Saint Paul’s Cathedral, London, window festoon panel, workshop of Grinling Gibbons, 1695-96. Photo: ©CRAFTVALUE

From wood and stone carvers, to stuccodores, ironworkers, and joiners, there is a remarkable legacy of craftsmanship from within the classical tradition – from the wildly individual and expressive work of towering figures such as Grinling Gibbons, to the host of little documented workers whose skill and precision contributed so much to an era unchallenged for its magnificence, elegance and grace. Of this work, carvers did most to enrich the architectonic elements of design: the supremely intricate carving of the Corinthian capital, the dazzling complexity of the enriched entablature, with its need for endlessly precise repetitions for effect. The purpose of such detail was not purely ornamental. In such ways did architects harness the light across the surfaces of their buildings, articulating spatial recession, drawing in the eye with cleverly scaled and proportioned figurative and vegetal elements, adding texture and shadow to otherwise plain arrangements of volumes.

The Age of Grinling Gibbons

Left: John Smith, Grinling Gibbons, mezzotint on paper, 1690.
Right: Overmantel at Belton, Lincolnshire.
Photos: Avray Tipping, Grinling Gibbons and the Woodwork of his Age (London, 1914). Getty Research Institute. Internet Archive.

No craftsman exemplifies the swagger and brilliance of Restoration ornament as much as Grinling Gibbons. His extraordinary virtuoso carving, defined by deep but delicate undercutting, astonished his contemporaries and defined the late 17th century as the high point of craftsmanship in wood. And yet in the portrait above Gibbons, primarily a carver of architectural ornament, represented himself as a sculptor of monumental figurative work in marble, which reflects the low status of ornamental carving in the period. Yet Gibbons’ influence was extensive, stretching long into the following century when his reputation remained undiminished even as fashions changed.

Edward Pearce and his circle

Perhaps the most flamboyant expression of the virtuosity of mid-to-late 17th century wood carving is the remarkable series of pierced panel-work staircases found in Britain and Ireland. The example below, now in the Metropolitan Museum in New York, is from Cassiobury, Hertfordshire (demolished 1927), and attributed to Edward Pearce. Other examples of such staircases can be found in Dunster Castle, Somerset, Tyttenhanger Hall, Hertfordshire, Thorpe Hall, Cambridgeshire, Durham Castle, Durham, Eltham Lodge, SE London, Tredegar Park, South Wales.

Staircase from Cassiobury Park, Hertfordshire. Photos: The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The best surviving example of this kind of work in Ireland is the staircase formerly at Eyrecourt, County Galway, which was bought by William Randolph Hearst in 1926; now in the Detroit Institute of Arts.

Staircase, E yrecourt, Co. Galway. Photos: courtesy of Detroit Institute of Arts.

The business of carving

The role of sculpture in architecture is an orphan area which has been neglected by historians of both media. Yet, carving and modelling of doorcases, window frames, altarpieces, chimneypieces, fittings, frames and furnishings in stone, wood and plaster was a fundamental aspect of early modern architectural production. Though carving in wood and stone are very different in terms of tools and technique, sculptors worked in both materials. Carvers collaborated with stone masons and joiners to deliver the language of the classical orders at many different scales from columns and entablatures and their enrichments to figurative reliefs and grandly scaled ornamental urns and garden statuary. Prominent early eighteenth-century carvers in Ireland include John Houghton and John Kelly.

John Houghton

John Houghton was one of the most important architectural carvers working in Ireland in the second and third quarters of the eighteenth century and is known for his work with Sir Edward Lovett Pearce and Richard Castle.

Oak picture frame, Provost’s House, Trinity College Dublin. Photo: Reproduced courtesy of the Board and Fellows of Trinity College Dublin.

The carved frame above (c. 1741-42), in the Provost’s House, Trinity College Dublin, was attributed to John Houghton by the Knight of Glin on the basis of it’s similarity to a documented example in St Patrick’s Deanery. The carver, designer and author Thomas Johnson spent a period in Houghton’s workshop in 1747 and described him as ‘the most eminent in Dublin’ and  ‘the best wood-carver for basso-relievos I ever saw.’

John Houghton, carved overmantel depicting the Emperor Marcus Aurelius from the old Presence Chamber of Dublin Castle, c. 1750. Photo: Courtesy of the Office of Public Works, Dublin Castle.

John Kelly

Possibly a pupil of John Houghton with whom he carved the pediment coat of arms at Carton, in County Kildare, John Kelly was a highly accomplished carver who worked primarily in wood. In the absence of documents, he has been associated with several projects by Richard Castle. His son, also John Kelly, was likewise a skilled carver active in Dublin in the 1760s.

Venetian window at Number 86 Saint Stephen’s Green by John Kelly junior, c. 1765.
Photo: Stephen Farrell

Carved tread ends and doorframe at Number 85 Saint Stephen’s Green, Dublin, c. 1738, Richard Castle architect, John Kelly, carver (attrib.). Photos: ©CRAFTVALUE

A bill from John Kelly

A surviving bill of 1759 from John Kelly, senior, provides valuable detail on the types of enrichments which were created by carvers for architectural fittings and furnishings.  A bed which belonged to Dr Bartholomew Mosse, founder of the Rotunda Hospital, and now on loan to the Tenement Museum at 14 Henrietta Street, has long been associated with Kelly’s bill (see below). However, the bed is of the Ionic order with dentils and ovolo ornament and a plain frieze while the bill describes a Corinthian bed with ovolo and modillions and an ornamented frieze. Such enrichment significantly increased cost. An amateur cabinet-maker and a friend of Richard Castle, Mosse bequeathed the Ionic bed to his daughter Jane. Compare the bill with the bed and the Ionic and Corinthian entablatures from popular contemporary pattern book Abraham Swan’s The British Architect or The Builder’s Treasury of Stair-Cases, London, 1760 (2nd edition). The bill is signed by John Ensor, who was Richard Castle’s clerk of works and supervised the building of the Lying-in Hospital after Castle’s death. 

Photos: Paul Tierney, courtesy of Dublin City Council and the Dublin City Council Culture Company

To Carving a Bed Done In the Corrinthian Order 

Cut in Mohogony                                                         John Kelly

Feet £ s d

  • 21¾  of Large O G in ye Cornice Enritch with Raffle leaf  @ 10d ft 0/17/6 
  • 21¾ of small O G Done in Grass @ 3d 0/5/3
  • 20½ of Ovolo Enrich with egg and Husk in … @ 8d 0/13/7
  • 20½ of O G Enritch with nine Leaf Grass @ 8d 0/13/7
  • 20¼ of large Ogee in the Architrave @ 8d 0/13/6
  • 20¼  of Bead under ditto @ 1d0/2/6 
  • 20 of small OG in Ditto @ 2d 0/3/4
  • 20 of Astragal Done in Cord @ 2d 0/3/4
  • 20 of Ornamented frize @2s6d 2/10/0
  • To  59 Mondillions with Enritching the Capping @ 1s8d 1/18/41 
  • To 61 flowers for ditto @ 3d 0/15/3
  • To 4 Corrinthian Caps @11s4d 2/5/6
  • 39½ of Astrigal in the Taister Enritch with flower and ribbon @4d 0/13/2
  • 19¼ of Round Done with Grass @3d 0/4/10
  • 28½ of Astrigal in the Head board Enritch with flower and Ribbon @4d 0/9/6
  • 21 of Round Enrith with Grass @3d 0/5/3
  • 17¼ of Base Enritch with Venicean Scrole on Leaf @20 1/5/11
  • 17¼ of Astrigal under Ditto Done with flower and ribbon @4d0/5/9
  • To the Ornament with his Coat of Arms of the Head Board 3/8/3
  • To Ornament of the feet 1/14/1


 John Ensor  

Abraham Swan, The British Architect or The Builder’s Treasury of Stair-Cases (London: 1760).

Further reading

Dictionary of English Furniture Makers 1660-1840, ed. Geoffrey Beard and Christopher Gilbert (Leeds, 1986), British History Online

Dictionary of Irish architects 1720-1940 :

David Esterly, The lost carving: a journey to the heart of making, London ,2012

David Green, Grinling Gibbons: his work as carver and statuary, 1648-1721, Farnborough, 1964

T. Percy, C. Kirkpatrick, M.D., MRIA edited by Henry Jellett The Book of the Rotunda Hospital London, 1913

Ingrid Roscoe, Emma Hardy, M.G.Sullivan, A biographical  dictionary of sculptors in Britain, 1660-1851 (New Haven and London,2009)

Cinzia Sicca and Alison Yarrington, eds, The lustrous trade:material culture and the history of sculpture in England and in Italyc.1700-1860, Leicester, 2000

Jacob Simon, ‘Thomas Johnson’s  “The life of the author”, Furniture History, Vol. 39 (2003), pp. 1-

The Knight of Glin and James Peill, Irish Furniture, New Haven and London, 2007

Avray Tipping, Grinling Gibbons and the woodwork of his age, London, 1914

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