ashmolean

Ex Uno Omnia
Everything Out of One

A Student Engagement Project at the Ashmolean Museum, 2014

Bethany Pleydell

A Fruitful Frame

Grinling Gibbons carved with a painterly style. The fruits and flowers of his labour remind us of Dutch still-life paintings and botanical illustrations from the 17th century. Whilst these images of plants were often prized for their ‘realistic’ qualities, few were drawn from life. Examples of exotic flowers were often too expensive to purchase and too difficult to cultivate locally, yet floral artworks allowed for these plants to be enjoyed all year round. Gibbons may also have worked from two dimensional models, possibly taking inspiration from Tradescant’s Orchard, a botanical manuscript owned by Elias Ashmole which depicted 66 garden fruits grown by the royal gardener John Tradescant the Elder (d.1638). The frame’s stylised peaches, plums, and cherries bear striking resemblance to these images. Gibbons’ bountiful blooms of Turk’s cap lilies, freesias and tulips are all executed with great intricacy, and can be seen here in the still-life paintings by Jacob Jordaens (1593–1678) and Jan Brueghal (1601–1678).

The Virgin and Child
The Virgin and Child in a Cartouche decorated
with Flowers
, Dutch still-life painting from
the studio of Jacob Jordaens (1593-1678)

From the Holy to the Secular: the Floral Frame as a Hortus Conclusus

The Gibbons frame follows in a long tradition of floral art. The hortus conclusus, or ‘enclosed garden’, was a popular motif in late medieval art. Paradisiacal in nature, and often shown brimming with flora and fauna, the walled garden was frequently represented in manuscript marginalia, carved ‘garden reliquaries’ (besloten hofjes) and Madonna Garland paintings. Located in the peripheries of artworks, these floral gardens typically occupied the frames and margins that ‘enclosed’ a devotional text or scene. The Virgin Mary, whose saintly cult reached its zenith following the Protestant Reformation, was the locus of hortus conclusus imagery. Each flower symbolised a virtue in the garden of Mary’s soul: white lilies represented purity; irises, sorrow; roses, martyrdom; and, violets, humility. Whilst Gibbons may have been aware of this floral legacy, it is more likely that he was inspired by later Dutch still-life and Garland paintings. Their life-like representation of flowers was believed to enhance the sanctity of the saintly image or, in the case of the Gibbons frame, showcase the wealth of the patron.

Drawn from life? Dutch still-life painting and the Gibbons Frame

A Vase of Flowers with a Watch
A Vase of Flowers with a Watch,
oil on canvas, copy after
Willem van Aelst, 1683

Once separated from its accompanying portrait of Elias Ashmole, the Gibbons frame takes on a new set of meanings. It becomes a work of art comparable to the Dutch still-life paintings in the Ashmolean. The Gibbons frame, with its carvings of bountiful blooms and ripened fruit, would sit comfortably alongside these Dutch masters. Despite their differences in medium, the paintings and carvings share similar qualities: their flora and fauna are stylised and depicted with little accompanying foliage, from a variety of angles. Whilst these Dutch-still lives were prized for their ‘realistic’ qualities, few were actually based on real-life plants. The rarity of exotic flora and fauna meant that images of plant-life – whether painted for the leisure classes or drawn into scholarly manuscripts – became highly desirable during the 17th century. The firm ink outlines suggests that many artists were working from scientific botanical drawings. Jan Brueghel the Elder (1568-1625) is one of few artists whose prestige could afford him access to the finest gardens in Europe where he painted from life. Brueghel was once paid 3000 guilders to depict a botanical garland. With this price in mind, the Gibbons frame appears more valuable than the very portrait it was intended to ‘decorate’: it becomes a potent symbol of Ashmole’s luxurious lifestyle.

Carving a Path through Oxford and Beyond: Gibbons’ other works

Gibbons had a prolific career in Oxford and beyond. An additional two frames, found here at the Ashmolean, may have been his work. Trinity College chapel houses a fine reredos above its altar, created by the master-carver out of lime and pearwood. The chapel, which was constructed between 1691 and 1694, was designed by Dean Aldrich and Christopher Wren under the auspices of the College’s President, Dr Bathurst. Despite paying for the chapel’s fabrics himself, Bathurst appealed to donors to cover the costs of the fittings. It is believed that the diarist John Evelyn donated Gibbons’ carvings as a gift to the college. Gibbons’ reredos, described by one visitor as being ‘a very fine carving of thin white wood just like that at Windsor’, comprises a chalice of grapes, flowers and cherubs at the head and, on either side, long floral festoons. Whilst Trinity is the only Oxford college to still exhibit Gibbons’ carvings, catalogues from the Magdalen College archives reveal that in 1837 a number of ‘splendid Oak carved Capitals; Columns, Cornices, Frames’ attributed to Gibbons, were auctioned off to pay for improvements to the chapel. All Souls College also owns a collection of Christopher Wren’s architectural drawings which include examples of Gibbons’ early draughtsmanship. A few miles outside the city, Blenheim Palace possesses a large number of Gibbons carvings in wood, marble and stone, which were commissioned when Gibbons was 60. Gibbons was paid £4,000 between 1708 and 1712 to create urns, niches, statues and trophies for the building’s exterior and interior decoration.