Grinling Gibbons-style Foliage

Monday 9 July 2018

Grinling Gibbons (1648-1721) was one of the greatest decorative woodcarvers who ever lived. His style of limewood foliage carving was so light, naturalistic and visually stunning that he became the master carver of choice for the palaces of England during his lifetime.

This project will lead you through a relatively small and manageable section of a real Gibbons carving, adapted to make it easier to carve and suitable for display in an ordinary home. The piece is the lowest portion of a long festoon forming part of a large Gibbons chimneypiece at Belton House, Grantham, Lincolnshire: www.nationaltrust.org.uk/belton.

The key to tackling a Gibbons carving is in the method of construction. Gibbons built up his carvings in layers, with many attachments carved separately. With the aid of modern adhesives, we can carve in smaller sections and assemble them more easily than Gibbons could. To carvers used to working on a single piece of wood, this assembly process can seem like a cross between flower arranging and making model aeroplanes, but it works and it makes the job easier.

1. The base section (part 1 on the drawing) forms the undergrowth that the more high-flying parts of the carving are anchored to. Trace the pattern onto a block of lime 483 x 127 x 64mm, cutting round the outside with the bandsaw. Unlike a normal relief, this will be finished almost in the round so the outline pattern is only a guide.

2. Rough out the levels of the various elements at the lower end of the carving. Remember they must each be carved in the round, so leave enough room. The position of the chrysanthemum-like flower with its back to us is critical, as the stems of the foremost crocus flowers pass over its stem and under one of its petals. Scoop out large hollows each side where the pear and rose will be placed later.

3. Now the tricky bit: modelling the flowers and fruit. Each piece must be rounded, hollowed and partially undercut so it appears detached from its neighbours, yet part of a group. A lot of excavating is needed to create the spaces between the objects and their stems. The crocus flowers can be hollowed firstly with a drill, then a No.8 gouge. All leaves and petals must be pared to an edge that is virtually sharp. You can do a lot of the undercutting from the front.

4. Next, turn it over to get at the underside from the back. Pare away the underside gently with sharp tools to avoid breaking off thin pieces; use smaller tools on the thinner sections. Leave thicker sections for structural support where they do not show, but try to get it so that from the front and sides, all the elements appear to be nearly as thin as they would be in nature.

5. At the top end, create a supporting structure of interlaced stems throughout the carving. The base section will have to support the whole carving when hanging on the wall, and thin sections should be braced against another stem or flower to reduce the risk of breakages. As you carve down, create new surface layers for carving flowers among the undergrowth as they add depth and naturalism.

6. The central flower stack is the structure to which the outer sprays of flowers and stems will be fixed. It will largely be hidden by later additions, so it is carved as background foliage. Use a padsaw or coping saw to separate the petals into at least three layers vertically when on its back, and shape them so they curve in opposite directions at each level.

7. Finish the area where the rose and pear will be fixed by separating the various stems and carving some flowers that will show round the edge of the pear. Carve the outer rose petals that will be on the base section; the rose will be added separately. After undercutting from behind, the base section is now finished.

8. Trace the pear and the rose (parts 2a and 2b on the drawing) onto some lime 64mm thick, and rough out the shape on the bandsaw.

9. Carve the pear in the round to the size and shape of a real pear, including a stem and a blossom end. Slightly flatten one side to fit the base section and glue it in place. Carve the rose to fit the outer petals already on the base. A 16mm hooked skew chisel is a good tool for carving the tight angles where the rose petals overlap.

10. Trace the two left-hand sections of flowers and their stems (parts 3a and 3b on the drawing) onto a block of wood about 51mm thick, and cut round them with the bandsaw.

11. Work holding can be a problem with fragile detached pieces. Start with the piece screwed to a backing board from the underneath (foreground). When you have shaped the detail and partially undercut from the front, detach it from the board and finish it off on a board with raised corners. Push your gouges towards the corners and away from your fingers. Undercut by turning the piece upside down on a cushion of non-slip matting and pare away carefully. This process is repeated for all the remaining pieces.

12. Continue the add-ons with this large and rather floppy-looking flower (part 4 on the drawing). Cut it from wood about 38mm thick, with the grain running along the two longest petals, and carve it to this odd but very natural-looking contorted shape, sloping down at the ends and edges, so it has a slightly domed overall shape. Undercut it to a sharp edge all round, but leave enough thickness hidden underneath to prevent it breaking across the grain.

13. Assemble the left and right flower sections onto the base. Using the framework of stems, the large central flower, the thistle head (left) and the pansy flower (right) as supports, glue the flowers in place with as many points of contact as you can find; at least three. Make sure you get the positioning right in relation to the whole carving, allowing for the next layer of add-ons.

14. Start the front layer with this small group of crocus flowers (part 5 on the drawing), which will sit just below the centre of the carving. Rough out the three flower heads from a block 51mm thick using the bandsaw and coping saw, before shaping with the usual gouges. As with all the crocus-type flowers, the centres can be drilled out before hollowing with gouges. Do this before you carve the thin stems as the twisting of the drill can snap them. The daisy flower at the top end not only forms part of the undergrowth, but also provides a broad base for gluing to the central flower stack.

15. The left-hand flower spray (part 6 on the drawing), also carved from a 51mm thickness, has four crocus flowers and three quite flat pea pods. The flower at the top again provides a gluing point and also strengthens the curve in the stem where it turns across the grain.

16-17. The right-hand spray consists of a bunch of smaller crocus flowers coming off an upper and lower group of stems. Carve in two pieces (parts 7a and 7b on the drawing), each from 51mm thickness. Photo 16 shows the longer rear section, and photo 17 shows the slightly shorter forward section. Each has a flower at the stem end for fixing to the central flower stack. The rear spray also has another flower at the bottom end to provide a support fixing to the pear.

18. These flower sprays are glued to the central flower stack by their fixing flowers, layered over one another. Now we just need to cover up the joins, as we head into the final stages of creating this Gibons-style carving.

19. For our centrepiece, I have repeated the rose which appears at the bottom of the carving, with some adjustment for its centre stage position (part 8 on the drawing). Rough this out from a block 76 x 101 x 51mm and shape the petals in layers, in the same manner as previously.

20. Glue the rose in place so it nestles snugly among the flowers and stems in the centre of the carving, facing slightly upwards.

21. The carving is now finished. Photos 21-23 show front, back and side views to give a clearer illustration of structure. Despite its overall size of 483 x 254 x 127mm it weighs only 0.8kg as it is mostly fresh air. The lime is best left untreated and will darken gradually to a light brown.