The Critics: Exhibitions: Whatever Happened to Dutch Courage? Grinling Gibbons and the Art of Carving V&A, SW7

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Say the following sentence out loud: "Honred Sir, I ombly thanck You for Youer great faver and Extroney ponuallity I recevfd the fifty pounds which I shall allwaes Aknoligs as a pertickeler faver". You are now speaking English with a 17th-century Dutch accent, in which you will also no doubt hear the related tones of modern white South African speech. This bit of a letter, which was written by Grinling Gibbons to a patron in 1694, is a telling discovery; and it does seem to prove that he spoke English like a Dutchman who grew out of Netherlandish culture both linguistically and as an artist- craftsman. Gibbons was the son of British parents, who had settled in Rotterdam, where his father was a merchant. After a European apprenticeship, of which little is known, he came to England at the age of 19. That was in 1667. He had sailed to his parents' land because there were more opportunities for his decorative carving in the rebuilding of London, after the Great Fire of the previous year. So argues David Esterly, whose Grinling Gibbons and the Art of Carving (V&A Publications, pounds 35) is a marvellous study; erudite, genial and well-informed. Furthermore the book has a rare intimacy with its subject, for Esterly has taught himself to be a wood carver in the Gibbons tradition. He illustrates Gibbons's chisels and analyses his hero's formidable technique at the work-bench.

The V&A's exhibition isn't quite so good. Having read the book before going to the show, I was disappointed. The first problem is that lots of Gibbons's important work is in situ at Hampton Court or suchlike places and can't be moved. This one understands. But the display still manages to be too crowded. V&A exhibitions often have a sense of space. The present Beardsley retrospective, for instance, is a pleasantly relaxed installation. We encounter Gibbons in a different way: there's a lot of fuss about the extra ticket you need to get in; the attendants aren't very helpful; there's no gallery guide and the visitor feels rushed - as though one were a passenger rather than an art lover. This said, the exhibition does have one marvellous feature - the simple fact that it's in the V&A so one can go to other rooms to compare Gibbons's work with hundreds, indeed thousands, of other wood sculptures, decorative panels and trophies. In some respects Gibbons emerges well from such comparison. His meticulous ability is not unparalleled, but still he has few equals in his chosen craft of wood carving. It is in other and more important ways that Gibbons fails. We go to him looking for an artist: he returns our gaze with the impenetrable demeanour of a superb technician for whom art is of little interest. He has no personal signature. We recognise Gibbons's work simply because of the wonderful workmanship. The absence of personality is not so apparent in Esterly's book, probably because its handsome photography makes us think that the actual wood might be warmer and more expressive. …