The Art of Subtraction

From Harvard Magazine:

WoodThe royal palace of Hampton Court, built on the Thames nearly 12 miles upstream from London by Henry VIII in 1514, suffered a devastating fire on March 31, 1986. A bedside candle in the room of the elderly Lady Gale, a resident who perished in the flames, probably started the blaze. Grievously, the fire also consumed or seriously damaged some of the incomparable woodcarvings in the King’s Apartments, an addition that Christopher Wren built for William III near the end of the seventeenth century. These delicate depictions of botanical subjects in wood, hung on walls and surmounting doorways and mantelpieces, were the masterworks of the final period of Grinling Gibbons (1648-1721), the Dutch-born artist widely regarded as England’s finest woodcarver, a “golden codger, almost of the order of Samuel Johnson, Thomas Chippendale, Charles Dickens or William Morris,” as David Esterly ’66 puts it in his 2012 book, The Lost Carving: A Journey to the Heart of Making.

Given the British reverence for historical (and royal) heritage and the carvings’ importance, there was no question that restoration would proceed after the fire. Miraculously, most of them had survived, despite damage, but one spectacular overdoor drop, a pendant of flowers and leaves, in the King’s Drawing Room, had been incinerated. The problem was that in the nearly three centuries since Gibbons’s time, such finely detailed, high-relief carvings in limewood (the British term for linden wood) had become a lost art. There had been “sorry attempts at Gibbons revivals in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: crude embarrassments, almost all of them,” Esterly writes. In 1986, a number of English carving conservators were working assiduously in limewood, but the artist to whom the British entrusted the restoration was a 42-year-old craftsman living outside Utica, New York, who had been carving limewood for about a decade: Esterly himself.

More here.