The Lost Carving: A Journey to the Heart of Making
David Esterly (2012, Penguin)
David Esterly carves in limewood, like his hero of three centuries ago, Grinling Gibbons. Esterly taught himself, which seems a remarkable feat, but, at the time, he didn’t know any other living people who did it. The Lost Carving is the story of a year he spent apprenticed to Gibbons, replacing some decorative work that had been lost in a 1986 fire at London’s Hampton Court.
Gibbons’s carvings are a riot of leaves, flowers, and fruit in deep relief, made possible by the unique qualities of his material, which is “[c]risp and firm, soft enough to be carved quickly but strong enough to be radically undercut, with a remarkable grain structure that can (with a little effort) be worked in any direction.” What it permits, it also demands, according to Esterly. The round fruits, curling leaves, and weaving stems are shaped to the full depth of the wood, even in places that would have been invisible to the viewer after the pieces were in place.
The Lost Carving comes in layers, too. The year of the carving work was 1989-90; Esterly kept a journal, and based the main part of the story on them, writing twenty years later. He has also to carve in some of the peaks and valleys of Grinling Gibbons’s career, and of his own, both before and since that time. Both in 1671 and 1989, working in a royal environment means dealing with political functionaries, with all the attendant frustrations.
For instance, the royal apartments at Hampton Court comprised a series of four rooms, each of which had symmetrical sets of carvings over the doors. Esterly discovered that some of the panels had, at some point, been hung out of place, or even upside down, but it was quite a challenge to get them rehung in the right places. He won that one, but his strong desire to show the limewood in its original pale color was too much of a stretch.
There was deep satisfaction, though, in discovering a piece of lost botanical technology. Grinling Gibbons worked many decades before sandpaper was invented, yet the finished work bore signs of having been smoothed, and nobody knew by what. Except – the Natural History Museum came up with a cousin to the horsetail fern known as Dutch rush, or scouring grass, which picks up silica from the sandy soil it grows in. When the plant is dried, its surface can be used to roughen or smooth the limewood surface at the very end of the modeling process.
All this arcana is delightful in its own right, but there are some deeper lessons. Not surprisingly, Esterly says that carving is a metaphor for everything. Most obviously, writing: “In front of you the same smooth vacant surface waits, and within you the same nervous mustering of resolve, the same sense that the first stroke is important and a bad start might be ruinous.” With its fine details set in the deep sweep of history, The Lost Carving is as intricate and multi-layered as the Hampton Court carvings.
Consider, too, that the carving tools are driven with one hand, but guided and controlled by the other. “The propulsive hand always wins, or there is no carving. The chisel moves forward to do its work. But not before its primal energy has been reined in by the constraining hand, chastened and given a tincture of purposeful intelligence.” Dynamic tension as the meaning of life – you could do worse.