The Critics: Exhibitions: Whatever happened to Dutch courage?

Grinling Gibbons and the Art of Carving V&A, SW7

Say the following sentence out loud: "Honred Sir, I ombly thanck You for Youer great faver and Extroney ponuallity I recevfd the fifty pounds which I shall allwaes Aknoligs as a pertickeler faver". You are now speaking English with a 17th-century Dutch accent, in which you will also no doubt hear the related tones of modern white South African speech. This bit of a letter, which was written by Grinling Gibbons to a patron in 1694, is a telling discovery; and it does seem to prove that he spoke English like a Dutchman who grew out of Netherlandish culture both linguistically and as an artist-craftsman.

Gibbons was the son of British parents, who had settled in Rotterdam, where his father was a merchant. After a European apprenticeship, of which little is known, he came to England at the age of 19. That was in 1667. He had sailed to his parents' land because there were more opportunities for his decorative carving in the rebuilding of London, after the Great Fire of the previous year. So argues David Esterly, whose Grinling Gibbons and the Art of Carving (V&A Publications, pounds 35) is a marvellous study; erudite, genial and well-informed. Furthermore the book has a rare intimacy with its subject, for Esterly has taught himself to be a wood carver in the Gibbons tradition. He illustrates Gibbons's chisels and analyses his hero's formidable technique at the work-bench.

The V&A's exhibition isn't quite so good. Having read the book before going to the show, I was disappointed. The first problem is that lots of Gibbons's important work is in situ at Hampton Court or suchlike places and can't be moved. This one understands. But the display still manages to be too crowded. V&A exhibitions often have a sense of space. The present Beardsley retrospective, for instance, is a pleasantly relaxed installation. We encounter Gibbons in a different way: there's a lot of fuss about the extra ticket you need to get in; the attendants aren't very helpful; there's no gallery guide and the visitor feels rushed - as though one were a passenger rather than an art lover.

This said, the exhibition does have one marvellous feature - the simple fact that it's in the V&A so one can go to other rooms to compare Gibbons's work with hundreds, indeed thousands, of other wood sculptures, decorative panels and trophies. In some respects Gibbons emerges well from such comparison. His meticulous ability is not unparalleled, but still he has few equals in his chosen craft of wood carving.

It is in other and more important ways that Gibbons fails. We go to him looking for an artist: he returns our gaze with the impenetrable demeanour of a superb technician for whom art is of little interest. He has no personal signature. We recognise Gibbons's work simply because of the wonderful workmanship.

The absence of personality is not so apparent in Esterly's book, probably because its handsome photography makes us think that the actual wood might be warmer and more expressive. What was Gibbons aiming at? A way to earn his living, obviously. But there must have been some kinds of art to which he aspired. Surely he was influenced by 17th-century Dutch flower painting, all around him as he grew up. Such painting - impassive, highly finished, precise in its detail, strangely lacking in feeling - has its sculptural outcome in Gibbons's English panels, overmantels and chimneypieces.

He was famous for his ability to imitate effects that were thought to belong only to painting. For instance, Gibbons could carve limewood in ways that reproduced the froth and filigree of lace, jewellery and fine embroidery. His contemporaries thought this a marvel, and so do we. A pity that Gibbons (1648-1721) was born into the age of the baroque rather than the rococo, and came from a country in which the rococo could never find a friendly home. Gibbons himself I still find rather stateless, despite all his English connections. I imagine him going from one country house to the next, or to court, or to St Paul's, saying I ombly thenk yew in his funny foreign voice, then proceeding to his next commission until he died.

Gibbons hardly went beyond the neat limits of his craft. Ruskin lamented that he pored over dead birds but couldn't deal with the human figure. This is a just criticism. One or two surviving pieces tell us that Gibbons was incapable of the first task of sculpture in his time: to represent an admirable man, to put his likeness on a pedestal and ask other people to admire its qualities. One of these sculptures is the uneasy statue of James II (not mentioned by Esterly) which has stood on the little lawn outside the National Gallery since 1948. It belongs not to the Gallery but to the Department of the Environment. The establishment doesn't know what to do with it, but nobody in Whitehall needs to worry because nobody ever notices the statue, and nobody is interested to know its artist's name or to assess the statue's virtues.

That is, "nobody" feels a distinct love for Gibbons, though we all know his name and maybe can nominate individual works that we admire. The great virtue of the V&A exhibition is that it makes our attitudes to Gibbons more precise. Like the mirrors or portraits his carving encompassed, Gibbons himself belongs to the margins of the society to which he was a servant. He could not rise to the greatness of the enterprise of St Paul's, especially since he had no religious feeling. The dark country saloons and dining rooms of the English mighty best suited Gibbons's very secular talents. Around the fireplaces of the higher gentry he hung verisimilitudes of dead partridges - dried flowers and the emblems of ancient battles. Death was an important part of his imagination, so it's sad that he didn't make himself a more serious artist by attempting tomb sculpture.

'Grinling Gibbons and the Art of Carving', sponsored by Glaxo Wellcome: V&A, SW7 (0171 938 8349), to 24 January.

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