Grinling Gibbons: The Carved Room at Petworth House

David Taylor

The Carved Room at Petworth House, West Sussex, is the crowning achievement of the 17th century Dutch wood carver Grinling Gibbons.

Born in Rotterdam to English parents, Gibbons emigrated to the UK after training in the Netherlands. He was ‘discovered’ by diarist John Evelyn carving by candlelight in Deptford, South London. Evelyn was an enthusiastic supporter of the young craftsman, promoting his talent to key patrons and commissioners of the period. Gibbons’s extraordinarily fine work soon came to the attention of King William III and he became known as the ‘King’s Carver’, the monarch commissioning him to create exuberant carvings at Kensington Palace and Hampton Court.

Gibbons was employed to decorate the Carved Room at Petworth by Charles Seymour, 6th Duke of Somerset. Seymour, an avid collector, was showing loyalty the king by using his favoured craftsman to create fashionable and bombastic new rooms in the house. Over the years, the Carved Room was extended and is in its present state a huge space, which comes alive with intricate swags, flowers and surprising oddities carved by Gibbons and other 17th century woodcarvers.

In this HENI Talk, National Trust curator David Taylor recounts the story of this remarkable room.

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The majority of artists that were successful in the 16th and 17th century in Britain were from elsewhere. A lot of these artists were from the Netherlands, from the Low Countries. And at the end of the 17th century, when William and Mary came over from Holland to take up the throne of Mary’s father, this meant that there was even greater influence at court and from elite patrons for Dutch art. And for showing loyalty to their new king and queen.

This is the Carved Room at Petworth house, and it’s the crowning achievement of the Dutch wood carver Grinling Gibbons, and it really shows how Dutch taste infiltrated some of the greatest houses in the United Kingdom. And this is one of the finest interiors and it’s the glory of the National Trust collection.

The Carved Room was originally half the size of the room we see today. And it was in this southern end of the room where the 6th Duke of Somerset wanted to use the very fashionable Gibbons to create a small dining room. In the 19th century, the room is then extended by the 3rd Earl of Egremont, who brought in other 17th century wood carvings to create the space that we see today.

And Gibbons we think of as a Dutch artist, even though he is born to English parents. He was born and raised in Rotterdam, and he trained there before he came to England, when he was 19, in the 1660s.

He would have very much been working in what was seen a fashionable, continental style. So, you would not only be employing somebody of great talent but you were employing somebody who was very, very fashionable.

Now, the 6th Duke of Somerset who commissioned Gibbons to work here had already commissioned him to work for Trinity College library at Cambridge University, which Somerset was the Chancellor of. But what he was doing really at Petworth was showing loyalty to the king. The king had used Gibbons to decorate rooms at Hampton court and Kensington Palace, and by using Gibbons to work in new rooms at Petworth, this was the Duke really showing loyalty to the throne. And, for instance, in the Carved Room, we have some sheet music, carved by Gibbons which shows a section of The Fairy Queen by Henry Purcell which was written to celebrate the 15th wedding anniversary of William III and Mary II. So, this was very visible to anybody who came to Petworth; they would have understood what was going on.

Gibbons carved in limewood, which is a softer wood which is very suitable for creating depth and illusion of three-dimensionality. And what we see here is Gibbons showing off his skills at carving flowers and fruit, musical instruments and oddities such as lobsters.

And of course, some of the objects relate to what the room was actually was being used for, which was a dining room and in its later state it was a bigger dining room which banquets would have been held in. So, it’s very apt there are fruit and flowers and birds and vegetables in the carvings.

Originally, Gibbons’s carvings would have been placed against oak panels and they were lighter than the oak, which made them stand out and gave them a sense of depth. But the 3rd Earl of Egremont followed the contemporary fashion for putting wood carvings against white panelling. So, he had the panelling painted white with light coming from the park, through the windows and bouncing off the different carvings of Gibbons work. Later in the 19thcentury, this was removed. But if we look at the ceiling cove, we can still see the effect the 3rd Earl of Egremont would have liked: seeing limewood carving against white paint.

We’re very lucky here at Petworth to have what is probably the best surviving example of Grinling Gibbons work. The Carved Room in its present state is a huge space and it absolutely comes alive with swags carved by Gibbons and his assistants, and other 17th century woodcarvers. So, the glory of Dutch Golden Age art is actually in the fabric of the house. And it’s wonderful survival a really, really important space in Petworth and in any interior in the National Trust. And we can today come to the carved room and really marvel at the skill of these artists.

With thanks to

Paul Dykes

Lord Egremont

Leconfield Estates

Petworth House and Park, National Trust

 

Archive

Getty Images

Angus Kirk

National Portrait Gallery, London

National Trust Images

Rijksmuseum

 

Music

Audio Network

Free Music Archive

 

Credits 

Sculptor uses chisel to carve wood

Blimp Tele Inc / Getty Images

 

Flowers and Foliage (detail), The Carved Room by Grinling Gibbons
Petworth House, National Trust
Late 17th century
Photo: Paul Dykes, 2016

 

Carving wood

BBC Universal / Getty Images

 

Grecian Vase (detail), The Carved Room by Grinling Gibbons
Petworth House, National Trust
Late 17th century
Photo: Paul Dykes, 2016

 

Wood artist

Operofilm / Getty Images

 

19th century globe showing Europe and North Africa

Tetra Images / Getty Images

 

Tall ships

Komisar / Getty Images

 

Hull of boat breaking through ocean swells

Sony Pictures Entertainment / Getty Images

 

William II, Prince of Orange, and his Bride, Mary Stuart
Anthony van Dyck, 1641

Rijksmuseum

CC0

 

The Revolution, 1688 (King William III; Queen Mary II)

by James Parker, published by John Harris, after James Northcote
line engraving, published 1790
19 1/2 in. x 25 in. (496 mm x 635 mm) paper size
acquired unknown source, 1963
Reference Collection
NPG D32811

(CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

 

12th February 1689, The crown of Great Britain being offered to William of Orange (1650 -1702) and his wife, Mary (1662 – 1694) by the Lords and Commons at Whitehall
Engraving by H. Bourne from the fresco by Edward Matthew Ward, c. 1860
Hulton Archive / Getty Images

 

Carved Room, Petworth House
© National Trust Images / Andreas von Einsiedel

 

Engraved portrait of George O’Brien Wyndham, 3rd Earl of Egremont, c. 1800
Engraved by H Cook from the original by T Phillips
Archive Photos / Getty Images

 

January 1671, English diarist John Evelyn (1620 – 1706) discovers sculptor Grinling Gibbons (1648 – 1721) working on a wood carving in a cottage near Sayes Court in Deptford
Hulton Archive / Getty Images

 

Wood carving master works
Gulshan Gurbanova / Getty Images

 

Portrait of Charles Seymour, 6th Duke of Somerset, 1748
Smith Collection / Gado / Getty Images

 

Library, Trinity College, Cambridge, c. 1820
Hulton Archive / Getty Images

 

Trinity College Library, Cambridge
Jan Hakan Dahlstrom / Getty Images

 

A detail of limewood carvings by Grinling Gibbons which appear in the Wren Library, Trinity College, Cambridge University

RDImages / Epics / Getty Images

 

Musical Instruments (details), The Carved Room by Grinling Gibbons
Petworth House, National Trust
Late 17th century
Photo: Paul Dykes, 2016

 

King William III and Queen Mary II

by Bernard Lens (II), published by Edward Cooper
mezzotint, 1689-1702
4 1/4 in. x 6 3/4 in. (108 mm x 170 mm) plate size
Given by the daughter of compiler William Fleming MD, Mary Elizabeth Stopford (née Fleming), 1931
Reference Collection
NPG D31079

(CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

 

Bust (detail), The Carved Room by Grinling Gibbons
Petworth House, National Trust
Late 17th century
Photo: Paul Dykes, 2016

 

Musical Instruments (detail), The Carved Room by Grinling Gibbons
Petworth House, National Trust
Late 17th century
Photo: Paul Dykes, 2016

 

Lobster (detail), The Carved Room by Grinling Gibbons
Petworth House, National Trust
Late 17th century
Photo: Paul Dykes, 2016

 

Fish (detail), The Carved Room by Grinling Gibbons
Petworth House, National Trust
Late 17th century
Photo: Paul Dykes, 2016

 

Banquet re-enactment

A&E Television Networks / Getty Images

 

The Carved Room, Petworth House, George Wyndham, 1st Lord Leconfield (1787-1869) and Sir Reginald Graham at breakfast

Madeline Campbell, The Hon. Mrs Percy Wyndham (1835-1920), c. 1865

Watercolour on paper

Petworth House and Park

© National Trust Images / John Hammond

 

Charles Robert Leslie, The Carved Room, Petworth House, Sussex (c.1856)

Verso: Sketch of a Seated Male Figure in Van Dyck Costume (1844)

Tate (T03789)

Digital image © Tate

released under Creative Commons CC-BY-NC-ND (3.0 Unported)

 

Feature Wall, The Carved Room by Grinling Gibbons
Petworth House, National Trust
Late 17th century
Photo: Paul Dykes, 2016

 

The Carved Room of Petworth House in East Sussex

Angus Kirk, 2011

Flickr

(CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

 

Corner (detail), The Carved Room by Grinling Gibbons
Petworth House, National Trust
Late 17th century
Photo: Paul Dykes, 2016

 

Sculptor uses chisel to carve wood

Blimp Tele Inc / Getty Images

 

Wood shavings fall in workshop

Blimp Tele Inc / Getty Images

 

Early Morning, Borrtex
FMA, (CC BY-NC 4.0)

Petworth House and Park’, National Trust

The State Rooms of Petworth House’, National Trust

Grinling Gibbons’, Encyclopaedia Britannica

Jonathan Jones, ‘Grinling Gibbons: the wood-carver who took root in England’, The Guardian, 8 September 2010

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