I’ve always been slightly intimidated by the big London auction houses, and have generally stayed away for fear that someone would shout “pleb!” as soon as I walked through the door and have me thrown out, so I honestly didn’t realise that they sometimes put on exhibitions. However, Bonhams had been advertising their free Grinling Gibbons exhibition so widely that I couldn’t help but take note, and I was intrigued enough by this display commemorating the tercentenary of the amazingly skilled wood carver’s death to brave New Bond Street (just off the once again dreadful Oxford Street, now that tourists have returned), where their showrooms are headquartered.
The exhibition only ran for a few weeks, and Marcus and I ended up not having a chance to see it until its last day open, which was last week and also happened to be my birthday, so we were planning on doing stuff in central London that day anyway. Despite my fears, Bonhams was actually super chill, much chiller than most museums! Instead of being subjected to a bag search and having to pre-book tickets, we just strolled in off the street completely unquestioned and were free to look around without anyone bothering us. We had a lunch reservation that afternoon, and we weren’t anticipating that the exhibition would be very large, so we had only budgeted about half an hour to look around. First impressions seemed to confirm our presuppositions, as there were only a handful of artworks in a corner of the ground floor showroom, most of which were pretty impressive (even the creepy lobster), but they were all new and thus obviously not carved by Gibbons. However, we quickly discovered that the exhibition proper was actually located on the second floor, and headed upstairs to check it out.
As soon as we entered, I questioned whether half an hour would be enough. The exhibition filled a large gallery, and featured more text and artefacts than some exhibitions I’ve paid to see, so I was instantly impressed. Grinling Gibbons was a sculptor and wood carver active in the late 17th and early 18th centuries who was best known for his incredibly intricate and lifelike carvings. He was born in the Netherlands to English parents (his unusual name is apparently a portmanteau of two family names, poor guy) in the mid 17th century, and there’s not much known about his early life, other than that he was educated in Holland and had moved to England by the time he was in his early 20s. He was basically “discovered” in his studio in Deptford by the diarist John Evelyn (who you may remember also lived in Deptford until Peter the Great trashed his house…it’s a long story) in 1671, and ended up working for the royal family. You can still see his carvings today in various churches, palaces, and stately homes, including Hampton Court, St. Paul’s Cathedral, and Petworth House.
The highlight of the exhibition was definitely the cravat that belonged to the wonderfully flamboyant Horace Walpole, owner of Strawberry Hill House, who liked to trick his guests with it at parties. It was carved out of limewood, which is white when fresh, so it would have actually looked just like a lace cravat when Walpole wore it. There were also pieces by modern artists in this gallery, and I loved the prosthetic legs carved to resemble Victorian boots, though I can’t imagine they’re the most practical for walking.
I also really loved the heads of Charles I and Charles II, where you can see Gibbons’ skill for portraiture, particularly in Charles II, who has had his paint stripped off so you can appreciate the beauty of the carving. The exhibition had very detailed signage throughout, including large text panels on Gibbons’ life, which were very interesting and much appreciated. I’m certainly no expert in wood carving, and it was also nice to learn the provenance of the pieces – when you think about it, it’s not surprising an auction house would be skilled at this. I just wish all museums were this thorough with their labels!
Although I didn’t have quite as much time to look around as I would have liked, I still got to see everything and quickly read all of the text, and it ended up being a great way to spend a small chunk of my birthday. I also enjoyed having a quick peek at some of the high end items up for auction in the downstairs gallery, including some amazing terracotta lions (est. £20,000-30,000) and a gun that belonged to Tipu Sultan (I think of Tipu’s Tiger fame), estimated at £250,000-350,000. So I was right to suspect that actual auctions here are not for the likes of me, but as far as exhibitions go…if I hear of another one taking place, I will definitely not be scared to venture back! For a free exhibition, this was fabulous, and although it is no longer at Bonhams, the exhibition will be moving up to Compton Verney in Warwickshire, where it will be on display from 24th September until 30th January 2022, so you still have a chance to see it. And never fear; although it was hosted by an auction house, the items on display were all on loan from various historic houses and museums, where they will be returned when the exhibition in Compton Verney finishes, so you don’t have to worry about them being sold off to private collectors. 4/5.