Fairfax House exhibition on the carver who went from York journeyman to the 'Michelangelo of Wood'

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From obscure beginnings, craftsman Grinling Gibbons settled in York and later found such prestige that he was known as the ‘Michelangelo of Wood’.

Now, visitors to one of the country’s finest Georgian townhouses will have the chance to view works rarely seen outside of the walls of Hampton Court Palace – a possibility, ironically, which may only have come about because of a famous fire at the latter building in 1986.

Hampton Court Palace.

Hampton Court Palace.

Fairfax House in York is hosting The Genius of Grinling Gibbons, an exhibition which will be displayed until Friday, September 14.

It has opened to celebrate the 370th anniversary year of Grinling Gibbons’ birth, and also marks the 350th year of his arrival in York.

The exhibition is aimed at showing “Gibbons’ unequalled talent, visionary brilliance and ability to transform the medium of wood into something magical”, organisers say, with works lent from institutions not only across the country but also from Europe.

Fairfax House director Hannah Phillip said: “He was understood to be the Michelangelo of Wood - indeed that title remains true today. He really is pretty much unsurpassed.”

She added that key loans made to the house has “enabled us to bring to Yorkshire incredibly significant historic material that has never been seen before beyond the Palaces’ collections.”

The display includes items from landmarks such as St Paul’s Cathedral, Sir John Soane’s Museum, The National Portrait Gallery, the V&A and the Frits Lugt Collection in Paris.

But crucially, as custodians of a nationally significant collection of Gibbons craftsmanship, the Historic Royal Palaces at Hampton Court Palace agreed to also lend items. It is only the sixth time in its existence which the Historic Royal Palaces has lent works for display – and the second time at Fairfax House.

The pieces are “delicate and exquisite” sections of carved oak and lime wood salvaged from the great fire at Hampton Court Palace in 1986, which tore through most of the King’s State Apartments decorated by Gibbons, and designed by Sir Christopher Wren.

Despite their charred condition the fragments created by Gibbons, which once graced the walls of the Hampton Court, still highlight the creator’s magnificence in an unusually up-close environment.

Ms Phillip said: “These pieces are so rare and almost never seen outside the context in which they were made for.”

She said that despite a major fire at a historical site being something people would “never, ever wish for”, the blaze has meant that Gibbons’ work, because of its subsequent removal, can now be accessed and seen in a new way.

While at the palace, there would have been distance between the work on a wall and the viewer, she said, whereas visitors to exhibitions can now see the work closely.

She thanked all the key lenders for their help in setting up the exhibition. The display comes after The King David Panel - a carving seamed together from two pieces of wood for Gibbons to create a three-dimensional sculpture of depict a visionary concert – was initially acquired last year.

Ms Phillip said: “You can genuinely see the hand of Gibbons at work 300 years later. It’s very, very exciting.”

Born in Rotterdam in the Netherlands, Gibbons later moved to England, settling first in York where he worked as a journeyman for three years between 1667 and 1671.

Gibbons was commissioned by William III (1689-1702) and Mary II (1689-1694) to complete a set of new state apartments at Hampton Court Palace in the early 1690s but work was halted in 1694 when Mary died from smallpox – though drawings of plans, many of which are on loan to Fairfax House.

William III recommenced work on the Palace after an intense period of mourning in late c1690s. Gibbons was again commissioned but only a fraction of his original ambitious scheme was ever implemented.