Object: Marble baptismal font of St. James's, Piccadilly, presumed to be by the famous Restoration wood and stoneworker Grinling Gibbons (1648-1721), although according to David Green this engraving is the strongest evidence that the font is actually the work of Gibbons (1964, 64). Geoffrey Beard points out that since the engraving was issued three years before Gibbons died, there is little reason to doubt the attribution (1989, 33). Horace Walpole (1717-1797) also attributes the font to Gibbons (1763, 86). According to the church vestry book, the font was given to the church in 1685 by “an unknown person piously inclined” (Green 1964, 64). The font remains in St. James's, Piccadilly, to the present day.
VAS MARMOREVM / SACRO BAPTISMATI DICATVM ACROTERIO DEAVRATO CORONATVM IN ECCLESIA DIVI JACOBI WESTMONASTERII. / Opus Grinlini Gibbons Ære iam perenniori sculpsit Georgius Vertue 1718.
A marble vessel dedicated to the holy baptism, crowned with a golden acroterium. It is in the Church of St. James, Westminster. George Vertue engraved the work of Grinling Gibbons in the now more durable medium of copper, 1718.
Commentary by Anne Myers: The engraving gives details of the three scenes on the sides of the font: Noah’s Ark, the baptism of Christ, and the baptism of the eunuch of Candace by St. Philip. The plate also shows the flying angel cover, which no longer survives, and was probably sold in 1822, when the font was moved. In his A New View of London, Edward Hatton described the cover as “a spacious Angel Descending from a Celestial Choir of Cherubims, all gilt with Gold” (1708, 298). The engraving seems to indicate the presence of some sort of pulley structure for raising and lowering the cover. The Adam and Eve pedestal, carved in the form of the trunk of an apple tree, reflects contemporary belief that babies were tainted with original sin.
One question that arises with respect to this engraving is why such a recent object would be included in a collection of antiquities. Indeed, the church itself, by Christopher Wren, was not even constructed until 1684, and at least one antiquary found nothing of interest there for that reason (Bailey 1734, xx). Grinling Gibbons’s contributions to wood and stone carving apparently established him as a figure of historical and aesthetic importance throughout the eighteenth century. His name appears in many tourist guidebooks on London, where he erected a famous statue of Charles II in the Royal Exchange, much praised by contemporary viewers (Philipps 1684), and in guides to such great houses as Chatsworth, Derbyshire and Burghley House, Lincolnshire. Hatton’s A New View of London in which the cover is mentioned, describes Gibbons’s work in the church in some detail, but without mentioning his name (1708, 298).
The diarist and connoisseur John Evelyn (1620-1706) claims to have discovered Gibbons by accident and introduced him to King Charles II, and his entry for January 18, 1671 presents us with a picturesque tale:
In this account, Gibbons himself becomes a kind of collectible object, available to Evelyn to be snatched up, taken away, and presented with pride to a wider audience. In fact, he is nearly paralleled to Evelyn’s own copy of Tintoretto’s crucifix. In this way, Gibbons resembles many of the other curiosities and antiquarian objects presented in the volume.
I this day first acquainted his Majestie with that incomparable young man, Gibson, whom I had lately found in an Obscure place, & that by mere accident, as I was walking neere a poor solitary thatched house in a field in in our parish neere Says-Court: I found him shut in, but looking into the Window, I perceiv’d him carving that large Cartoone or Crucifix of Tintorets, a Copy of which I had also my selfe brought from Venice. . . . he opned the doore civily to me, & I saw about him such a work, as for the curiosity of handling, drawing, & studious exactnesse, I never in my life had seene before in all my travells. (1955, 3.567)
Moreover, it seems that George Vertue conducted considerable research into the life and work of Gibbons, so the inclusion of the font in Vetusta Monumenta may have been an expression of his own interest. Horace Walpole mentions Vertue’s inquiries into the place of Gibbons’s birth (Holland by one account, Spur Alley in the Strand by another), as well as Vertue’s consultation of certain manuscripts to prove Gibbons’s responsibility for a “brazen statue of James II. in the Privy-garden” (1763, 84). Walpole's Anecdotes of Painting includes a fine engraved portrait of Gibbons (between pages 82 and 83).
Vertue’s engraving of the font is clearly meant to represent the delicacy of Gibbons’s design and the intricacy of his carving. The foliage, in particular, that winds around the base of the font, appears almost too fragile and sinuous to be carved of marble, and indeed the pictures of the font now featured on the church’s website reveal the engraving to be somewhat of an exaggeration, fine though the carving actually is.
In fact, this delicacy and verisimilitude were the qualities for which Gibbons was best known in the eighteenth century. Walpole calls Gibbons “[a]n original genius, a citizen of nature” and claims that “[t]here is no instance of a man before Gibbons who gave to wood the loose and airy lightness of flowers, and chained together the various productions of the elements with a free disorder natural to each species” (1763, 3.82). He also notes another carved work by Gibbons “over a closet door" at Chatsworth, "a pen not distinguishable from a real feather” (3.85). William Hogarth indicates Gibbons’s status as a recognizable standard for excellence and realism in The Analysis of Beauty when he describes a certain leaf-like figure as one that “would have been above the power of a Gibbons to have equalled” (1753, 68). In 1766, John Gwynn described him thus:
Gwynn’s comparison of Gibbons’s statue to the classical sheds light on the inclusion of his font in a print series purporting to focus on antiquities. Gibbons is rendered here as producer of modern antiquities, an eighteenth-century counterpart to the ancients.
Gibbons, the admired Gibbons! the touches of whose chisel are inconceivably delicate, arose the wonder of an admiring people; his productions of the vegetable and animal creations are above description. St. Paul’s, Windsor, Petworth, Chatsworth, and the whole united kingdom, conspire to make his character equal to any age or country, and the statue of James the Second in [the] Privy-Garden, may rank with the productions of the Roman school. (30)
Of the font itself, eighteenth-century commentators say little, but this is not surprising given the sheer volume of Gibbons’s work. Modern art historians consider the font somewhat inferior to Gibbons’s other work (Green 1964, 64; Beard 1989, 33). Nonetheless, Vertue clearly admired it. Esterly points out that while Gibbons’s name is now often associated with Christopher Wren’s, Gibbons had little to do with Wren’s post-fire redesigning of London churches until his reputation was well established. This font of 1685, along with Gibbons’s work on the church’s reredos, may in fact been his earliest contribution to a Wren church (Esterly 1998, 22-23).
Bailey, N. 1734. The Antiquities of London and Westminster. London: J. Osborn.
Beard, Geoffrey. 1989. The Work of Grinling Gibbons. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Esterly, David. 1998. Grinling Gibbons and the Art of Carving. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc.
Evelyn, John. 1955. The Diary of John Evelyn. 6 vols., edited by E. S. de Beer. Oxford: Clarendon.
Green, David. 1964. Grinling Gibbons: His Work as Carver and Statuary, 1648-1721. London: Country Life Limited.
Gwynn, John. 1766. London and Westminster Improved, Illustrated by Plans. London.
Hatton, Edward. 1708. A New View of London. Vol. 1. London: R. Chiswell, et al.
Hogarth, William. 1753. The Analysis of Beauty. London: J. Reeves.
Philipps, Samuel. 1684. To the Learned and Worthy Artist Mr. Grinsted Gibbons. London.
Society of Antiquaries of London. 1718-. Minutes of the Society’s Proceedings.
Walpole, Horace. 1763. Anecdotes of Painting in England...Collected by the Late Mr. George Vertue. Vol. 3. Strawberry Hill: Thomas Farmer.