Picture by Matt from London: St Lawrence Canons Park
Rotterdam! Home over its many centuries to writer Hendrik van Loon, artist Pieter de Hooch, footballer Bram Appel, and - most pertinently to our story - seventeenth-century wood-carver Grinling Gibbons.
Grinling spends his unteased childhood playing in the street, swimming in the Nieuwe Maas, frolicking in knickerbockers, and learning to carve wood very well indeed. His summer days are long and warm; in winter he skates. “Grinling!” his friends call to him across the lake, beckoning him into their games, or passing over a particularly appealing piece of wood for him to transform.
It is not until Grinling Gibbons moves to England that he discovers his name is funny.
“Grinling?” asks Christopher Wren. “Gibbons?” asks John Evelyn. They smile at him widely.
“That’s right,” Grinling says, and looks up placidly for a moment from the wooden pea-pod that’s coming into focus beneath his chisel.
John Evelyn bends closer. “That’s actually pretty good,” he says.
“Thanks,” Grinling says.
“That’s me.” He swaps his chisel out for a bent gouge.
He adapts to the widespread amusement by failing, as far as is possible, to notice its existence. All he wants is to keep carving, and his name is, if anything, an aid in this endeavour; it makes him easier to remember, and that brings the commissions in. He carves altars and cherubs; leaves, curlicues, vines that nobody can walk past without leaning in to pluck a grape. He carves a flower so lifelike, it’s said, that the dew itself is deceived, and gathers on its petals each morning. And every time he meets someone new, there’s a moment of awkwardness where they laugh, just a little, at his name; and he watches, unperturbed, and the amusement fades away.
Eventually, he gets married.
Elizabeth is younger than he is, and easier to tease. One cold afternoon, a month into their marriage, she comes into his workshop.
“What’re you doing?” she says.
“It’s an organ case,” he says. “For St Lawrence’s, in Canons Park.”
“I like it there,” she says. “I like the trees,” and then suddenly she’s crying.
Grinling doesn’t know what to do, what to say. He hesitates for a moment, then keeps working on his pea pod. “They’re good trees,” he says.
“They just keep on!” she says.
“The people! My sisters. My friends. Whenever I talk about you, they start laughing. And they keep on and on and on, as soon as they can see it upsets me.”
“If you didn’t pay them any attention,” he says, “they’d stop laughing so much.”
“But I can’t ignore them,” she says. “I’ve tried, and I can’t, and I just want to be proud of you, and your grapes and your cherubs and, and,” and there’s a thumping sound. When he turns around, she’s sitting on the ground with her green skirts puffed out around her.
“I can’t do anything about my name,” he says, and she shakes her head, agreement or acknowledgement or despair. “It’s just a name,” he adds.
“I want to tell people about you and be happy,” she says. “And I can’t.” And she sits there, silent, while he thinks for a while and looks at her and picks up his tools again, and starts to carve.
Evening comes. Grinling lights candles, and keeps working. Elizabeth watches; eventually, she falls asleep.
In the morning, Grinling brings here a present. “Here,” he says.
It’s dim and murky still. For a moment she thinks he’s brought her a mirror, and then she realises: it’s a mask. It’s warm under her fingertips, and carved from wood so thin that it could be paper. It’s the face she would have if only she were calmer and graver and braver. The eyebrows arch with just a little more symmetry than her own. The nose is a touch straighter. The lids of the hollow eyes are just right.
“If they don’t see that you’re upset,” Grinling says, “they’ll stop laughing,” and she leans away as he lifts the mask towards her face.