History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

31 May 2009

A British Treasure

In the spring of 1986 I absorbed a museum exhibit that ranks as the best in my experience. "The Treasure Houses of Britain" was seen by almost one million people during its five months at Washington's National Gallery of Art. Like most of the visitors I was amazed, impressed, "gobsmacked" not only by the sheer opulence of the treasures but also by their artistic merit.

Whenever I haul out the 600page/7 pound catalog I lose myself for hours and today alone I came up with tree subjects for future blog posts.

Here are a few notes about the Treasure Houses exhibit. According to the National Gallery of Art website more than 700 objects were gathered from more than 200 homes in Great Britain representing collecting and domestic arts from the 15th to the 20th century. Gervase Jackson-Stops chose the art work and the exhibit was structured to showcase each period of collecting. Seventeen period rooms were built to display the objects. "The Treasure Houses of Britain" was obviously the most ambitious project ever undertaken by the NGA.

It was at this exhibit that I first saw the work of master woodcarver Grinling Gibbons. The piece on display was a a carving of fish and game, not my favorite subject matter, but the delicacy and detail amazed me. I do not know how Gibbons worked but plan to research that more. I do know that he created these masterpieces before dental implements and dremel tools made intricate carving more accessible. Gibbons work shows an attention to detail that defies the imagination of my contemporary “hurry up and get it done” approach to most projects.

Grinling Gibbons was born in Rotterdam in 1648. It’s possible his father was an Englishman who worked with British architect, Inigo Jones. Grinling obviously developed his talent in the nineteen years before he came to England in 1667 but his career as a craftsmen in wood began in earnest when he was discovered by diarist John Evelyn working “in a poor and solitary thatched hut in Kent." Evelyn introduced him to King Charles II through the intercession of Christopher Wren.

Gibbons work can be found in dozens of houses and public buildings throughout Britain, including Petworth, Blenheim, Kirtlington Park and also at Windsor, colleges at Oxford and Cambridge, and many of Wren’s London churches. Gibbons and his workshop added immense detail and beauty to St Paul’s, London. One of the choir stalls is pictured above.

Gibbons worked in other mediums, but wood best suited the detailed handiwork for which he is best remembered. The life-like cravat pictured at the left is on exhibit at Chatsworth and is a departure from his usual work with objects of nature. The panel on the right (from Trinity College at Oxford) is one of my favorites, the grapes look real enough to eat.

Are you familiar with Grinling Gibbons and his work? What exhibit ranks as the “BEST” in your experience?


Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Another fabulous post, Mary! It sounds like an amazing exhibit. I'm not familiar with Grinling Gibbons (or I wasn't until I read this post). What a wonderful detail to work into a book.

There was an Art Deco exhibit at San Francisco's Palace of the Legion of Honour a few years ago that was fabulous (I went twice). It really brought the era to life (not to mention the amazing clothes and jewelry). And there was a fabulous exhibit on the history Africans in London at the Museum of the City of London a few years ago that I have pages of notes from.

A lot of my favorite museum memories, though, aren't specific exhibits, but Regency/Napoleonic/18th century specific things. Some of the portrait galleries at the Met that are full of Lawrences and Reynoldses and Gainsboroughs. The Fragonard room at the Frick, a corner of corridor lined with Boucher, and the room with the Emma Hamilton painting that sent chills down my spine as I realized I was looking at the original. Or the room at the Legion of Honour with some lovely Georgian/Regency paintings, to which my mom and I gave names when I was young teen reading Georgette Heyer.

2:49 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Never heard of Grinling Gibbons, but I love the work you've showed us, Mary, and I would have loved this exhibition.

Interesting question re could I name a favorite museum exhibition. So much depends upon the day, the mood...

...but I did have enormous fun a few years ago at the NY Metropolitan's "Anglomania," where mannequins dressed in period and punk, post-modern designer clothing vamped and slouched through rooms full of wonderful period furniture and art objects, and told me a lot about the outrages and extremities of English style.

The small, idiosyncratic Musee Colette in St-Sauveur en Puisaye in Burgundy, France is a sacrament for any fan (like moi)of the great French writer.

And I also love the Fragonard room at the Frick.

3:51 PM  
Blogger Mary Blayney said...

Yes to the Fragonard Room at the Frick but then I love the building as much as anything in it and have spent a good bit of my time there trying to get rid of the museum elements and back to the bones of the house.

Another great exhibit was one on the French sculptor Houdon, also at the NGA. The man had an amazing way of giving life to marble.

I am so pleased that I have now introduced a few more people to Gibbons. The next time you are in England and visiting a historic building be sure to ask if they have any of his work.

6:43 PM  
Blogger Louisa Cornell said...

I wasn't familiar with the work of Gibbons either, Mary. Thanks! I will definitely be on the look out for it from now on as it is lovely. What an amazing talent. I am such a museum geek it is hard for me to pick a favorite exhibit. The Elgin Marbles had me in awe when I saw them in the British Museum. I was 11 years old at the time and I'm still in awe all these many years later.

The Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam is fabulous and I happened to visit in the year of the 200th anniversary of his death. They called all of his paintings home and I spent and entire day in that museum.

The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam is another treasure from the Viking ship in the basement to Rembrandt's Nightwatch.

Perhaps the most poignant place I have ever visited was Kaiservilla in Bad Ischl Austria. It was the summer villa of the Hapsburgs. It is a lovely palace in and of itself, but the most touching part of it was the bedchamber and sitting room of the Empress Elisabeth. Those rooms were kept EXACTLY as they were at the moment the Empress left for her fateful trip to Switzerland where she was assassinated. They were kept so at the command of her husband the Emperor. While it is true he had a mistress and she had lovers the Emperor and Empress were very close friends and corresponded constantly when they traveled apart. Her last letter to him is on the desk in her sitting room. It just struck me as a very touching, poignant place. Of all their palaces this little villa was the place where they and their children were a family like any other family.

7:58 AM  
Blogger Mary Blayney said...

Louisa, after your description I want to visit the Kaiservilla -- and will write a post someday on the places that retain that sense of the past so completely (The Yorktown Battlefield is one for me)

You gave an impressive listing of memorable museum experiences. Thanks

My husband would say his favorite exhibit was the King Tut exhibit which he saw after hours in a special group tour. He's not much of a museum guy but said it was amazing.

10:57 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Thank you, Mary, for introducing me to Grinling Gibbons! I had never heard of him before. And his work is truly remarkable.

Tracy, I love the Frick, too -- which reminds me, it's about time for another pilgrimage. I have a copy of that Emma Hamilton painting ("Nature" by George Romney), the first portrait he did of Emma, commissioned by her lover at the time Charles Greville. I saw the copy in a church's window on West 57th Street and contacted the Brooklyn artist who painted the copy. I ended up buying it from him, because although it's no Romney, the painter did a pretty good job -- probably because he fell in love with Emma when he saw the painting for the first time and wanted to see if he could duplicate the image.

Because I thought it would be a good inside joke the home page of my new web site (it's being built at the moment) has a contemporary homage to that portrait of Emma, with me, in the same coral color and a similar pose, and a Cavalier King Charles spaniel "borrowed" from an acquaintance for the photo shoot.

I suppose the Frick is my favorite museum in NY ... I'll have to think of my favorites elsewhere...

1:39 PM  
Blogger Mary Blayney said...

Amanda -- let us know when your new web site is online. Can't wait to see your version of the portrait!

I am delighted that I have introduced so many of you to Gibbons. I am wondering where we could all see his work without going to England... I will let you know if I can find a source in New York, DC or San Francisco or anywhere that is not an ocean away.

6:46 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Louisa -- I forgot to mention that I have a long entry on Austria's Empress Elisabeth (Sisi) and Franz Joseph in my January 2010 nonfiction release NOTORIOUS ROYAL MARRIAGES. I'd be very eager to glean your sources for any extramarital affairs Sisi may have had because research did not turn up any concrete ones. Flirtations, yes -- but she always backed off -- even from the British man who was her annual companion for the English hunting season for about 7 years. She loved to be loved (as in worshipped from afar) but hated sex. She was frigid. So I never thought she had affairs in the physical sense. If you've got some great sources that contradict this, please share, because I'd love to be able to include it before we go to print.

8:00 AM  

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