In 1986 a major fire swept through the Hampton Court palace located southwest of London on the river Thames. Maybe I remember hearing about the fire at the time, though probably not, and my slight knowledge of the conflagration no doubt stems from some osmosis of history that occurs each time I visit England. When I think about Hampton Court, the main impression I’ve held until now is that of Henry VIII’s fifth wife, Kathryn, screaming through the halls looking for her husband to beg his mercy while the king’s henchmen pursued her to lop off her head. Hampton Court is a dramatic site visually and historically, replete with all of the grandeur that an English palace so handily projects.
Among the many treasures to be found at Hampton Court are the intricate limewood carvings of Grinling Gibbons. Gibbons was a 17th century artist who occupied an almost singular niche until the Hampton Court disaster and the subsequent hiring of an American wood carver, David Esterly, to replicate a large Gibbons panel destroyed in the fire. The Lost Carving is Esterly’s 2012 meditation on his work twenty-five years ago, a spectacular piece of writing, and my favorite among the books I read last year. It’s the best sort of non-fiction, a fluidly descriptive account of the nuts and bolts of woodcarving mingled with Esterly’s observations on the politics, mystery, and meaning of his experience. I would not have imagined becoming so engrossed in the telling of such a particular story; indeed my awareness of the book is only thanks to the triple wonder that is Twitter, this best of 2013 list, and inter-library loan. My perception of the tedium of woodcarving is now forever swept clean by Esterly’s poetic tone and his lightly philosophical language that touched me with its musing on what it means to be part of making something beautiful in the wake of catastrophe.
In the opening pages Esterly writes about feeling removed from life’s immediacy after completing graduate school in the early 1970s. Educated at Harvard and as a Fulbright scholar at Cambridge, Esterly spent years studying philosophy and English only to find himself “exhausted with intellectual effort.”
I was retreating like a mollusk deep into its whorled shell. I grew tired even of beauty, almost. It was beginning to seem like little more than anything else that might enter your mind. Little more than another thought. I remembered Coleridge in his dejection, writing about seeing, not feeling, beauty.
This changes suddenly one day as Esterly and his future wife, Marietta, are walking to tea in London and she playfully pulls him into St James Church on Piccadilly where the work of Grinling Gibbons adorns the altar.
Altar, St James Church, Piccadilly, London
Have I made all this up? Marietta says not. We walked toward the altar. Floating on the reredos, the wall behind the altar, was a shadowy tangle of vegetation, carved to airy thinness. Organic forms, in an organic medium. My steps slowed, and stopped. I stared. The sickness came over me. It seemed one of the wonders of the world. The traffic noise on Piccadilly went silent, and I was at the still center of the universe.
Thus does Esterly’s life elevate into one of careful craftsmanship, sublimity released from cast aside academia as simple tools fill his novice hands. Esterly begins from scratch, teaching himself the basics of woodcarving and patterning Gibbons’s use of the limewood medium, working out the kinks of his new career and knowing it to be so poorly paid that “carvers are starvers.”
Fast forward to 1986 and Hampton Court. Even though Esterly is a graduate of Cambridge University and has lived for many years in England, the man in charge of the Hampton Court restoration project fights Esterly’s hiring for the job and makes progress difficult because of anti-American bias. At this point, Esterly is one of only two or three master carvers capable of reproducing the thin limewood delicacy of Gibbons’s finest work, but the faction of Englishmen who work against him is united in its “caustic rejection” and “puzzling acerbity” in response to his ideas and processes. Esterly, thorough in his knowledge and understanding, not only of Gibbons’s work but also his life, channels the setbacks of Gibbons’s own career in order to meet the tiresome challenge of contending with petty, arrogant, and self-important people.
In 1671 Gibbons, a Dutchman by birth, was a 22 year old shipcarver at the Deptford dockyard. In his spare time he worked to perfect his limewood carving, a skill that he hoped would bring him favor as an artisan within higher circles. His discovery by an aristocrat, John Evelyn, seemed to place him in line for work on the multitude of projects designed by the architect Christopher Wren in the wake of London’s Great Fire of 1666. “But there’s a problem with this fast-forward and its smooth crescendo: it masks the reality of what actually happened. It leaves out a disaster, the debacle that shaped the rest of Gibbons’s career and generated the style that made him famous.” Wren patently rejected Gibbons and refused to hire him.
Sitting here in a sunny window, I recall the exhilaration I felt when I finally pieced together the origins of Gibbons’s style. It hadn’t come with his mother’s milk. The muses hadn’t paid a midnight visit to a genius in his studio. There was no annunciation. It was forged in bitter failure, made up out of rejected parts, probably in humiliation and confusion, by a man groping for a way forward. Gibbons had been pushed off the ladder he was climbing toward the high art of sculpture, and found himself where Yeats says all ladders start, in the foul rag-and-bone shop of an unsatisfied heart.
This is where we reach the “what happened next” part of The Lost Carving. It would be unfair and cruel of me to spoil it for you. As someone who relishes change in all of its mess and glory, it’s fair to state that Esterly’s writing about a woodcarving project is ultimately about the work of lifecarving. That’s trite, a banal play on words from a reader who found The Lost Carving so well written and important that I’m keeping a purchased copy close by for times when I need to read about ‘The Fascination of What’s Difficult’, ‘The Use of Time is Fate’, and ‘The Thinking of the Body’. The Lost Carving is a small altar to approach again and again, to feel the joy in its making.
Carving had pressed some celestial Enhance button. Now that I was trying to add to it, I was haunted by the beauty of the world. I thought back to my academic days, when I’d stood on the hill overlooking the Fens and felt the world receding from me. Now it was rushing back, with colors and shapes that had a new savor to them. Rushing back, reenchanted.
It was as if the old dream were true, that some single Platonic form of beauty flowed through the human and natural world. And gave a camaraderie to those who chase after it, whose hands produce it and eyes are attuned to it. You didn’t need to be doing it for a living, either. It’s one of the best reasons for taking up the arts as an amateur: to hone your senses. Make their bevels finer, so that you can get a better angle on the beauty of the world.