For centuries, Grinling Gibbons' limewood cravat has been treasured as an exceptional work of art: incredibly lifelike and technically accomplished. Carvings by Gibbons in imitation of Venetian needle-point lace appear in several, more extensive, works but this is his only known stand-alone cravat. The illusion of real lace gave rise to one of the most famous stories about it, described by its 18th-century owner, the celebrated collector and connoisseur Horace Walpole who received the cravat as a gift in 1769, and who claimed that its "art arrives even to deception".
At Walpole's neo-gothic villa, Strawberry Hill, London, the cravat was usually kept in the Tribune room, inside one of two glazed cabinets containing Walpole's 'principal curiosities', on either side of an 'altar'. On one occasion, as a playful 'frolic' he received some distinguished foreign visitors actually wearing the cravat and a pair of gloves which had belonged to James I. The French servants stared and firmly believed that this was the dress of an English country gentleman.
Walpole's admiration for the "airy lightness" of Gibbons’ work was particularly influential in raising the carver's reputation in the 19th century. In his Anecdotes of Painting in England (1762), Walpole argued that Gibbons was crucial to the development of the English school of artists, despite the fact that he was a carver, not a painter, and that he wasn't English by birthplace. Gibbons, he claimed, was "an original genius, a citizen of nature; consequently it is indifferent where she produced him".
After Walpole's death in 1797 and sale of his huge collection in 1842, ownership of the cravat can be traced through two collections until it was purchased at auction in 1928 and presented to the V&A by the Hon. Mrs Walter Levy.
But why did Gibbons carve lace? And why in the form of a cravat?
Gibbons appears to have been the first to carve lace in wood but he would certainly have known of lace cravats carved in marble – a long-established and high-status artistic tradition. A lace-trimmed collar features prominently in the bust portrait of Thomas Baker by Gianlorenzo Bernini (1598 – 1680), the leading sculptor of his day.
By association with marble sculpture, carving lace would have been a deliberate way for Gibbons to demonstrate his own artistic ambition and technical skills. Like white marble, limewood is well suited to lace because the shadows that define sculptural forms are emphasised by the paleness of the material. The raised structure of point lace suits the play of light and shade and the representation of depth, which is achieved by skilfully undercutting the wood behind.
In late 17th-century England there was particular interest and delight in artistic illusion and the convincing simulation of one material with another. Contemporary auction notices advertised still-life paintings featuring cravats:
(Lot) 223 one laced Cravat very fine
An extraordinary collection of paintings, and several other curiosities, by the best masters. Will be now sold by auction, on Tuesday the 5th. of this instant May, 1691. at three of the clock afternoon, in the Auction-Office in the west-end of the Royal Exchange, and so to continue from day to day till all be sold Catalogues whereof are to be had at the said office.
Mention is even made of a painting depicting a carved cravat:
No. 458 a curious pc of carving of a Cravat
A collection of paintings by the best masters. Will be sold by auction, on Wednesday the 26th. of February 1689/90
However, on certain occasions a 'wooden cravat' could mean something else entirely. In this popular song, wearing a 'wooden cravat' must refer to a criminal standing in the stocks before being executed by hanging.
A wooden Cravat
I believe I shall wear,
And after a Rope
Will come to my share.
Gibbons' lace carvings
Gibbons' limewood cravat in our collections is by no means his only carving of lace. Other examples survive as part of larger composite carvings, for example at Petworth in Sussex, and in Florence, as part of Gibbons' most expensive single carving, the 'Cosimo panel', commissioned by King Charles II as a diplomatic gift to Cosimo III de' Medici in 1682 for which Gibbons was paid £150. In these carvings, the lace represented is a type of needle lace known as 'gros point de Venise' (also known as point lace) – the most expensive lace of its day.
In fact, at the time of the royal gift, Cosimo had himself portrayed wearing just such a point lace cravat.
In the 'Cosimo panel', a very long border of point lace, loosely gathered, is depicted at life size with such accurate detailing that it must have been carved from life. Within the complex scheme of the whole panel – a rich allegory of peace and friendship between princes – the prominent lace may be interpreted as a physical and symbolic bridge between the realms of nature (roses and doves) and culture (music, crowns, jewels). As the style of lace and cravat depicted in the V&A carving suggests a dating in the 1680s, it might be that the public success of the Cosimo panel encouraged Gibbons to carve another piece of lace for his own use. It would have reinforced his claim to have invented and mastered a distinctive new artistic form.
Gros Point de Venise Lace and Cravats
Gros point de Venise lace stands out from other types of lace by virtue of its bold, three-dimensional form, intricacy and extravagant detailing. It was made from about 1650 to 1720, first and principally within the territories of the Venetian Republic by anonymous women lacemakers, but came to be copied in France, England and Spain. English travellers often purchased their lace abroad and brought it home. In an attempt to protect the English lace industry, a royal proclamation was issued in 1662 forbidding the importation or selling of foreign lace. The royal family was exempt from this prohibition but it also seems to have been ignored by members of the court and other fashionable people, since Venetian point lace continued to be freely sold and worn in London.
Such lace indicated the wearer's high social rank. Surprising as it may seem today, a nobleman riding onto the battlefield would wear a lace cravat over his armour, to demonstrate his status. Lace was to be worn on formal occasions to make a splendid impact. It was vital that it was spotless and properly fitting, requiring expert skills in repair and laundering. Lace for cravats was available either from the 'laceman', or made up with a neckcloth from a milliner. As fashions changed, a valuable piece of lace could be adapted to be worn in a newly fashionable style.
Point lace – worn by women as well as men – was fabulously expensive. For his coronation in 1685, King James II wore a point lace cravat costing £36. 10s. – the equivalent of six weeks income for a gentleman. Their high value meant that lace cravats were frequently stolen:
Susanna Harding was Indicted for taking away at several times from one Mrs. Ballard a Sempstress, Goods to the vallue of fourteen pounds, viz. one large Scarf, three laced Cravats, and several other Linnens, the which she pawned for an inconsiderable vallue…
Cravats were such conspicuous fashion accessories that they were frequently commented on in plays of the period, to mock the vanity and pretensions of male characters:
A meer Beau is a Creature compounded of Peruque [wig], Cravat and Cravat-string, and fine Cloaths…. an Amorous glance, a white Hand, and Diamond Ring on Finger…
The type of cravat depicted by Gibbons was fashionable across Europe in the 1680s, as shown in contemporary portraits. It consisted of a rectangular neckcloth, usually of fine muslin or lawn fabric, with a lace panel sewn at both ends. After wrapping it around the neck and tying the hanging ends, it was often further adorned with a colourful silk bow that was stiff enough to protrude either side. Such bows (also called cravat-strings) were probably created by taking a wide taffeta ribbon, folding it twice (length-wise), and then pulling it through the knot of the cravat before tying it. Alternatively, they might be separate and worn over or under the muslin portion of the cravat. As Randall Holme commented on cravats at the time (The Academy of Armory, 1688), "there is so many new ways of making them, that it would be a Task to name, much more describe them". It may actually be that Gibbons represents a ready-made cravat, the lace and bow sewn to a band which tied at the back of the neck – a convenient solution to the vexing challenge of perfectly tying a complicated two-piece cravat.
A nice, affected beaux . . . and chiefly tying on his Cravat, which perhaps is done and undone a dozen times, before it sets with an Air according to his Mind.
Gibbons knew about lace first hand. He grew up in Rotterdam, Netherlands, as the son of a wealthy draper (the trade that supplied luxury textiles). Having moved to England, in 1672 he was admitted to the Drapers' Company as a freeman (not because he traded, but by virtue of paternity) and became warden in 1705. His involvement in the Company and familiarity with leading lace merchants would have given him access to a wide range of textiles, including best quality lace. The 1691 portrait of Gibbons and his wife shows an extremely fashionably dressed couple.
He wears a very fashionable wig in shape and length, an informal 'Indian' gown, presumably of silk, worn over a waistcoat, with strong associations of culture, and artistic refinement. The finishing touch is a cravat and matching cuffs of needle lace of up-to-date style, a combination that emphasises head and hands, intelligence and ability.
How lifelike is the lace on Gibbons' Cravat?
Our Textiles and Dress collection contains a superb cravat end of gros point de Venise dating to the 1670s, enabling us to compare Gibbons' lace with the real thing.
The characteristic curving stems bear large, stylised leaves and flower motifs such as tulips, carnations, narcissi, lily, pomegranates, and thistles. These are defined by raised sections known as 'cordonnets' and 'couronnes' (buttonholed loops), and filled with different patterns of filling stitches. They are joined by string like 'bars' which are further ornamented with delicate 'teeth' known as 'picots'.
Whereas the front of lace is in high relief, the back is basically flat. Individual stitches are so small (4 – 1mm) that they are generally hard to distinguish by the naked eye. The finest point lace may have 6000 buttonhole stitches per square inch. The skill and many hours of work required for this level of detail helps explain its great expense, and why several lace makers were probably involved in creating one piece. Every piece or 'suite' of point lace is apparently unique in its individual components and/or arrangement.
If we compare Gibbons' limewood cravat with the point lace, the resemblance is clear. Gibbons' cravat displays the characteristic flowers (lily and pomegranate), varied patterns of filling stitches, and small loops of the kind that decorate the bars. Gibbons' uses the illusionism of folded lace to advantage, gathering the heavier motifs more closely together, and obscuring something of the open character of real point lace. Perhaps because of the difficulty of carving the threadlike delicacy of lace bars, he makes greater use of wider, joining bars. While his distinctive loops are very impressive, they don't attempt the tiny picot 'teeth' on real lace.
It's important to remember that Gibbons was not trying to replicate flattened lace in all its detail, as he did with greater accuracy in the Cosimo panel, but to depict the effect of two superimposed, gently gathered lace panels – arguably a tougher challenge. His intention was to evoke the truthful appearance of the type of tied cravat that was so fashionable amongst the wealthy in late 17th-century England. His carved limewood cravat is still here as a witness of his success.