Posted by Jonathan Hellyer on 10/02/2021
2021 marks the 300th anniversary of the death of master carver, Grinling Gibbons. The Quire at St Paul’s is a masterpiece of Gibbons’ art as a carver and this year is undergoing conservation work as part of a wider programme to celebrate the craftsmen that created so much of the beauty you see at St Paul’s, and those that continue to maintain it today.
The Cathedral's Conservator, Jonathan, is responsible for the Quire conservation work and specialises in furniture, joinery and decorative arts. But how do you work from home when your job is to care for a heritage building? To understand more about Gibbons' work and methods, Jonathan took on a new lockdown project of recreating a small section of panelling and documented this process to show the care and skill required to create the beautiful carvings we see today.
Just like for Sir Christopher Wren, the project starts on the drawing board and Jonathan researched the records in our archive and the Quire itself to ensure his recreated model followed the original designs.
Unlike Jonathan's one-man project, the original craftsmen worked within trades. The sawyers cut the planks of wood which the carpenters then prepared. Jonathan planes the rough sawn wood square so he can mark and cut the mortice and tenon joints for the frame which he'll cut by hand, just like the original carpenters.
Once the carpenters had made the frame structure of the Quire, they handed the project over to the joiners who were responsible for joining wood together with glue. The joiners also made the decorative mouldings which surround the panel so that the Quire looks more recognisable as a piece of furniture.
Jonathan has been teaching himself to carve in lockdown and his design, in the style of Gibbons, begins with an acanthus leaf pattern which is shaped using a fret saw to remove the waste lime wood.
He uses gouges to rough out the pattern and add depth and dimension. Cutting away as much waste wood as possible replicates the free flowing light touch of Gibbons. It’s important for Jonathan to remove wood on the back as well as the front and this is what lightens Gibbons’ work.
This is Jonathan's first attempt at carving in Grinling Gibbons’ style and the photo below shows the carving of the four key stages from the layout to finishing. Gibbons used the ends of reeds to sand his work and create the smooth refined surfaces he is famed for.
Jonathan will be talking about his experiences and observations of recreating a section of the Quire panel during Craft Week in May. Keep an eye on our website and social media for more information and other stories about the hidden hands who made St Paul's.