David Esterly – The Lost Carving

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

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.

The Pianist (2002)

Every survivor has a story, and few are as compelling as that of Władysław “Władek” Szpilman, the Polish composer and musician whose autobiography is the basis for Roman Polanski’s 2002 film, The Pianist. Szpilman is a beloved figure of modern Polish culture, his many themes still popular more than ten years after his death in 2000 at the age of 88. His life can be viewed as one of ultimate triumph, his spirit not cripplingly embittered by his experience in the Warsaw ghetto. Viewing this film has only served to whet my appetite for Szpilman’s autobiography, to see if I can discover afresh in print some of the philosophical underpinnings that Polanski developed, and that I cherish, in the film version. The fact that it is usually the other way around with books and film only enhanced my enjoyment and respect for this film treatment.

Most people have seen The Pianist, but I hadn’t until recently, for two fairly straightforward reasons. First, since viewing Claude Lanzmann’s 1985 documentary, Shoah, about twenty years ago, I had been unable to watch another film about the Holocaust. That film, in a word, did me in. The other reason was my own mini-protest against Roman Polanski for reasons that are all too well-known and which won’t bear any fruit upon repeating. Thus, it isn’t for me to write much about the plot of a film that is already ten years old, other than to say it is a frank and almost unrelentingly bleak story of survival against overwhelming odds.

In a sense, I already knew the outer shape of the story, how from 1940 until 1943 the Jews of Warsaw were rounded up and walled into a ghetto where most of them either succumbed to starvation or disease, were slaughtered in the streets or their homes, or were shipped to Treblinka. Annihilation, if you can begin to imagine it, by as many means as you can conjure. All of that is here within Polanski’s film.

Then there is the pianist, Szpilman, the man whose characterization is so deftly carried by Adrien Brody. Szpilman is a man whose temperament, upbringing, talent, and an intersection with luck combine to keep him alive. It is the character of Szpilman which fills the story and makes The Pianist complete and outstanding.  Early in the film, even as his career playing piano for Polish radio is abruptly curtailed, Brody’s Szpilman is a man who maintains a gentility and posture that never becomes defensive. Szpilman is open, eager, and never attempts to hide who he is as a man, even though much of the film depends upon the suspense that revolves around his physical status as a person in hiding. He is vulnerable in the most painstaking, important sense of the word, and there are not many cinematic or literary themes more exciting for me than a subtle portrayal of a person who chooses to remain vulnerable in places which would seem to demand otherwise.

Within The Pianist lies the question of dignity and whether it is better to mount a fight and perhaps die on more even terms, or whether, even if it means clinging to the boots of a man who has just delivered a beating, the ultimate proof of strength is to be found in letting go of defense. Survival, not of the most powerful, but of the most human.

This brings me to the scene I would like to freeze and make permanent in my mind. It comes near the end, when Szpilman is found by a German officer who may or may not harm him. Polanski’s skill allows the viewer to feel the exposure, cold, hunger, and fear that he himself certainly knew as a child and that Brody projects so well as an actor. When the well groomed, crisply uniformed German forces the starving Pole to play the piano for him, there is nothing to do but smile at the defiance in Szpilman’s choice of Ballade No.1 in G Minor by Chopin, that most romantic and emotional, and Polish, of all composers. It is a moment which flings the sensibility and beauty of art into the face of all which is supposed to be true but is only a puffed up lie. What happens after that is the reason you should see The Pianist.