“Like all great art (and I don’t think I’m exaggerating by calling it great; the giddiness I felt was similar to being unleashed at the threshold of a room filled with Vermeers), there’s something intuitive about it, as if you and the artist are simultaneously stumbling upon some underlying truth.” — Ralph Gardner, Wall Street Journal, January 17, 2013. Full Review

David Esterly’s carving has been called “some of the most astonishing work being done in wood today” (Fine Woodworking). It is in the tradition of Grinling Gibbons (1648-1721), whose spectacular cascades of flowers, fruits and foliage revolutionized ornamental sculpture during the age of Christopher Wren.

After the 1986 fire at Hampton Court Palace, Esterly was asked to step into the shoes of this long-dead master when he was commissioned to replace the seven foot-long Gibbons carving destroyed in the flames. At the Victoria and Albert Museum in London in 1998-9 he curated the first ever Gibbons exhibition, and wrote the accompanying book, Grinling Gibbons and the Art of Carving. In 2002, as a guest artist at the American Academy in Rome, he produced the first of his Arcimboldesque heads.

The Hampton Court drop (shown here), together with his recent replacements for a damaged Gibbons-era carving at Winchester Cathedral, remain his only reproduction work. As the 18th century saying has it, ‘He who imitates the Iliad does not imitate Homer’. Instead Esterly seeks to reinvent the Gibbons tradition by discarding period conventions and evolving fresh compositions for the present age. Some of his carvings are designed for a particular architectural setting, but most are independent pieces of sculpture. In all he tries to push carving technique and the limewood (linden wood) medium to their highest potential. He works only on commission, for patrons in America, Britain, and Europe.

Esterly’s new book, The Lost Carving; A Journey to the Heart of Making, is a memoir of his year at Hampton Court and an exploration into the nature of making.

‘Don’t copy Gibbons or Arcimboldo or the Dutch still life painters; steal from them. Revive the old vessels — letter rack, portrait bust, trophy, overmantel, drop — but pour new wine into them. If you use a decorative vocabulary, use it with sculptural intent. Bring back the delight in trompe l’oeil, but (limewood being a monochrome medium) make it a more sophisticated illusionism, based on form not color.’

‘To portray organic subjects in an organic medium is to say something that can’t be said any other way. And say it to the present age. In a time of radical destruction of the natural world, there’s a poignancy to the beauty of fine foliage carving and the manual skills required to produce it, a kind of reproach that sharpens our awareness of what we are losing. Back, then, to skill and beauty? No, forward to it.’