What it means to make something well

David Esterly
Opinion - Books Thursday, 28th March 2013

When David Esterly encountered a Grinling Gibbons carving, he fell in love at first sight. It led him to a new career, and to a job as a restorer following the Hampton Court fire. His book The Lost Carving is a record of this daunting commission.

One day back in the Seventies I was walking down Piccadilly with the woman who would later become my wife. We were on our way to have tea with my parents, whom she was meeting for the first time. She didn't seem to be in a huge hurry to arrive. Suddenly she grabbed my arm and said: "Let's go see Grinling Gibbons."

A friend of hers with a strange name? She steered me into the church we were passing (St James's, Piccadilly, a Wren building from the 1680s), and we walked down the aisle. I looked up, and my life swerved. Huge garlands and swags and drops, of leaves, flowers and fruits, carved out of wood with a fineness and fluency and naturalism that I never imagined the medium capable of. Grinling Gibbons (1648-1721), of course, was the greatest British woodcarver. I was responding to his work viscerally, in that way that you do to great art, with body and mind at once.

I'd just come from years in universities, and I mistook my interest for an academic one. I thought that what I should do was write a book on the man, but shortly after I began it occurred to me that you couldn't really understand how Gibbons's style was invented unless you understood something about his tools and medium. Just for fun, I bought a few carving chisels and a piece of limewood. With the first stroke of the chisel, the genie flew out of the bottle, never to return. The Piccadilly woman and I retired to a cold cottage in the South Downs, where she restored porcelain and, over eight years, I taught myself to carve.

Forward to another decade. We had returned to America and I was at my workbench in upstate New York. Over the radio came news of a devastating fire at Hampton Court Palace. I put my chisel down to listen, fearing the worst when I heard the name Christopher Wren. Eventually it was revealed that the fire, sweeping through the King's Apartments, had left undamaged all but a few of the Gibbons carvings that enrich these chambers. Only one piece, a seven-foot-long pendant over a door in the King's Drawing Room, had been burnt to ashes.

Forward another three years, when I walked through the entrance gate at Hampton Court charged with the task of replacing that carving. From scratch, with only a badly-lit 1939 glass plate image as my Virgil to guide me through the dark forest of uncertainty that confronted me. I couldn't get the advice of Gibbons's first great scholar out of my head: it's best to account the secret of Gibbons's carving lost, he said, rather than try to retrieve it from the mists of history. The Lost Carving is the story of the year I spent trying to prove him wrong.

Sometimes I wonder whether the book would have been written if iPhones or iPods were around in those days. Or if I'd been living somewhere other than north London, a train ride of an hour or more from Hampton Court? Without that undistracted blank commuting time, would I have bothered to fill notebook after notebook with an excruciatingly detailed account of my daily work life?

I would have. It was an adventure so hauntingly intense that I felt compelled to set down each day's events while they were still fresh. Not that it was a physical adventure. I wasn't rowing the Atlantic. But if by adventure you mean an endeavour where much is risked in the pursuit of a daunting goal, and along the way you learn something unexpected about the world - well then, an adventure it was. And physical too, now that I think of it: my muscles were learning to do things they had not done before, and my eyes learning to see in a new way.

When the year was over the Palace authorities, hearing that I'd kept a journal, offered to place it in the Hampton Court archives, where in a century or two it might bob to the surface again as an interesting bit of historical jetsam. I was about to hand my notebooks over - and then I changed my mind. I brought the three volumes back and put them in a bottom drawer, where they sat untouched, nearly forgotten. Then one day, looking at pictures of Grinling Gibbons and Hampton Court on my workroom wall and musing about times past, I impulsively ferreted them out. For the first time in decades, I opened one. A smell of stone and water and old wood rose from the pages, the smell of Hampton Court. I read a random passage and suddenly that day years ago sprang to life with almost the vividness of the original experience.

As Proustian as can be, because at the same time I was seeing those events from the perspective of 20 years later. Maybe, between the unexpected freshness of a recaptured experience and the illumination cast on it by the light of what happened afterwards, I could triangulate to... to what? Some deeper understanding of what those adventures, the grand crises and the petty politics really signified? Of how you come to terms with an intimidating master? Of what creativity and manual skill can mean in today's world?

So I set out to spend a year writing about that earlier year, seen from the perspective of my present carving life half a world away. I wanted to mirror the past in the present, hoping to find, as Yeats says, some wisdom to go with the passion of earlier days. Maybe at least I could use the time at Hampton Court as - Henry James, this time - "a bag of gold into which I could dip for a handful of shining hours".

Unexpectedly, I was borne down to the bedrock of what it means to make a thing well, and writing the book, like a good carving project, yielded more bounty than I'd dared to hope for. It turned out to be, as the book's subtitle has it, a journey to the heart of making.

The Lost Carving by David Esterly is published by Duckworth at £16.99