A Dirty Monk with a Vision

Book Review: The Lost Carving: An Inquiry into the Value of Work, by David Esterly. (Viking: 2012) 281 pp.

Orig. published in the Boston Globe, January 4, 2013.

The Lost Carving is a memoir about woodcarving. There are precedents, of course: Robert M. Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcyle Maintenance (1974) called itself “An Inquiry into Values,” and the more recent Shop Class as Soulcraft (2010) by Matthew B. Crawford was subtitled “An Inquiry into the Value of Work.” David Esterly’s book is a “Journey to the Heart of Making.”  Inquiry or journey: what’s the difference? For the most part, pretensions: Esterly doesn’t have any. He’s not trying to convince the reader of anything (though the reader may end up convinced), he’s simply trying to understand his own path from English Lit graduate student to becoming the world’s greatest living practitioner of high relief naturalistic wood carving, an art form previously thought to have reached its peak in the early eighteenth century in the work of the Dutch-born carver Grinling Gibbons (1648-1721).

Esterly begins his story with two conversion moments. As an American student at Cambridge in the 1970s he happened to walk into St. James’s Church in London and spotted Gibbons’ carvings above the altar. “A shadowy tangle of vegetation, carved to airy thinness. Organic forms, in an organic medium. My steps slowed, and I stopped. I stared. The sickness came over me… The traffic noise on Piccadilly went silent, and I was at the still center of the universe.” [44] Instantly obsessed with Gibbons, Esterly resolved to research his work and write about it. But research wasn’t enough. “More than the mind needed to be deployed,” [53] he thought, so he bought himself the raw materials used by Gibbons himself: chisels, gouges, and limewood – the preferred medium of high relief woodcarvers. “I found that as the blade moved through the wood my whole body moved, too, with it and against it at the same time. A wave of pleasure passed through me.” [58] Esterly was in love. He turned his back on the academic life and taught himself to carve.

Years later in 1986, now a master woodcarver, Esterly was called back to England, to Henry VIII’s palace at Hampton Court, where a fire had recently destroyed many of the original Gibbons carvings that decorated the royal apartments. Esterly was hired to the team of artisans who would repair the lost carvings. He recognized the significance of the project; it was a culmination of Esterly’s life work (what Matthew B. Crawford would call soulcraft) and a reunion with his great teacher and master, Grinling Gibbons. It was also a reckoning: would he really be capable of repairing this masterpiece?

Some of the challenges he faced were technical – before the invention of sandpaper, how did carvers smooth their finished pieces? – but even more of them were bureaucratic, as Esterly navigated the cliques and politics of the British heritage industry. Along the way he reveals some of the lessons he’s learned through the practice of his craft. The wisdom that comes from making mistakes, for example, and the way in which “disaster allows nature to take control, to create its own order. Disaster can be a fine designer.” [67] He learns to be humble in the presence of a block of wood. “The wood began as submissive, put-upon thing, then gradually came to life,” he writes: “A carver begins like a god and ends as slave.” [176] The Lost Carving is a book about the rewards of hard work and learning to appreciate one’s limits. It’s also an exploration of the ways in which great art can enrich our lives in the most tangible ways. This is a serious, beautiful book about craftsmanship written not by an aspiring philosopher but, as Esterly proudly describes himself, by “a dirty monk with a vision.” [258]