700). The Golden Age of woodcarving in the Netherlands and Britain

Middle left: fig. 1, Joannes Hannart, Mirror- or picture frame, 1690-1700, 164 × 100 cm., Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Middle: fig. 2, David playing the harp, surrounded by cherubs, c. 1666, Detail of a large carved picture frame, boxwood, c. 17 cm. high., Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe, Hamburg 

Middle right: fig. 3, Grinling Gibbons, King David playing a harp with St. Cecilia at the organ, surrounded by cherubs and a heavenly consort of musicians, c. 1667-1670, boxwood, 37 x 24 cm., York Civic Trust (Fairfax House), York

Right: fig. 4, Grinling Gibbons, Cravat, late-seventeenth century, limewood, 24 x 21 cm., Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Current views of Gibbons were largely shaped by English art historians: four monographic studies of British origin appeared during the last century; the first by H. Avray Tipping in 1914, followed by studies by David Green (1964), Geoffrey Beard (1989) and David Esterly (1998).4 The latter was a professional woodcarver, and his approach was heavily focused on unraveling Gibbons’ technique. What De Wit adds to this literature is not so much a new vision of the artist's work, but rather, a great deal of context: a sweeping panorama of the entire spectrum of woodcarving in the Netherlands and England in the second half of the seventeenth century. She has thus created a detailed backdrop against which Gibbons's work is placed. Herein lies the most innovative aspect and the greatest merit of De Wit's research: for the very first time, we are offered an integral picture of decorative woodcutting in both countries that extends over such diverse and fascinating areas as ship decorations, carriage carvings, interior ornaments, furniture decorations, mirror and picture frames, and church furniture areas which, until now, were mainly studied separately. The only adjacent area not really covered – understandably, as there are too few documented pieces – is that of musical instrument makers and the decorations of their products. The book thus makes a convincing case for the particularly high level at which w worked on both sides of the North Sea – even outside of the major artistic centers such as Amsterdam, The Hague, or London.5

As a detailed survey work, her study fits into the solid, if now somewhat outdated tradition of, for example, Elisabeth Neurdenburg's The seventeenth-century sculpture in the Northern Netherlands. Hendrik de Keyser (1565-1621), Artus Quellinus, Rombout Verhulst and contemporaries, of 1948, based on fact-finding, describing and stylistic comparisons. De Wit treats the relevant literature with the necessary critical eye, however, her strength clearly lies more in synthesis than in developing any real new vision. Consequently, a considerable part of the text is descriptive in nature, rarely really deepening or even deeply analyzing. A few times this is explicitly stated with a somewhat disappointing conclusion, such as with: “More research on Dutch wood reliefs is needed to understand Gibbons' inspiration”; or, “This problem requires a separate in-depth study; the account here reflects the current knowledge of Marot based on existing literature”.6

That said, there are also rather creditable results from De Wit’s own research.For example, through new archival research, she succeeded in putting the Rotterdam woodcarvers in Gibbon's learning time in a sharper light. In particular, the Van Douwe family as the leading carving dynasty of ship decoration in the Maastad, receives a clear review for the first time, providing a new perspective on Gibbons' potential Rotterdam apprenticeship, an aspect to which I will return.8 Also, thanks to her discovery of a number of accounts concerning the furnishing of postmaster Simon de Brienne's house, it became known who the maker of the monumental staircase from the Lange Vijverberg 11 building in The Hague, was: local carver Willem van Sundert (1656-1747). Today, that richly carved staircase is kept in Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, and as she notes within the book, even prompted her research.9 This identification also provided opportunity to correct the older attribution of a second, and stylistically related staircase, originating from the Buitenhof 28 building in The Hague: not Sonnemans (as I had argued in 1991) but again Willem van Sundert.10 Personally, however, I am not entirely convinced by this new attribution. There are indeed obvious similarities between the Rotterdam and The Hague staircases, though these are, in my opinion, not as great as De Wit suggests. The carving on Van Sundert's staircase in Rotterdam is more plastic, airy and sharp – see, for example, the elegant and daring interweaving of the thin acanthus stems (fig. 193) – versus a flatter and somewhat heavier treatment of the acanthus motif in the staircase from Buitenhof 28. Moreover, it is my firm impression that there is a stronger stylistic affinity with the also somewhat flatter carving on the organ case of The Hague's Nieuwe Kerk, which is with certainty, attributable to Sonnemans (fig. 188).11

De Wit’s discovered an un-Dutch Baroque carved table with a chained slave, the terracotta scale model of which is preserved in the Dordrechts Museum. That model is generally attributed to the Dordrecht sculptor Hendrik Noteman (figs. 181, 182).12 De Wit also managed to sharpen our view of the commission situation of the pair of magnificent Marotesque mirror frames – originally made as picture frames – by the Hague sculptor Joannes Hannart (c. 1650-1709), now divided between the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Rijksmuseum: the monogram ACC, crowning the Amsterdam frame, turns out to belong to Adriana Christina Carelsdr, the daughter of the Leiden couple Carel Heydanus and Jacoba van Swanenburg. Her identification supports a longstanding suspicion that both frames were commissioned for the portraits of Adriana's parents, possibly by Adriana herself (fig. 1).13

Curiously, another, also rather spectacular Dutch painting frame of boxwood, commissioned by a noble couple from Zutphen and dating from c. 1666, kept in the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe in Hamburg since 1961, is not discussed at all by De Wit (fig. 2).14 This omission weighs extra heavily because the frame also features a harp-playing David that is remarkably close to the same depiction in the boxwood relief Gibbons made in York, his earliest known work in England (fig. 154). Despite De Wit’s own caveat that, “This study has by no means attempted to be comprehensive [...]”.15 Some omissions are difficult to excuse. For example, the undiscussed, refined carving of the Deventer sculptor Derck Daniels (1632-1710) demonstrates particularly well how high the level of carving was even outside the province of Holland. Moreover, Daniels' naturalistic frames anticipate the work of Gibbons in England.16

What about the central questions De Wit asked herself in her introduction? After reading this study, should the artistic significance of Gibbons’ work in light of the so flourishing art of woodcarving in the Republic indeed be somewhat tempered? I certainly think that Ada de Wit has succeeded in putting Gibbons' seemingly untouchable image into perspective by situating it among an overwhelming number of examples of very high-quality Dutch decorative carvings (cf. figs. 71, 72, 88-101, 235, 257, 263). If, for example, we compare the impressive and virtually unknown interior decoration of the Landshuis in Hellevoetssluis (figs. 87-98), a building attributed to Pieter Post, with what Gibbons and his team are making in England some ten years later, it becomes immediately clear that his virtuosity is not out of the blue but had its roots in the Dutch tradition. Indeed, we might even ask ourselves – something De Wit does not do, by the way – whether the young Gibbons himself was not involved in the decoration of the Landshuis around 1664, mere years before he made the crossing to England. Indeed, we see in Hellevoetsluis – nota bene under the smoke of Rotterdam – not only a rare high level of decorative woodcarving that stands out by great spatiality of concept paired with an original distribution of ornamentation on the interior architecture, but also an utterly convincing rendering of figures. Such a combination is at that time rather uncommon in both Republic and English decorative sculpture, but we soon find it in Gibbons.  

This brings me to the question, which may have been De Wit's hidden motivation in writing the dissertation that preceded the book: how and where was Grinling Gibbons trained? That tricky question has also been raised by previous researchers, resulting in the hypothesis that Gibbons would have been formed in the Amsterdam studio of Artus Quellinus (1609-1668), where the sculptural decoration of Amsterdam's then-new Town Hall (Royal Palace on Dam Square) was created between 1650-1665.17 It is a chronologically likely scenario, further fueled by the assortment of rich naturalistic garlands on and in the Amsterdam building, which, were obviously a source of inspiration for Gibbons (as well as many other sculptors, for that matter). Moreover, this theory seems to be supported by the fact that Gibbons had also worked for some time in London, with another member of the Quellinus family: Arnold Quellin (1653-1686). Only the limewood carver David Esterly (1944-2019) had, rightly, backed off somewhat and sought Gibbons' in one of the numerous carving studios on the European mainland instead, incidentally without entirely excluding Quellinus' influence: “All evidence [...] points to his apprenticeship on the Continent taking place in a workshop of this sort, operating on the last shores of an already old tradition.”18

De Wit rejects the theory that Gibbons studied with Quellinus and counters it with an alternative view, which in my opinion, hits closer to home. Based on her research into Rotterdam's wood carvings between circa 1650-1660, she considers it more plausible that Gibbons was educated in his birthplace, where there were sufficient opportunities, as she indeed demonstrates.19 The workshop of Willem Jacobsz van Douwe (1635-1689), who was a successful Rotterdam specialist in ship carving – like his better-known son François, who also managed to secure important foreign commissions – is the most obvious place, not least because it was literally around the corner from the Gibbons' family home.20 An attractive and logical thought as this may seem, there is also something to be said against it. De Wit’s dismissal of the Quellinus hypothesis based on a lack of archival evidence also applies here. On page 339, however, that is conveniently ignored: “It might be expected that Gibbons was well trained in carving that hard timber [oak] since he started his career decorating ships [italics my own]”. In her conclusion, De Wit, fortunately, returns to her earlier, more nuanced view: “No documents have been found which could shed light on his master. The simplest and most natural theory is that he had his initial training in Rotterdam, perhaps in the Van Douwe workshop. [...] He might have gone to another workshop as a journeyman before embarking for York”.21 Indeed, there is only circumstantial evidence for a Rotterdam education of Gibbons, so it remains educated guesswork. I can certainly imagine that Gibbons was initially apprenticed to Van Douwe, but it is likely, in my view, that he subsequently worked in an even more advanced environment before crossing over to England. Two of his earliest known works argue for this: a boxwood relief depicting the harp-playing David, which can be linked with certainty to Gibbons' early years in England (in York) (c. 1668-1670) (fig. 3), and his limewood Crucifixion relief of 1671 (figs. 154, 156). Both pieces exude a strong ambition to make a name for himself as a figurative carver of delicate representations in wood, even taking into account that they both refer back to print examples and therefore do not involve his own inventions.

De Wit leaves the vexing problem of Gibbons’ training unresolved. Leaving aside the possibility of a specialised training elsewhere in the Dutch Republic – as maybe is implied by the hinted similarity, of Gibbons' earliest work to the aforementioned Hamburg painting frame; the suggestion that Gibbons may have received further training in one of the numerous sculptor's studios that were established in Antwerp or Mechelen, deserves more attention. Both Flemish cities had a rich and long tradition of figurative carving, including in boxwood, and they were a breeding ground for versatile sculptural talent that, not infrequently, found employment elsewhere – including England.22 In addition, there was ample opportunity to hone skills in decorative carving, which was itself, mainly produced to decorate Baroque church furniture.23 Strangely enough, such a possible Southern Netherlandish training has never been closely examined in the literature on Gibbons, even as some arguments can be made for it; such as the fact that the angel heads that so regularly appear in Gibbons' decorative carvings show unmistakable Antwerp traits (cf. figs. 295, 311, 326, 327, 333). His later working relationships with Flemings in England, such as Laurens Vandermeulen (1643-1719) of Mechelen, Peter van Dievoet (1661-1729) of Brussels and the aforementioned Arnold Quellin of Antwerp, could imply a Flemish-studio orientation.

To the question of workshop organisation, another of the central questions De Wit raises in her introduction; she surprisingly does not at all return to, in her book.24 Only in the conclusion does she touch on this point, with the rather gratuitous observation:

“He must have had a big workshop and many helpers. We know frustratingly little about it, and we can never be sure that even if he signed a bill the carving was really done by him… We still know little about workshops, even that of Gibbons in London. It is unlikely that documents will be found that could give more information about his enterprise, but technical research, analysing tool marks and treatment of details, can reveal individual hands. Such research ought to be conducted by conservators, woodcarvers and art historians together.”25

The same nonchalance goes for a number of other aspects of all these fantastic carvings. Apparently, the decorative nature of these fascinating still lifes did not provide a reason to ask further iconographic questions, whether or not in relation to the function of the rooms or furniture on which they were applied. Unfortunately, issues of material, materiality and technical bravura, matters of such great interest in recent art history, also remain untouched. Gibbons and his fellow craftsmen carved primarily in the finely textured lime wood, occasionally in the much tougher oak, and occasionally in the luxurious and compact boxwood. There is a long European tradition of leaving the latter type of wood unpainted, but that certainly did not apply to linden. Why, then, was most of the decorative carving by Gibbons and his English craftsmen in lime left monochromatic and ‘bare’ as a rule, while in the Republic it was just the opposite? Michael Baxandall's classic study of the late Gothic limewood sculptors in southern Germany could have served as a spur to De Wit's consideration of this kind of more conceptual questions.26

How was Gibbons’ virtuosity – an inevitable concept in all this breathtaking carving - described and perceived by contemporaries?27 The link that De Wit suggests between the paper cutting art of Rotterdam's Gillis van Vliet (1644-1701) and Gibbons's wood carvings – for example, his illusionistic lace cravat in lime wood, now in the Victoria and Albert Museum (fig. 159) – is not without significance in this regard, and definitely calls for further research.28 Both genres, papercutting and decorative woodcarving, have in common the attention to minute detail, an airy fragility, a monochrome nature and almost unimaginable techniques used for execution. Vertue's witty observation that a pot of flowers crafted by Gibbons was carved so unimaginably thin that the petals moved in the breeze of passing carriages, connects well with this, as does Horace Walpole's description of the Cravat, then in his possession (not quoted by De Wit): “...the art of which arrives even to deception.”29 combine footnotes (fig. 4) Paper cuttings, like Gibbons' tour de forces working in wood, could be widely admired at the time, not least among royalty and nobility. For example, Gibbons supplied three of his lace cravats to King Charles II, other specimens were incorporated into wall decorations at Chatsworth and Petworth (fig. 301), and an entire strip of five ‘point de Venise’ cravats is included in the ‘Cosimo Panel’, the magnificent still life that Charles II donated to the Grand Duke of Tuscany, Cosimo III de' Medici (1642-1723), in 1682.30 That the virtuoso Dutch ‘cut-paper’ artist Johannes van Achelom (1640-c. 1703/11) – on account of his virtuoso miniature cutting – was the latter's chamberlain, is, therefore, of no coincidence.31

In summary, De Wit's study should be seen first and foremost as a skillfully written and quite a monumental compilation of many, rather brilliant and often underexposed works of art, enriched with beautiful illustrations. Her work belongs to a solid kind of classical art history, admittedly without great surprises or conceptually innovative angles. However, in its breadth and thoroughness, it is a very valuable contribution to a branch of sculpture (at least in the Netherlands) that is all too often, forgotten. The question whether Grinling Gibbons may also be seen as an exponent of the high-quality Dutch sculpture tradition seems to me, to have been convincingly answered in the affirmative with this study – even if uncertainty remains about his precise artistic roots in the Low Countries, or elsewhere. His inventiveness and unparalleled talent are certainly not demythologized by De Wit's book, but rather, nuanced with verve.

Frits Scholten
Senior Curator of Sculpture
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam


1 grinling-gibbons.org

2 A. de Wit, Grinling Gibbons and his contemporaries (1650-1700). The Golden Age of woodcarving in the Netherlands and Britain, Turnhout 2022, p. 7.

3 A. de Wit 2022 (note 2), p. 260.

4 H. Avray Tipping, Grinling Gibbons and the woodwork of his age, Londen 1914; D. Green, Grinling Gibbons: His work as carver and statuary, London 1964; G. Beard, The work of Grinling Gibbons, London 1989; D. Esterly, Grinling Gibbons and the art of carving, London 1998.

5 For example, the virtuoso work of carver Kinnema, who worked in Bolsward and Alkmaar, and can be counted among the vanguard of this art-craft, with his extremely naturalistic frames, see: De Wit 2022, pp. 78-80 and 87-89, an P. J. J. van Thiel and C. J. de Bruyn Kops, Framing in the Golden Age. Picture and frame in 17th-century Holland, Amsterdam/Zwolle 1995, no. 59.

6 De Wit 2020, pp. 174, 191.

7 An example of such a minor improvement on the existing literature is De Wit's correction of the sculptor's place of burial, Johannes Blommendael (c. 1650-1704/7): not Leiden, but Amsterdam (De Wit 2020, p. 198).

8 De Wit 2020, p. 50-58.

9 De Wit 2020, p. 1.

10 De Wit 2020, p. 209-2014. F. Scholten, 'De Goudleerkamer. Geschiedenis en restauratie', Jaarboek Haags Gemeentemuseum 1991, pp. 58-73. To note, De Wit correctly corrected my incorrect use of Sonnemans' first name: not Jacob but Johannes. The staircase has been on permanent display in the Kunstmuseum, The Hague, since 1935.

11 Scholten 1991 (note 5), pp. 65-67, and figs. 14-18.

12 De Wit 2020, pp. 202-203.

13 De Wit 2022, pp. 223, 227.

14 L. Lotte Möller, 'Ein niederländischer Bilderrahmen aus dem 17 Jahrhundert', Jahrbuch der Hamburger Kunstsammlungen 7 (1962), pp. 7-34.

15 De Wit 2020, pp. 361, 223, 227.

16 BDubbe, 'De Deventer beeldhouwer Derck Daniels (1632-1710)', Antiek 16 (1982), pp. 361-382.

17 G. Beard, The work of Grinling Gibbons, London 1989, pp. 9, 10.

18 D. Esterly, Grinling Gibbons and the art of carving, London 1998, pp. 45-48.

19 De Wit 2020, p. 63-66.

20 De Wit 2020, p. 77-74.

21 De Wit 2020, p. 361.

22 G. Van Doorselaer, ‘Sculptures en buis executées à Malines au XVIIe siècle’, Revue Belge d'Archéologie et d'Histoire de l'Art, IX, no. 1 (1939), pp. 317-331; Th. Müller, 'Eine Gruppe Vlämischer Kleinskulpturen des 17. Jahrhunderts und ihre Konsonanzen', Festschrift Herbert von Einem, Berlin 1965, pp. 173-178.

23 Cf. A. Jansen, 'Het zeventiende-eeuws kerkelijk meubilair', Handelingen van de koninklijke kring voor oudheidkunde, letteren en kunst van Mechelen 69 (1965), pp. 93-214; S. Zajadacz-Hastenrath, Das Beichgestühl der Antwerpener St. Pauluskirche und der Barockbeichtstuhl in den südlichen Niederlanden, Brussels 1970; U. Becker, Studien zum flämischen Altarbau im 17. und 18. Jahrhundert (Verhandelingen van de Koninklijke Academie voor Wetenschappen, Letteren, en Schone Kunsten van België, Klasse der Schone Kunsten Jaargang 52, no. 49) Brussels 1990; P. Philippot, D. Coeckelberghs, P. Loze and D. Vautier, L'Architecture religieuse et la sculpture Baroques dans les Pays-Bas meridionaux et la principauté de Liège 1600-1770, Sprimont 2003.

24 De Wit 2020, p. 7.

25 De Wit 2020, p. 360-361.

26 M. Baxandall, The limewood sculptors of Renaissance Germany, New Haven/London 1980. See also:  C. Neilson, ‘Carving life: the meaning of wood in early modern European sculpture’, in C. Anderson, A. Dunlop & P. H. Smith (eds.), The matter of art. Materials, practices, cultural logics, c. 1250-1750, Manchester 2014, pp. 223-239.

27 N. Suthor, Bravura: Virtuosity and ambition in early modern European painting, Princeton 2021.

28 De Wit 2020, p. 38, 39, 171.

29 De Wit 2020, p. 158;  Beard 1989 (note 17), p. 44.

30 Beard 1989, pp. 17, 18.

31 Cf. J. Verhave J. P. Verhave, ‘De Nederlands-Italiaanse knipkunstenaar Joannes van Achelom omstreeks 1700’, Oud Holland 128 no. 2/3 (2015), pp. 147-162.

Frits Scholten, ‘Review of: Grinling Gibbons and his Contemporaries (1650-1700). The Golden Age of woodcarving in the Netherlands and Britain’, Oud Holland Reviews, June 2023.