In the spring of 1986 I absorbed a museum exhibit that ranks as the best in my experience. The Treasure Houses of Britain was seen by almost one million people during its six months at Washington’s National Gallery of Art. Like most of the visitors I was amazed, impressed, “gobsmacked” not only by the sheer opulence of the treasures but also by their artistic merit. The memory of that exhibit is as fresh in my mind today as it was when I first wrote on the subject years ago.

According to the National Gallery of Art (DC) website more than “700 objects were gathered from more than 200 homes representing collecting and domestic arts from the 15th to the 20th century.”

Treasure Houses/Instal-Rm 6-Souvenirs of Italy

Above is one of seventeen period rooms that were constructed to display the objects. It is obviously the most ambitious project ever undertaken by the NGA. Gervase Jackson-Stops chose the art work and the exhibit was structured to showcase each period of collecting by the great families of England.

It was at this exhibit that I first saw the work of master woodcarver Grinling Gibbons. 330px-Grinling_Gibbons_by_Sir_Godfrey_Kneller,_BtThe piece on display was a carving of fish and game, not my favorite subject matter, but the delicacy of the carving amazed me. The work was done in the days before dental drills and dermal tools made intricate carving more accessible. Gibbons work shows an attention to detail that defies the imagination of my contemporary “hurry up and get it done” approach to the craft projects I have undertaken.

Grinling Gibbons was born in Rotterdam in 1648. It’s possible his father was an Englishman who worked with Inigo Jones, who introduced Italianate Renaissance design to the English. Grinling Gibbons came to England in 1667 his talent obviously developed in the nineteen years before he arrived. He was discovered working “in a poor and solitary thatched hut in Kent” by diarist John Evelyn who introduced him to King Charles II through the intercession of Christopher Wren.4522215787_5333ee5bd6_z

His work can be found in dozens of houses and public buildings throughout Britain, including Petworth, Blenheim, Kirtlington Park and also at Windsor, and many of Wren’s London churches. Gibbons and his “workshop” added immense detail and beauty to St Paul’s, London. Arguably the greatest example of his work is found at Petworth in the Carved Room, a small segment of which is shown above. Ignore the paintings  (yes, I know that’s not easy) and look at the work in wood that fills the wall like we use wood paneling today.

Gibbons and his workshop worked in mediums besides wood, but wood8603744075_47032d6778_z best suited the detailed handiwork for which he, himself, is best known. To the right is a detail of his work in wood.

Last year when I visited Biltmore in Asheville North Carolina I noticed a fine wood carving over the mantle in one of the rooms. I’ve been meaning to call the curator and find out if it was by Gibbons. I might do that tomorrow and I will let you know what I find out.

Are you familiar with Gibbons? But, more important tell us about an exhibit that made you stop in your tracks in awe and appreciation.