Carving a legacy Grinling Gibbons at Petworth House

Carved Room at Petworth House

2021 marks the start of a year-long celebration of Grinling Gibbons (1648-1721), the most famous artist-carver in British history. Come and see some of his exquisite work in the Carved Room at Petworth House. Visitors will be able to explore and enjoy the carvings’ incredible intricacy in more detail from Monday 2 to Tuesday 31 August , thanks to new lighting, and discover the story behind Gibbons and the Petworth carvings.

His journey to Petworth

Born and raised in the Netherlands, Gibbons served his apprenticeship there until about 1667 when he moved to England. Over the next few decades his talent and flamboyant Baroque style was sought after by wealthy patrons. Gibbons’ commissions, both in wood and stone, included the King’s Chapel, Windsor Castle (1680-2), St Paul’s Cathedral (1695-7) and Burghley House (1683-85).

The carvings here at Petworth, originally commissioned by Charles Seymour (1662-1748) and Elizabeth Percy (1667-1722), 6th Duke and Duchess of Somerset, represent Grinling Gibbons at the height of his skill and imagination in carving sculptural ornament.

Power and influence

In choosing a carver employed by King William III (1650-1702) and Queen Mary II (1662-94) the Duke and Duchess of Somerset were showing their allegiance and connections to the royal court. The sheet music in the musical trophy shows part of the semi-opera ‘Fairy Queen’ which was composed by Henry Purcell in 1692, to celebrate the 15th wedding anniversary of the royal couple.

A limewood carving by Grinling Gibbons at Petworth House situated on the East wall of the Carved Room
A limewood carving of musical instruments by Grinling Gibbons
A limewood carving by Grinling Gibbons at Petworth House situated on the East wall of the Carved Room

The Duke and Duchess were also demonstrating their own position in society by incorporating four full-length portraits of themselves and the Duke’s grandparents, framed by the carved family crest, garter and other armorials, all by Gibbons. 

Changing rooms

Although the Carved Room at Petworth is the must-visit room to see Gibbons’s work, his lime-wood carvings were first installed about 1692 in a smaller drawing room, that occupied half the current space, for entertaining guests. Inventories of 1749/50 and 1764 describe the room ‘flounced all about with carving’ with ‘Pictures of full length [the four portraits of the Somersets] in carv’d frames’.

The 3rd Earl of Egremont (1751-1837) extended the room to its current size in 1786 to create a formal dining room. Additional carvings were brought into the space including those around the portrait of Henry VIII, probably carved by Gibbons’s assistant John Selden (1688-1713/14).

Portrait of King Henry VIII that hangs over fireplace in The Carved Room at Petworth
A carved wooden frame surrounds a Portrait of King Henry VIII that hangs over fireplace in The Carved Room
Portrait of King Henry VIII that hangs over fireplace in The Carved Room at Petworth

In the first-half of the 19th century the panelling was painted white and further carvings were added by Jonathan Ritson (1776?-1846). Four landscapes by Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851) and portraits of both Ritson and Gibbons were installed. These alterations were removed from the 1870s until 2001-2, when the room was restored to how it was during the 3rd Earl’s time.

Creative legacy

Gibbons’s training in north European carving traditions honed his exceptional creative skills and he was strongly influenced by 16th-century Dutch art and architecture. Unlike many English carvers at the time, he used lime wood which creates a more sculptural result than traditional oak. His carvings almost seem to come alive.

By the 1680s Gibbons ran the largest wood carving workshop in England. The various elements of a scheme were made in the workshop and assembled onsite. Gibbons was almost certainly involved in carving the showpieces, such as the key elements of trophies, alongside supervising a highly skilled workshop team. He may also have done some of the preliminary carving for his assistants to then finish.

Detail of the vase trophy, situated to the left of fireplace, that was praised by Walpole in the Carved Room at Petworth
Details of lime wood carving in the Carved Room at Petworth House showing a vase trophy
Detail of the vase trophy, situated to the left of fireplace, that was praised by Walpole in the Carved Room at Petworth

The ‘Carved Room’ has delighted visitors since its creation. Writer and antiquarian Horace Walpole (1717-97) visited Petworth in 1749 and wrote that he saw ‘the finest carving of Gibbons that ever my eyes beheld’. 

Visit Petworth House and Park and see for yourself the glorious carvings of Grinling Gibbons in the Carved Room. 

The National Trust are supporting Grinling Gibbons 300, a national festival that will run until August 2022.