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Wednesday 2 January 2013

Grinling Gibbons in Bristol - a hidden treasure and a woodcarving mystery

On a quiet afternoon, head into Bristol's Central Library on College Green and head upstairs to the Reference Library. If it isn't too busy and you ask nicely, one of the librarians at the desk will be happy to show you into the partially-visible room next door, which is called the 'Bristol Room'.

When you enter, it's like stepping back in time. When the new library was opened in 1906, books and shelving from the old library building on King St were brought here and put in this room. The original library (built 1738-1740) is still standing, it's Palladian grandeur now housing the Cathay Rendezvous chinese restaurant. These books are not the only treasures held in the Bristol Room though...

One of the more worn-looking chairs in the room was apparently the seat used in one of the 'Bloody Assizes' by Judge Jeffreys. The infamous 'hanging judge' is mainly remembered for his heartless and brutal sentencing of those involved in Monmouth's rebellion of 1685.

Judge Jeffreys
image from


Grinling Gibbons
Image from a portrait in the National Gallery via Wikimedia

Nearby is another historic wooden construction, the one that the title of this blog post refers to. Over the fireplace is a stunning, carved oak overmantle. The lifelike carvings of fruit, game birds etc. could only have come from the workshops of Grinling Gibbons, probably the greatest woodcarver who ever set up studio in Britain.

image copyright owner unknown

The overmantle was bought in 1721 (according to Pevsner) in a sale at Gibbons' studio. The buyer was Michael Becher, sheriff of Bristol in 1739 as well as being master of the Merchant Venturers. He donated it to the library when it existed in it's original home on King St.
The woodcarving around the fireplace itself is quite different in style and is thought to be from a different workshop to Gibbons.

So what's the mystery?

Well, Grinling Gibbons was renowned for working in lime (aka linden) wood (Tilia species). So renowned, in fact, that his name is pretty much associated with carving in lime wood. Lime is the timber of choice for many European carvers as it is readily obtainable, reasonably (but not too) hard and it doesn't have a strong grain. This means it is less likely to split in carving, can take fine detail and also shows that detail well, which strong grain patterning would tend to obscure. All very desirable when carving with the kind of detail that Gibbons' workshops specialised in.
Oak (Quercus species) is much more tricky to carve intricately. It's strong grain can easily split chunks off and the wood itself tends to be tougher. The strong grain pattern and figuring could also easily obscure very fine detail.

The mystery is... why is this carved overmantle in Bristol not better known? There is carved oak work by Gibbons' studios in St Paul's Cathedral in London, but generally it is not nearly as commonplace as his carved lime work. It is really surprising to me that images of the overmantle are currently so hard to find online and even David Esterly's excellent book on Gibbons, 'Grinling Gibbons and the Art of Carving', doesn't mention the overmantle at all.

You can see some more photos of the overmantle by clicking on the link to this, more recent, post:

It is hard to see how carving of this quality could be from anyone but Gibbons' workshops and other carved wood work from around this time in Bristol just doesn't have the finesse or exuberance of the overmantle. Some examples of roughly contemporary carving work in Bristol are swags carved in Quebec Yellow Pine in the Royal Fort House, which is usually open on Bristol Open Doors weekends. These were created by carvers under the direction of Thomas Paty between 1758 and 1762 for Thomas Tyndall, a wealthy merchant, and Alicia his wife.

Carved ornament in the Royal Fort House by Thomas Paty's woodcarvers

So if you are around College Green in Bristol and want to see a real little-known masterpiece of woodcarving, go and ask to see the Bristol Room. But please, for the sake of the hardworking librarians there, don't all go at once!

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