Subtraction, the carver’s art
The artist calls this illustration simply ‘musical trophy.’ David Esterly carved it from limewood, in 2004. Notwithstanding the huge amount of time a carver must spend at his workbench, Esterly last year completed and published The Lost Carving, (Viking) which recounts his experience at Hampton Court Palace two decades ago where he was commissioned to replicate an eight-foot-tall decorative drop that had been destroyed there in a fire. Other carvings from the room, all by the celebrated Grinling Gibbons (1648-1721), whose works can be found in many palaces and churches around London, had suffered varying degrees of damage and the restoration would involve a team of specialists. However, only Esterly had to recreate an entire piece with only similar drops that had survived the fire plus some old glass photographic plates as guides.
Subtitled “A Journey to the Heart of Making,” The Lost Carving was fashioned into a splendid volume from the diary Esterly kept at Hampton Court. In it, he engages a mighty struggle to tease out the subtle tricks of a master who, for Esterly, was equally a magician. Wood carving of this kind was, for all intents and purposes, a lost art. Educated in literature at Harvard and Cambridge, Esterly’s choice to become a woodcarver was made not by him, but by Gibbons, first apprehended at London’s St. James Church in the 1970s. Behind the altar he saw “a shadowy tangle of vegetation, carved to airy thinness. My steps slowed and stopped. I stared. The sickness came over me. The traffic noise on Piccadilly went silent, and I was at the still center of the universe.” He goes on to describe a tingling in his hands and a “loosening of the solar plexus.”
The Lost Carving offers a gripping read, notwithstanding the arcane and solitary life of a woodcarver. Drawing on a fine classical education, Esterly proves as great with a pen as with a chisel and gouge. The book unfolds like a grand sermon on life, art, nature, philosophy and the wisdom of ages. The deep, inner crevices and fragile undercutting of Gibbons’ flowers, sprays and signature peapods give up their secrets grudgingly but when they do Esterly celebrates with grace and, sometimes, grandeur. The narrative is almost cinematic, moving from wide angle to close-up, forward and back in time, between London and the author’s home in upstate New York. Its descriptive language is full of colors that change from artificial to natural light, from time of day to time of year. With delicious prose and nuanced phrase he even manages to take swipes at the high-priced banal sculptural designs of Jeff Koons and Damian Hirst—but actually manufactured by other hands—though he admits “Carvers are starvers.”
Esterly fought a losing fight to have the other restored Gibbons works returned to the natural creamy white of carved limewood. (The keepers of the royal treasury themselves can never seem to decide if Gibbons’ work is decoration or art.) To his dismay, Esterly’s replacement piece (pictured at left) was ultimately painted to match the dark wood paneling at Hampton Court. Last year, Esterly composed a new preface to his 1998 biography, “Grinling Gibbons & the Art of Carving,” which was written to accompany a Gibbons exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum, and published by V&A.
(In April, 2013, David Esterly was a guest presenter at a creativity seminar at the Monterey Conference Center. He is profiled in the current issue of Harvard Magazine.)
On our Theater Reviews page Philip Pearce writes of a confusing and disappointing Hamlet at Carmel’s Forest Theater.
In past years, there seemed to be a performing arts lull around this time of year. Not so, as our updated Calendar shows. Summer Arts at CSU Monterey Bay has an almost-dizzying run of concert events right through the month. Some outstanding jazz artists are appearing at Kuumbwa in Santa Cruz. The Western Stage in Salinas this week is opening Side by Side By Sondheim. And you can extend yourself to the Henry Miller Library as an added musical excuse to drive down the Big Sur coast. As always, if you turn up a performance event that should appear in our calendar, please use the event information template on our Contact Us page.
Scott MacClelland, editor