I first met David Esterly in 1988, soon after the fire at Hampton Court. His reputation preceded him. He had already written a number of articles about Grinling Gibbons for the Spectator, the first of which was a requiem for Gibbons's work at Hampton Court which Esterly had imagined completely destroyed. Unfortunately, neither he nor the Spectator had thought to ring the palace where we had taken down the smoke-stained carvings and boxed them up for safety. In actuality, only one carving was nearly destroyed, and it was this one that, some years later, Esterly was to recarve so brilliantly.
Grinling Gibbons is one of our greatest and best known craftsmen. Born in 1648, and arriving in England from Holland at the age of 19, he had a meteoric rise to become one of England's most fashionable interior decorators. He stayed at the top of his profession for 30 years, decorating the royal palaces, St Paul's Cathedral and innumerable country houses. During that period, he invented and popularised a style of lime-wood carving which will forever be associated with both his name and English interiors at the end of the 17th century. There has never before been an exhibition of his work - enthusiasts have had to travel to a score of locations, even to begin to appreciate the breadth of his talent. But next week, one opens at the V & A and it is curated by David Esterly.
David Esterly is a lanky, soft-spoken, moustached and bespectacled American with a professorial air. After winning a Fulbright Scholarship to Cambridge, he wrote a PhD thesis there on Yeats and Coleridge which he now claims was too boring for anyone to print. His residence in England for six years was to form a bond which has dominated his life. One day, walking down Piccadilly, he was lured by his wife into the church of St James and there he had what he describes as a "conversion experience".
Standing in front of the great reredos, which still drips with one of Gibbons's earliest commissions, he became enraptured with the art of lime-wood carving. He immediately decided to research and write the definitive history of this genius's work. But the book never got written because Esterly decided that to appreciate fully Gibbons's skill, he too would have to learn how to carve lime-wood.
Back in up-state New York, he sat down with a chisel and a block of wood and started chipping away. This extraordinary turn of events led to eight years of penury as Esterly obsessively perfected his technique to become a professional carver and self-styled world expert on Gibbons.
It was with horror, then, that in 1986 Esterly heard of the fire at Hampton Court and began his campaign to win the commission to recarve the damaged carvings. He wrote to everyone involved, from the Secretary of State down, and finally persuaded the by now browbeaten Property Services Agency to abandon a national competition to find an English carver to do the work, and appoint him instead. Esterly established his workshop at Hampton Court and set out to replace the damaged drop, and to give the architects the benefits of his expertise.
Esterly acknowledges that the Hampton Court drop was another turning- point in his life. "It was extraordinary," he now says. "Carving that drop made me realise that there was a story to tell." Gibbons's techniques, he believed, had been "wrapped in a cloud of mystery", and through recarving the damaged drop, he could unravel them. Esterly's first-hand mastery of Gibbons's art has had two results. Firstly, what he calls his "selfish professional interest in the form" - Esterly now earns his living by carving lime-wood pieces for the super-rich of Manhattan. Although his clients "know nothing of Gibbons", Esterly's own knowledge of the technique has, so he tells me, enabled him to take "lime-wood carving to where it could have been had Gibbons not given it up in 1700 or so". Esterly is now 54, the age at which Gibbons abandoned his no-longer fashionable trade and settled into retirement. Esterly has no intention of following his hero's example.
The second direct result of his Hampton Court commission was the Gibbons exhibition. He had the idea for this soon after the fire and it has taken nearly 10 years to come to fruition. For a long time, people would not take him seriously and he failed to raise the money needed. But again his determination and persuasion won through. I visited him among the half-full packing cases yielding up their precious and delicate cargo for the exhibition. Carvings of staggering technical ability and beauty lay on every surface. Esterly is clearly a man living out a dream.
His view of Gibbons is from the craftsman's perspective and he believes this will be attractive to the general visitor who is unlikely to respond well to what he calls "artspeak". He is probably right, and his approach, which is certainly not fashionably art-historical, relies more on connoisseurship. Art historians will probably criticise his lack of scholarship (the V&A refused to publish his controversial chapter on drawings that may or may not be by Gibbons in the book that accompanies the exhibition). But Esterly's exhibition and book are not so much the product of an academic or a curator but of a determined perfectionist with a mission to communicate. His aim is for people to take Grinling Gibbons seriously, and one suspects that the academic in him wants the critics to take David Esterly seriously, too.
Simon Thurley is director of the Museum of London
The Grinling Gibbons exhibition is at the V&A Museum, London SW7 (0171- 938 8500), 22 October 1998-24 January 1999, Monday 12 noon- 5.30pm, Tues- Sun 10am-5.30pm. Admission pounds 5, concessions pounds 3
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