Within months of Charles II’s death, William Aglionby noted that this great patron of the nation’s art would continue to live on through his statue at the Royal Exchange, unveiled the previous year:
But with our late Blessed Monarch, King Charles the Second, all Arts seemed to return from their Exile; and to his Sacred Memory we owe whatever Incouragement they have received since; and it may be reckoned among his Fælicities and ours, which were not few, that he did so; for by that means we have him, as it were, yet Living among us, by that noble Statue of his, made by the best of Modern Sculptors now living, I mean Mr. Grinlin Gibbons … a Sculptor, who, if he goes on as he has begun, will be a Northern Michael Angelo.1
Aglionby’s prophecies would prove to be ill-founded. Gibbons’s reputation over the centuries has become firmly associated with wood carving, and his work as a statuary is rarely celebrated.2 And his stone king would live for only a century more. Like so many of the most important public sculptures of the Restoration period, the statue is now lost. Glimpsed at the centre of the Exchange’s courtyard in a print of 1729 (
Sutton Nicholls, The courtyard of the Royal Exchange, London, with numerous male figures, most wearing hats and carrying canes; the statue of Charles II in the centre, 1729, etching and engraving, 23.1 × 18.4 cm. British Museum, London, 1880,1113.3689 (photo: British Museum, London)
Despite the statue’s status in its day, it has received little scholarly attention. Research is made difficult, of course, by the fact that it no longer exists. But through the documentary records it left behind, in print, poetry and manuscript, this fascinating statue tells us much about Gibbons’s stature in his day, as well as about the flaws in our present methodologies in dealing with sculpture of the period. Critical assessments of his sculpture have resisted the artistic value of his output in stone, a situation exacerbated by the inherent problems of establishing and accessing his œuvre.3 As a result, the significance of his statuary has been lost to us over time. It was, however, the defining sculpture of its own moment, with the Charles II statue for the Exchange the most praised of these works.
It seems likely that the lack of interest in this statue may soon change. Beyond the ‘recovery’ ambitions of this special issue, public statues are attracting newfound scrutiny both in Britain and across the globe. Following the murder of George Floyd in Minnesota in May 2020, protestors for the Black Lives Matter campaign pulled down a statue of the slave trader Edward Colston (1636-1721) in Bristol. The act sparked a media debate in the UK, still unfolding, which saw other statues removed from public display and the emergence of a new dialogue about the continued public presence of statues with similar associations. Current events, then, have shown the crucial importance of research into such works, which must include those statues raised to the man who in 1660 granted a charter and monopoly to the Company of Royal Adventurers of England Trading with Africa (subsequently the Royal Africa Company), investing personally in the company himself: Charles II. While the statue of Charles that stood in the Royal Exchange (today represented through its later Georgian copy) did not allude directly to slave-trading activities, it was an imperial work that celebrated the king’s global dominion and its implied associations certainly extended to England’s naval and mercantile activities in Africa, the Caribbean and beyond.
In this article I resituate the importance of the Charles II statue within Gibbons’s wider sculptural œuvre, arguing that his reputation as a carver in wood has obscured his achievements as a sculptor in stone. Where previous attention to the statue has centred on its relationship to the site and function of the Royal Exchange, my concern lies with what this work may yet tell us about Gibbons’s reception as the presiding sculptural genius of his age.4 The statue’s lost status encourages scholars to lay more emphasis on understanding its design, success and reception through contemporary eyes alone, employing an approach first proposed through Michael Baxandall’s concept of the ‘period eye’.5 To comprehend its achievement, Gibbons’s statuary needs to be understood in terms of the aesthetic concerns of his moment and as a product of the collaboration between an artist and a patron.
Yet as critics of Baxandall have pointed out, we need to acknowledge the limitations of the specific ‘eye’ that we seek to recover. In the case of Gibbons’s public statuary, as with Baxandall’s Renaissance paintings, the surviving documentation and design of the work is that produced within the context of an elite culture seeking to uphold its own perception of the world. As I show, this expensive statue clearly spoke to an imperial and political agenda that mirrored the concerns of its commissioners, the Merchant Adventurers of Hamburg, as well as its subject, Charles II. In his highly successful execution of the work, Gibbons ably demonstrated that he understood the stylistic needs of these parties and could translate their requirements into stone: the extent to which he personally shared their ideological position is yet to be the topic of sustained academic scrutiny. Yet without doubt, during the politically charged decades of the 1670s and 1680s, Gibbons was the leading sculptor producing works for public display in the capital: he was a propagandist in stone, employed on numerous projects related to the royal household.
A sculptor in stone
Research undertaken in recent decades has demonstrated that Gibbons was a prolific sculptor in wood and stone. Ingrid Roscoe, Emma Hardy and M. G. Sullivan’s biographical dictionary records some 126 known works against his name, including 37 stone funerary monuments, 13 statues in stone or bronze, a (lost) marble self-portrait bust, two marble chimneypieces, and ten stone pieces of architectural sculpture.6 Thus exactly half of Gibbons’s known output consisted of works in stone and the occasional bronze. Roscoe suggests that Gibbons’s ‘marble and stone carving, a new departure in the later 1670s, only occasionally achieved a comparable distinction’ to his work in wood.7 Yet such assessments are made, chiefly, through examining the incomplete record of works that survive, and they do not reflect the views of many of Gibbons’s contemporaries who, like Aglionby, saw him as a northern Michelangelo. The ‘distinction’ that Roscoe measures here is that of the aesthetic quality of individual works measured by our own modern standards, ignoring the professional achievements that Gibbons made in the financial aspects of his workshop or his ability to meet the demands of his clients. As David Esterly acknowledged, while Gibbons is ‘remembered principally for his Limewood carving, he also pursued a parallel and probably far more lucrative career as the master of a workshop providing statues, tomb monuments, and decorative stonework’.8
Gibbons was the leading sculptor of his generation working in England. His appointment by William III as Master Sculptor and Carver in Wood in 1693 acknowledged his distinction in both media. As Esterly notes, in surviving portraits of Gibbons, such as Sir Godfrey Kneller’s portrait dating to c. 1690 when the sculptor had established his reputation, it is his mastery in stone that is celebrated through the inclusion of a classical marble head (
After Sir Godfrey Kneller, Grinling Gibbons, c. 1690, oil on canvas, 123.2 × 91.1 cm. National Portrait Gallery, London, NPG 2925 (photo: National Portrait Gallery, London)
John Smith, after John Closterman, Grinling Gibbons; Elizabeth Gibbons, 1691, mezzotint, 31.4 × 36.1 cm. National Portrait Gallery, London, NPG D8230 (photo: National Portrait Gallery, London)
Grinling Gibbons, detail of reredos screen from the Whitehall Palace Chapel altarpiece, 1686, marble. St Andrew’s church, Burnham-on-Sea, Somerset (photo: the author)
The achievement of the Whitehall altarpiece reminds us of Gibbons’s work for religious settings, a topic outside the parameters of the current article, but discussed in L. C. Cutler’s contribution to this special issue. However, it is worth reflecting briefly that this area is the least studied of his output, and may well prove the most important in progressing future knowledge of his work. From extensive involvement in the rebuilding and ornamentation of St Paul’s Cathedral to fonts, organ cases and pulpits at a number of churches and royal chapels, Gibbons was at the heart of the redesign and decoration of leading religious sites during the later Stuart years. His involvement in these sites is even more marked, and geographically extensive, when we consider his production of tomb monuments. These represent over half of his known work in stone, and yet a sustained discussion of them is almost entirely absent from the scholarship.11 These monuments were a constant feature of his output from c. 1679 to 1717, and varied in size from smaller reliefs to large architectural monuments. The recorded payments that survive range from the modest sum of £10 to the more startling figure of £1,000 against at least three monuments.12 Scholars have yet to pay any notable attention to these works, which have the potential to complicate and transform current understanding of his career and output. This reflects a general lack of scholarly attention to tomb monuments of the period, despite the fact that, during this time, they represented the most important sculptural category. Indeed, in a recent attempt to rescue this medium from its current state of invisibility, Nigel Llewellyn has advocated new categories and approaches to these works, reflecting how the ‘particular hybrid that we now know as the tomb or funeral monument […] in terms of scale, cost, and number dominated stone sculpture at this time’.13
As I have briefly indicated, two key factors have problematized our understanding of Gibbons’s statuary. The first is that of survival. While his intricate limewood carvings were produced for interior decoration, his statues were often made for outdoor display, rendering them susceptible to the elements. Where these works survive, they have also largely been moved from their original position, thus distorting their initial meanings. A key example is Gibbons’s marble statue of Sir Robert Clayton, made for the entrance to St Thomas’s Hospital, London, and completed c. 1701-02. Gibbons was paid some £200 for this work, suggestive of its quality. But today the once-celebrated Lord Mayor of London cuts a sad and shabby figure on the banks of the Thames. The statue has been moved from its original setting to a secluded garden on the riverbank, and is so badly eroded that all the finer detail has been lost.14
A second factor that problematizes our appreciation of Gibbons as a sculptor is that of attribution. He signed very few of his works in stone, making us reliant on surviving documentation and second-hand accounts to determine attribution. As Esterly again noted, these ‘problems surrounding Gibbons’ sculptural production are unlikely ever to be fully resolved’.15 Collaboration is also a contributing issue here, and the difficulty of determining his personal involvement with the production of individual works. Gibbons did not work alone, and at times his workshop included up to fifty assistants.16 He also collaborated with fellow sculptors on many projects, making it hard to determine individual responsibility for the various elements of a single work. Katherine Gibson has noted the detrimental effect of collaboration on Gibbons’s reputation, even while collaborative activities of the same nature have not proven problematic to assessments of the works of his contemporaries, including Giambologna, Bernini and Quellin himself. As Gibson states, ‘Gibbons, in claiming responsibility for the whole [of a work’s production], was merely emulating his contemporaries on the continent. He should be allowed similar credit.’17
‘Beyond comparison’: the finest statue in London
Gibbons’s statue of Charles II was an innovative work, commissioned for a recently redeveloped site. London’s Tudor-built Royal Exchange had been destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666. All thirty statues from its celebrated line of kings were lost except the statue of the Exchange’s founder, Sir Thomas Gresham. Plans for the City of London’s reconstruction began to be offered within the week, drawn up by the hands of John Evelyn, Robert Hooke, Peter Mills (the City’s Surveyor), Richard Newcourt and Sir Christopher Wren. These surviving plans remind us that the Exchange, alongside St Paul’s Cathedral, was one of two buildings perceived to lie at the heart of the destroyed city, and its reconstruction was a priority.18 On 23 October 1667 Charles II visited the site and laid the first pillar of the new Exchange, an event accompanied by a celebratory meal and entertainment in a purpose-built shed on site that, as Samuel Pepys records, had been ‘hung with tapestry, and a canopy of state’.19 The new Exchange, modelled on the original structure, was completed in two years and opened for trading on 28 September 1669.
As Gibson has shown, from the incipient moments of the Restoration, royal statuary held an important public function at the Exchange. Before the new king had returned to English shores in 1660, a statue of his father had been restored to the front of the Exchange, alongside a statue of the new king commissioned by the Mercers’ Company. The inscription ‘
Following the Great Fire, poetic responses acknowledged the important public role of the statues at the exchange:
With the Exchange razed to the ground, there were swift attempts to place statuary on the agenda. In December 1667, within two months of laying the foundation pillar of the new structure, the Mercers’ Company received:
a Letter from the Right honble the Earl of Manchester recommending one Cajus Gabriel Cibber to the making of the Statues for the Royall Exchange and the matter in regard he hath showed his Maty some Modellos which have been well liked of […] I The Committee […] I acquainted him that the buisinesse of makeing the Statues is yett very remote from theire thoughts haveing the wholle Exchange to build first.22
Despite Manchester’s enthusiasm, the commissioning of statuary began only once the Exchange had reopened its doors. In 1669 the Gresham Committee refused an offer from Sir Robert Vyner for an equestrian statue of Charles II for the centre of the courtyard. The Committee stated that it was too large and would obscure the views through the main doors. But over a decade later, in 1682-83, they accepted an offer from the Merchant Adventurers of Hamburg for a statue of Charles to occupy this central space. The delayed commission of this work, as Christine Stevenson suggests, may have been due to the increasingly strained relationship between the monarch and the City Corporation, and the city’s need to recoup royal favour by the early 1680s.23 The statue was raised as a very public act of acknowledgement of unspecified favours received from the king, with Gibbons gaining the commission.
Prepared over two decades, Edward Hatton’s polymathic work A New View of London (1708) allows us to map the sculptural landscape of London at the turn of the eighteenth century and perceive the importance of Gibbons’s statue within this schema. The closing two sections of A New View are of particular use to those interested in the public function of the arts at this time. Hatton provides ‘An Alphabetical Account of the Publick Statues in and about the City’, followed by ‘An Explanation of the Terms of Art used in this Treatise’.24 The very need for a glossary to help contemporary readers to interpret the expanding city reminds us that this was a new and ambitious world, in which innovative styles and ideas were rapidly incorporated into the London landscape, shaping it in new ways.
Hatton’s ‘Alphabetical Account’ reveals a series of useful insights that enable us to recover the public and social role of the city’s sculpture. Reading through the eighty-plus works listed we can perceive the extent to which public statuary was a key development of the last decades of the seventeenth century. As was the case at the Exchange, the Great Fire destroyed much of the city’s medieval and Tudor statuary, making it necessary to erect an unusual number of statues in the years following the blaze. Coupled both with London’s extension to new geographical areas, and developing neoclassical tastes in architecture, stone and metal sculpture quickly became an important feature of the city, helping to project meanings on to its buildings, streets and spaces. Roman generals were raised in Lincoln’s Inn Fields; classical allegories on the Old Bailey and city prisons; Cibber’s two ‘very lively […] I Lunaticks’ on the gates of Bedlam Hospital; and a curious figure of ‘Secret’ on the roof of Buckingham Palace. For many of his entries, Hatton provides the year of erection as well as the donor, enabling us to perceive the ways in which the later Stuart period turned to public sculpture as a means of demarcating London’s evolving identity.
In light of the decision to retain the line of kings lost in the Great Fire, the Royal Exchange became the site with the greatest number of public statues on Hatton’s list. Of these, Hatton dedicates most attention to his description of Gibbons’s statue:
And the Area under the said Piazzas is a Pavement of White and Black Marble, but that of the rest with fine Pebble, in the Center whereof is erected on a Marble Pedestal about 8 Foot high the Statue of King Charles II. in Roman Habit; he is lively represented by the Ingenious Hand of Mr. Gibbon [sic], with a Battoon in his Hand looking Sd; on this side of the Pedestal under an Imperial Crown, Wings, Trumpets of Fame, Scepter and Sword, Palmbranches, &c. these words are Inscribed:
On the W. side of the Pedestal is neatly cut in Relievo the Figure of a Cupid reposing his Right-hand on a Shield containing the Arms of France and England quartered, and in his Left hand a Rose.
On the N. side are the Arms of Ireland on a Shield supported by a Cupid.
On the E. side the Arms of Scotland, with a Cupid holding a Thistle curiously done (as the rest) all in Relievo.25
In his Tour Thro’ the Whole Island of Great Britain (1725), Daniel Defoe disagreed with Hatton’s view by arguing that there was no value in recording London’s statuary for readers, but he did agree on the superior merits of Gibbons’s statue:
It is scarce worth while to give an Account of the Statues in this City, they are neither many, or are those which are, very valuable.
The Statue of King Charles II.in Marble, standing in the middle of the Royal Exchange, is the best beyond Comparison; one of the same Prince, and his Father, standing in Two large Niches on the South Front of the same Building, and being bigger than the Life, are coarse Pieces compared to it.
The Statues of Kings and Queens, Seventeen of which are already put up in the Inside of the Royal Exchange, are tolerable, but all infinitely inferior to that in the middle.26
Aurelian Cook, a contemporary commentator on Charles II’s reign, also noted the innovative and impressive nature of Gibbons’s statue, calling it a ‘most elaborate and curious Statue of him [Charles II] in Gray Marble […] cut by Mr. Grinlin Gibbons (the most Famous Statuary that England ever produc’d; and equal, if not superior to the best at this Time in Europe)’.27
In keeping with appreciative contemporary assessments of the statue’s quality and importance, Gibbons was paid some £500 for the work, a far higher sum than he received for any other single figure statue. In comparison, he received £50 for stone statues of other royals made for the line of kings at the Exchange; £300 for the bronze statue of James II for Whitehall Palace; and £245 for the marble statue of Charles, 6th Duke of Somerset for Trinity College, Cambridge. The latter two works followed a similar design to the statue at the Exchange, and in this way further reveal the comparatively large sum that Gibbons received for the work.28
The statue’s design
Detailed accounts of the design of the Charles II statue survive in two media: print engraving and poetry. Taken together, these accounts provide an insightful means of reconstructing the statue’s design, assessing its value, and recovering the cultural resonances it held for contemporaries. Our chief visual record of the statue is a high-quality engraving produced by Peter Vanderbank in 1684. This print was advertised in The Observator on 12 January 1685:
The Exact draught of the Marble Statue of his Majesty in the Royall Exchange so Long Expected. Is now (by permission of Authority) finisht. Curiously Engraven by Mr Vandrebanc, and Printed on a Large Sheet of Imperiall Paper. To be Sold by Dorman Newman at the Kings-Arms in the Poultry. Price 2s 6d.29
A second state of the engraving survives (
Peter Vanderbank, The statue of Charles II in the Royal Exchange, after Grinling Gibbons, 1684, engraving (second state), 65.2 × 48 cm. British Museum, London, BM 1880,1113.3737 (photo: British Museum, London)
Overall, Vanderbank’s print indicates that the statue conveyed a great sense of movement and that Gibbons here mastered the contrapposto pose with which he had earlier struggled.30 Vanderbank does not incorporate any visual sense of the statue’s setting, presenting the work as a standalone sculpture. This encourages viewers to interpret the figure as an individual object, divorcing it from the wider scheme at the Royal Exchange. Such a decision evidently enabled Vanderbank to present the statue in greater detail, untethering it from its topographical context and opening up ways of viewing and understanding it primarily as an artwork rather than as the central piece of an architectural scheme.
This was an early sculptural work to depict Charles in the guise of an emperor and it set a trend, with later Stuart and Hanoverian monarchs similarly depicted all’antica.31 Gibbons was not, however, the first to conceive of the later Stuarts through a classical lens. Such analogies were at the heart of much of the panegyrical poetry written to welcome the Restoration, and remained an important motif through Charles’s reign, evident in diverse forms from architecture to drama, and from portraiture to translation. Gibbons was, however, at the forefront of those making this analogy through sculpture.32
In executing his design, he complemented an earlier work, his equestrian portrait of the king commissioned for the Upper Ward at Windsor Castle (
I remember I was at the Levee of King Charles the Second, when 3 Models were brought him, to choose one of, in order to make his statue for the Court at Windsor; he chose the Roman Emperours Dress, and caused it also to be executed in that other erected for him in the Old Exchange in London […] Now I appeal to all mankind, whether in representing a living Prince now-a-days these Naked Arms and Legs are decent, and whether there is not a barbarity very displeasing in it.35
Grinling Gibbons, Charles II, 1630-1685, 1679-79, bronze (statue), Portland stone (pedestal) and marble (low relief panels). Upper Ward, Windsor Castle, Royal Collection, RCIN31958 (photo: Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2020)
Certainly, in Vanderbank’s print the fish-scale armour cuirass covering Charles’s chest is barely there, translucent to the eye and indicating that he needs little physical protection. The king’s rippling cloak mirrors and accentuates the tightly drawn muscles that create the contours of every part of his body. The sculpture seems to invite its viewers to reach out and touch those muscles, to feel the curving planes of the work, and, in so doing, it presents the sheer sensuality of the king at the same time as it stresses his powerful masculinity. We can only presume that Charles’s delight in the design outshone Lister’s more puritanical disapproval.
With his design, Gibbons had found a formula that clearly pleased its royal subject. Orders for further statues followed, including a similar statue of Charles II posing as a Roman emperor for the Figure Court at the Royal Hospital Chelsea (
Grinling Gibbons, Charles II, 1685-86, gilded bronze statue, 2.23 m. Royal Hospital Chelsea, London (photo: Mike Hudson, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Chelsea,_London,_UK_-_panoramio_(2).jpg)
A further commission for a similar work followed with the succession of James II. Gibbons’s statue of the new king, originally displayed at Whitehall Palace (c. 1686-88), is now in Trafalgar Square (
Grinling Gibbons, James II, 1686, bronze. Trafalgar Square, London (photo: Prioryman, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:James_II_Trafalgar_Square_right_side.jpg)
The Vanderbank engraving is the only detailed print produced of the statue, as Charles II issued a patent to protect reproduction of the work. The London Gazette for 12 May 1684 carried an announcement that
His Majesty being well satisfied with the performance of Mr. Grinling Gibbons in the making His Majesties Statue lately set up in the Royal Exchange, hath been pleased to forbid all Persons to Copy the same in Graving, Etching, or in Mezza-tinto without the Approbation of the said Gibbons.37
The grant of a royal patent of this kind was highly unusual, and Gibbons’s control over the reproduction of the image of his statue indicates that he probably benefited financially from Vanderbank’s engraving and would have approved the print. This is not to suggest that the engraving is a perfect record of the statue’s appearance, since such works often took on an artistic licence. But the close link between Gibbons and this print suggests that we should see it as an authorized record of the statue’s design.
The patent was not the only mark of the king’s favour. The same issue of The London Gazette also carried an advert for a sale of art held by Gibbons and Parry Walton, Surveyor of the King’s Pictures, to take place at Sir Peter Lely’s former house in the Great Piazza, Covent Garden. Three days later, on 15 May, a further advert noted that the sale had been moved to the Banqueting House in Whitehall, a change that could only have been granted with Charles’s permission.38 Two years later, in May 1686, royal permission was granted for a further sale, organized by Gibbons and Walton, again held at the Banqueting House.39
Gibbons and Quellin: questions of collaboration
Characteristically, much discussion about the Royal Exchange statue has turned on Gibbons’s involvement in its production. Margaret Whinney thought the statue was certainly the work of Quellin. Much of her substantial entry on Gibbons in her biographically arranged account of British sculpture involves the reattribution to Quellin of all the higher-quality productions in stone bearing Gibbons’s name, characterizing his stone carving into a style pre- and then post-Quellin’s death in 1686.40 Whinney’s assessment of Quellin’s responsibility for these works turns chiefly upon stylistic assessments and coherencies. Such patterns are hard to assess, though, in light of the fact that, as Whinney notes, Quellin is only known to have executed one monument, the tomb of Thomas Thynne in Westminster Abbey. As further evidence of Gibbons’s deficiencies as a sculptor, Whinney cites Vertue’s derisive anecdotal accounts of his craftsmanship. In the 1730s Vertue suggested that the statue at the Royal Exchange was ‘actually the work of Quelline’ and accused Gibbons of being ‘neither skilld or practized […] in Marble or Brass […] for which works he imployed the best Artists he could procure’.41 But Vertue himself contradicted this account in a subsequent entry, where he went on to provide proof that Gibbons was personally at work on the Charles II statue:
upon a Certain Time King Charles ye 2d came to see a statue of marble done of himself. which Gibbons had got done. [W]hen the King was present Gibbons to shew his skill, found some small fault that wanted to be toucht, and to amuse the King took up a hammer and chisell and strikeing somewhat too hard, broke off a piece that should not have been at which the King laught at his pride & imprudent Vanity &sd could he not leave it when it was well.42
Gibson has shown that the above reference can only relate to the statue for the Royal Exchange, and that while Vertue’s account is intended to reveal Gibbons’s deficiencies as a carver it simultaneously proves his presence on site.43
Many of the works that Whinney attributed to Quellin, and that she suggested as being those ‘upon which Gibbons’ reputation as a sculptor chiefly rests’, were produced at a time when we now know that the professional partnership between the two sculptors had been legally terminated.44 Roscoe has summarized the dates of this breach: ‘On 25 October 1683, Gibbons’ partnership with Quellin, which had terminated in May that year, was formally dissolved by a proceeding in Chancery […] Gibbons and Quellin came together again for a short period in 1685-6.’45 The brief reunion of the sculptors was to work on the Whitehall altarpiece, and Roscoe reflects that Gibbons appears to have worked without Quellin on the bronze statues of Charles II and James II produced at this time. In light of this, Gibson has argued that the current evidence indicates that the statue for the Royal Exchange is the work of Gibbons himself, marking the ‘moment in the virtuoso wood-carver’s career when he first personally undertook the execution of a stone figure in the round’.46
The manuscript diary of Sir Edward Deering for 11 July 1683 indicates that Gibbons had some reputation in stonework by this point. Deering was present at the levee at which Charles selected the design for the Exchange statue, and recorded how ‘this day the King was pleased to see the model of [the statue for the Exchange] as it is prepared by Mr. Gibbon[s], a most famous artist in carving and eminent also for working in marble’.47 Gibbons’s recognized eminence as a carver in marble certainly extended to his ability to design works that spoke to the tastes of the moment. His modello for the Royal Exchange was selected over a rival design by Quellin that survives to this day, suggesting its superiority. Quellin’s terracotta statuette is now in Sir John Soane’s Museum (
Arnold Quellin, King Charles II wearing the robes of the Order of the Garter, 1684, terracotta, h: 68 cm. Sir John Soane’s Museum, London, MP211 (photo: Sir John Soane’s Museum, London)
Poetic responses to Gibbons’s ‘Marble-book’
Within months of its unveiling, three poems were published in response to Gibbons’s statue. It was unprecedented that poets, at this time, should collectively respond to the erection of a public statue with such speed.49 While these poems may be little revered as works of great literary value, through their different interpretations of the statue they demonstrate the diverse, although consistently royalist, nationalist and imperialist cultural and political meanings that Gibbons’s sculpture had at this time, and provide valuable insight into how the work was viewed and understood at the time of its production. The poems figure the statue, on the one hand, as a vehicle for celebrating the sculptor’s artistic skills; on the other hand, they perform very different work, turning their lens on to Charles II’s relationship with his subjects to rewrite a turbulent national past into a promising political future.
For the established poet and dramatist Nahum Tate (appointed Poet Laureate from 1692), the statue was one that revealed Gibbons’s great gift as a sculptor. ‘To Mr Gibbons on his Incomparable Carved Works’ (1684) marks a transitional moment in his reputation, providing a survey of his wood carving output before turning to the production of his greatest work to date, the Royal Exchange statue of Charles II.50 The poem’s two-part structure reflects this transition. A first section commends Gibbons as an incomparable carver in wood, who brings fish, birds and plants to life:
Tate presents us with the Gibbons with whom we remain most familiar: the master carver in wood able to replicate natural bounty as interior decoration. Yet the second, concluding, section of the poem praises Gibbons in ways that feel less familiar:
For Tate, Gibbons’s carving in stone supplants the genius of his work in wood, with the poem’s concluding line revealing the statue for the Royal Exchange as his most impressive work to date. The statue is one that not only rivals, but outshines the work of his continental peers, with Tate claiming a nationalistic pride in the way Gibbons has shifted the balance of sculptural achievement from Europe to England. Here, as in other poems written about the statue, Gibbons’s Dutch migrant origins are ignored to make him better fit the role of the nation’s leading sculptor.
A second poetic response to the statue was composed by Samuel Philipps. The poem, ‘On Mr. Gibbons his Carving the Matchless Statue of the King Erected in the Middle of the Royal Exchange’ (1684), appears to have been Philipps’s sole foray into print. The work offers an even greater celebration of Gibbons’s skill as a sculptor than in Tate’s poem, and is dedicated ‘To the Learned and Worthy Artist Mr. Grinsted Gibbons’, opening with seven prefatory paragraphs proclaiming him as the matchless artistic genius of the age. Philipps uses the dedication to draw attention to his own artistry as a poet, forging comparisons between Gibbons’s glorious skill and his own poorer lines:
It was not out of a presumption that these poor Lines could adde any thing to the Glories you have atchieved in the carving of that Matchless Statue of his Majesty, that incited me to lay them at your feet; since you have done that in Symmetry, beyond what Verse is able to shew.53
Here Philipps invokes a hierarchical comparison across the sister arts in which sculpture is able to produce superior monuments than poetry.54 The dedication, like the poem’s content, reveals a solid knowledge of classical sculpture and it may have been this, rather than an affinity for verse, that drove Philipps to produce this work. He favourably compares the Royal Exchange statue to Phidias’s statues of Athena at Athens (here labelled by her Roman name of Minerva) and of Zeus at Olympia (here labelled by the Roman name of Jupiter), and compares Gibbons’s own wider artistic achievement to that of Titian. Demonstrating a knowledge of paragone debates about the abilities of sculpture, Philipps suggests that the work is a ‘production of the Brain more than the Hand’ due to its ability to move the passions of its viewers:
Thus you act the Statuary and the Orator at the same time, and write a Treatise of the Passions in a Marble-book. Speak to me that I may see thee, says the Philosopher; but, Look upon this, and it will speak to thee, says the Carver. Look upon this Royal Figure, and who will not be stedfast in his Loyalty? Look upon this, ye disobedient, and who again dare rebel? A soft, yet powerful Voice seems to issue from it, that cheerfully encourages the one, and formidably deters the other.55
In Philipps’s view, Gibbons is the master sculptor able to breathe life into stone, and he uses the dedication to set up the two key themes of the poem: Gibbons as sculptural genius and Charles’s statue as a ‘matchless’ propagandistic work that can move the passions and thereby ensure the loyalty of his people.
The poem opens by describing the piece of white marble from which the statue was cut. Hand-selected by the sculptor from a vast range of potential stones, this is the marble whose quality and pliancy to Gibbons’s tools - his ‘steel’ - makes possible the statue’s perfection. Philipps identifies the stone selected from the store as coming from ‘Deep in the Bosom of the Paphian Isle’.56 The specificity of Cypriot marble is interesting in light of questions about whether the stone used was indeed marble. Gibbons’s greatest error in executing his design might have been his choice of material. Contemporary accounts refer to the statue’s medium in various ways, most commonly as marble, but Gibson believes that the statue was probably made out of Portland stone, as, by 1789, it was so weathered that the Gresham Committee commissioned a replacement copy from the sculptor John Spiller.57 In his reference to Paphian marble, Philipps might then have been drawing on his own wider knowledge in a metaphorical sense, employing the reference to emphasize the classical status of the statue and its place within a tradition of works made by the Ancients; the marble metaphor was a further means of equating Gibbons with Phidias. On the other hand, this seems to be an early reference to Paphian marble, a stone little used in England at this time. This suggests that Philipps was a more informed commentator than we might first imagine, raising the possibility that he might have been commenting directly, and accurately, on the material employed.
Reflecting on the development of sculpture in eighteenth-century Britain, Malcolm Baker notes that a ‘familiarity with the qualities of materials and experience in assessing the ways in which these had been fashioned were commonplace in a culture in which the choice between a steadily increasing range of luxury goods involved making such discriminations’. As a result, in the ‘reception of sculpture, viewing involved an awareness of making’.58 In Philipps’s poem we see this awareness registered in an early account deploying a wealth of technical vocabulary and in which the poet (as viewer) shows a fascinating insight into the processes of sculptural production:
Here Philipps presents us with the image of the meditative and self-reflexive sculptor who mines his own brain for inspiration. The poem frames Gibbons as the sole figure behind the statue’s design and execution: he gives the ‘whole Mass its Energy’, carving out ‘Each Joynt’, ‘each Tendon’, ‘e’ry stroke’. This lengthy treatment describing the artist’s creative process emphasizes Gibbons’s ability to rely on his own faculties and resources. Once he beholds his finished work, the ‘trembling’ sculptor cannot believe its splendour.
The poem continues with a lengthy discussion of the statue’s appearance, flattering and celebrating its royal subject:
Philipps’s descriptions of physical detail are rich in anatomical language, revealing a fascinating insight into the work’s design. For the poem’s preoccupation with the statue’s musculature corresponds closely with Vanderbank’s print, which also emphasizes the king’s rippling and toned physique, as we have seen. This, then, was surely one of the great achievements of Gibbons’s statue, and key to its perceived liveliness and energy. In his emphasis on the statue’s anatomical achievement, Philipps reveals his own impressive knowledge of the human body and the technical language needed to describe it. His words set Gibbons within the European and Renaissance tradition of the artist scientist, and thus as a sculptor of the highest status rather than a mere stonemason.
In his study of later Stuart propaganda, Kevin Sharpe has reflected that in Philipps’s ‘estimation, the statue enacted a vital political performance’, with the poet hoping that the ‘plastique power’ of Gibbons’s stone would ‘reconcile a divided nation’.61 This latter hope is articulated in six lines that conclude the opening stanza:
This particular praise carried a less flattering implication: that the statue might succeed where the real man had failed. The nation’s need to be healed, more than two decades into Charles’s reign, suggested his ongoing inability to reconcile his subjects. Gibbons’s sculpted creation, it seemed, was a political miracle in the form of a marble monument.
It was a further anonymously written 1684 poem, however, that fully politicized the statue, focusing far less on Gibbons as its sculptor. ‘A Poem upon the New Marble Statue of His Present Majesty, Erected in the Royal Exchange’ employs the statue as a vehicle for delivering royal praise and rewriting the past.63 As with Philipps’s poem, it celebrated Charles’s reign, yet in repeatedly projecting the statue’s ability to heal political fractures it conversely revealed the deep divides that underpinned the nation’s fragile peace. The poem opens by celebrating the Merchant Adventurers for the statue’s commission:
While Gibbons’s role as sculptor is briefly acknowledged, the poem returns quickly to the Merchant Adventurers and envisages the statue as one given life through their ‘Zeal’ and ‘Gratitude’. The work reflects the value of the men who commissioned it, as much as the sculptor who produced it. With this praise acknowledged, the remainder of the poem is concerned with the statue’s ability to rewrite the past:
As a monument, the statue serves as a marker of the past, but also as a work that has the ability to shape current and future perceptions of that past: it becomes a stone act of oblivion, destroying from memory all ‘the Troubles’ of Charles’s reign. By 1684 those troubles had been manifold, from the Anglo-Dutch Wars of the 1660s and 1670s to the need for the Test Acts of the early 1670s, and from the Popish Plot of the late 1670s to the Exclusion Crisis of the early 1680s.
The statue of Charles I, raised in the Exchange to replace the work that had been destroyed during the Protectorate, is brought to life through the poem and thereby resurrects the martyred king:
Gibbons’s statue thus becomes the focal point for reminding subjects of the past, and at the same time rewrites it, inspiring newfound loyalty through its immediate visual power. This loyalty, and the benefits it brings, are given a compelling illustration at the poem’s close. Here the anonymous poet again praises the Merchant Adventurers for their ‘Example’, which issues in an image of imperial prosperity with the world’s riches laid at Charles’s feet:
The poem’s focus on Charles as the harbinger of a newfound imperial wealth neatly reflects Stevenson’s interpretation of the statue as one that ‘had an active part to play’ in the period’s redefinition of empire, and was raised at a time when the concept of empire was rapidly evolving into an ‘ideology, established by the 1730s, of what is now called the “First” British Empire’. This was, as Stevenson notes, ‘a fiction’ turning ‘in part, on the way that monarchy rationalizes, unites, and protects the voices of a myriad of free and self-interested parties’.68 Gibbons’s statue of the king, then, was a prominent cultural object that shaped and promoted that ideology, proclaiming England’s position at the figurative centre of the globe.
Some eight decades after Gibbons’s statue of Charles II was unveiled, Tobias Smollett wrote a review of Horace Walpole’s Anecdotes of English Painting (1762-80) in which he defended the sculptor’s reputation:
we cannot imagine what Mr. W. means by saying that the talent of Gibbons did not reach to human figures, while he tells us with the same breath that the statue of Charles the second in the Royal Exchange was his […] One should imagine by the number of this sculptor’s performances, that his life has been as extensive as his abilities, which, in wood, have never yet been equalled.69
Smollett references the statue at the Exchange as the leading example of Gibbons’s mastery as a sculptor of the human figure. Yet the quotation also reveals a tension already inherent in such claims. Where Smollett sees the genius of Gibbons as extending to statuary, Walpole does not; where Defoe and Hatton could once agree on the achievement of this work despite their differing views on the value of public sculpture, by the 1760s Gibbons’s mastery as a sculptor in stone was in doubt. The topic upon which there is no division - as remains the case to this day - is that of Gibbons’s skill in wood carving, here singled out as without equal.
This reveals a fascinating disjunction in the history of the cultural reception of Gibbons’s work in the two media, suggesting that his carving in stone, as with so much public sculpture of the period, spoke to the ‘period eye’ of its moment, while his wood carving has succeeded in engaging with a more transhistorical aesthetic. With its representations of birds and fish, leaves, fruits and berries, Gibbons’s wood carving speaks of a natural world still familiar now. At the same time, the virtuosity of these pieces, found in the ways in which they trick the eye, speaks to an enduring human fascination with novelty and surprise. Gibbons’s several statues of Charles II attempted something different: an aesthetic of temporal transcendence, blending the classical past of Roman imperial antiquity with the imperial Stuart present of Restoration England.
The designs and materials that Gibbons selected for the latter works have failed to stand the test of time, speaking to an aesthetic that now feels alien to the urban cityscapes for which they were first designed. As the poetic responses to the statue reveal, however, these were not solely artworks designed to reveal Gibbons’s mastery as a sculptor in technical ways, but works of political propaganda in which the material and design played an important role in projecting their particular message; one whose elitism, monarchism, nationalism, capitalist corporatism and imperialism should be of more concern to scholars of his work than has been the case to date. The design and material of these statues might seem to share little in common with Gibbons’s decorative carvings in wood, yet the latter’s rich symbolism of oak leaves and natural bounty can, perhaps, be understood to harbour a similarly propagandistic message.
Smollett’s assessment of the achievement of the Charles II statue for the Exchange raises an interesting question as to its fate and material. When Smollett wrote his review in 1764, the statue appears to have been in good enough condition for him to stress its exceptional quality, yet only twenty-five years later the work was so ‘very decay’d and Mutilated’ that Spiller’s replacement was ordered by the Gresham Committee.70 This suggests that the statue might well have been made from marble, a material in keeping with the high price that Gibbons charged for the work, and possibly decayed rapidly within a short period, perhaps as a result of human vandalism as well as incipient industrial erosion.
Here, as with so many facets of Gibbons’s sculptural works, questions raise multiple and conflicted responses. To date, the cost of this has been high: the lack of certainty around his sculptural output has left scholars sceptical of its value. As a consideration of his statue of Charles II shows, when it comes to public statuary of this period we need to adopt a critical, more contextual approach that centres not solely on the life of the artist, but also on the life of these works, and their place within the social and cultural circumstances that produced them. For statues such as this took on an important life of their own in the world for which they were first made, while their reception over time reveals much about how quickly, and how pervasively, artistic reputations and notions of aesthetic quality can change.