The limewood cravat carved by Grinling Gibbons (1648 – 1721) is one of the museum's most celebrated pieces. Its virtuoso delicacy and the charming illusion of lace carved from wood have inspired wonder for over three centuries, and still do today. No documented mention of the cravat survives from Gibbons' own time, but it seems most likely that he made it as a demonstration of his artistic genius and technical skill, to be shown to prospective clients.
The cravat is carved from a single block of limewood yet weighs less than 150g, no more than an apple. Gibbons carefully distinguished the varied textures of the three elements that make up the cravat – the deeply worked needle lace hanging in heavy folds, the stiff silk bow and fine cotton (muslin) or lawn (fine linen) at the knot. It's a metamorphosis of one material, solid wood, into convincingly soft textiles.
From underneath, it's possible to appreciate the open form and insubstantiality of the carving, where the soft folds of lace resemble the outline of a scallop shell.
The back of the cravat is completely plain other than the slicing cuts left by his chisels, suggesting that Gibbons expected it to be hung on a wall. The economy of his carving is particularly striking – he wasted no effort on areas that would not be seen. He would have carved most of the detail on the front before excavating the back, so as to work with more supporting wood underneath.
A 3D scan offers a full exploration of the cravat from every angle, allowing you to examine the intricacies of Gibbons' carving close-up.
During his long career Gibbons supplied carvings in a great range of materials but his preferred material for fine carving was limewood or linden (Tilia), a pale, uniform hardwood that is light and strong. Its cell walls are uniformly thin so the material is elastic and yields easily in different directions with the carver's blade less likely to be thrown off course. When freshly cut, limewood is pale, so the colour of the cravat would originally have been closer to the creamy whiteness of lace. As the cravat demonstrates, the hardest limewood can be carved to a very high degree of detail.
The single block of limewood is revealed in the X-ray micro-CT (μCT) scan video, courtesy of Dr Vincent Fernandez, X-ray CT laboratory Manager at The Natural History Museum, London. The scan reveals the internal wood grain structure by exploiting differences in its X-ray absorption.
The scan, effectively a stack of thousands of X-rays, shows the cravat's composition and density, layer by layer. In places, Gibbons carved the limewood down to as little as one millimetre, as seen in a thickness map extracted from the scan.
The full scan clearly shows that there are no metal pins or separate sections joined together within the cravat. It also reveals that the cravat has suffered two breaks in the past, where red lines highlight glue repairs to the bow.
At some point, a hole (highlighted in blue) was drilled through the knot for a metal pin from which it must have been hung.
On the front of the carving (highlighted in yellow), the scan even picks up the dust from an application of limewash that remains in crevices. Limewood carvings were sometimes whitened by brushing on a milky application of hydrated lime in water.
If, as has been suggested, Gibbons made the cravat to demonstrate his ability to clients, he may well have wanted to project a sense of effortless genius, and to charm viewers with its dazzling realism. A very close examination of the cravat and these technical findings show that Gibbons' approach combined artistic vision with a profound understanding of limewood's qualities and properties, and superb technical mastery.