Woodcarver Esterly (Grinling Gibbons and the Art of Carving, 1999) chronicles the year he spent at Hampton Court replacing a 17th-century masterpiece destroyed by fire.
The fire was in 1986, and the author arrived three years later. From the detailed diary he kept at the time, he has crafted a gripping account of the political maneuverings involved in a major restoration project and an intimate meditation on the nature and meaning of carving. In 1974, when Esterly first saw a limewood carving by English master Grinling Gibbons, he was at loose ends and tired of a life oscillating between ultraintellectual pursuits and exhausting manual labor. Gazing on Gibbons’ intricately wrought rendering of flowers and foliage, he writes, “somehow I was taking in the thing with mind and body at once.” It was the promise of a unified existence that led him to take up chisels to emulate Gibbons’ craft, and it was the expertise he’d acquired by 1989 that led to his commission to create a replacement for the Gibbons overdoor drop reduced to ashes, even though a faction within the Historic Royal Palaces agency argued that a British carver should be hired. Esterly would have more run-ins with turf-guarding bureaucrats who disdained his idea of a Gibbons exhibition (it took him eight years to get one at the Victoria and Albert Museum) and ignored his pleas to leave all the restored wood in the light, unvarnished state the artist had intended. These scuffles give the book its narrative drive. Its heart lies in Esterly’s moving ruminations about the spiritual value inherent in fine craftsmanship and technique; trendy conceptual artist Jeff Koons gets some hard knocks for being blind to both.
Photos of Gibbons’ magnificent works enhance this romantic, lyrical prose portrait of “making and seeing…entwined together.”