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.

Arts and Entertainment
Wonder.land Musical by Damon Albarn

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment

Film review

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
News
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

    Is this the future of flying?

    Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
    Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

    Isis are barbarians

    but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
    The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

    Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

    Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
    Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

    'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

    Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
    Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

    Call of the wild

    How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
    Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

    'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

    If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
    The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

    The science of swearing

    What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
    Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

    Africa on the menu

    Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
    Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

    Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

    The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'
    10 best statement lightbulbs

    10 best statement lightbulbs

    Dare to bare with some out-of-the-ordinary illumination
    Wimbledon 2015: Heather Watson - 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

    Heather Watson: 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

    Briton pumped up for dream meeting with world No 1
    Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve

    Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

    It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve
    Dustin Brown: Who is the tennis player who knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?

    Dustin Brown

    Who is the German player that knocked Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?
    Ashes 2015: Damien Martyn - 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

    Damien Martyn: 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

    Australian veteran of that Ashes series, believes the hosts' may become unstoppable if they win the first Test