William of Lyngwode

Dec. 23: Floral advent calendar: Wooden carvings

Some of my favorite flowers this year weren’t even flowers. They were made of wood and displayed on the walls of the Carved Room at Petworth House in West Sussex, where I visited in September. The finest and most detailed carvings were done by famous Dutch sculptor Grinling Gibbons in the early 1690s. Gibbons is widely considered the finest woodcarver in England.

The carvings at Petworth House were done from Tilia (lime) wood, which when they were new would have been white. They would have stood in stark and stunning contrast to their dark oak paneled background. Today centuries of soot, smoke and dirt have made the carvings brown, but it is still possible to appreciate their incredible detail. Horace Walpole said in 1763, "There is no instance of man before Gibbons who gave to wood the loose and airy lightness of flowers".

The National Trust, which currently manages Petworth House, has their hands full with the daunting task of conserving these carvings in the face of centuries of woodworm and fungi. Go see the Gibbons carvings while they’re still so accessible. Like any once-living thing, they won’t be around forever.

More intriguing floral carvings are found in Winchester Cathedral in Hampshire. The entirety of the exquisite building is full of representations of foliage and flowers in stone and wood.

Some of my favorite carvings are found in the choir stalls. I really like these representations of people with plants growing from their mouths and can’t help but wonder at their meaning. I suspect their roots lie in Paganism, like much Christian iconography particularly relating to plants. Little is known about their maker other than they are attributed to William of Lyngwode, a carpenter from Norfolk. There is record of him working on these carvings in 1308. His work is finely detailed and so representative that it’s possible to botanize the carvings and identify plants from their detailed leaves.