David Esterly, 75, Master Carver Steeped in History and Nature, Dies

David Esterly was in London in 1974, strolling along with his girlfriend to fulfill her mother and father for the primary time, when she steered him into St. James’s Church, Piccadilly, to see the intricate woodcarvings by Grinling Gibbons, broadly thought-about one of many biggest woodcarvers in historical past.

Mr. Esterly, an American who had studied at Cambridge University in England and was making an attempt to determine what to do along with his life, had by no means heard of Gibbons and knew nothing of woodcarving.

But contained in the church he was mesmerized by what he noticed — a cascading cornucopia of delicate, lifelike blossoms, foliage and fruit above the altar, all sculpted in wooden by Gibbons within the late 1600s.

“I used to be seduced by the ability of the carving and its capability to convey the great thing about nature,” Mr. Esterly advised The New York Times in 1998. “It appeared to me past perception human hand had common these seashell swags, drooping bellflower chains, birds with laurel twigs of their beaks and dense whorls of acanthus. My destiny was sealed.”

He determined to study extra about Gibbons, and to take action, he realized, required taking chisels into his personal palms. He taught himself woodcarving, turning into so skillful that when a few of Gibbons’s 300-year-old carvings had been destroyed by hearth, Mr. Esterly was summoned to recreate them. He grew to become not solely an professional on Gibbons, but additionally the maker of sought-after sculptures of his personal.

“Dr. Compton’s Letter Rack” (2019), Mr. Esterly’s final work. It was commissioned by the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Ark. Dr. Neil Compton was a botanist, World War II veteran and physician to members of the Walton household, of Walmart fame. Alice Walton established the museum on land Dr. Compton had owned. Credit scoreMarietta von BernuthA element from “Dr. Compton’s Letter Rack.” The sculpture displays the lifetime of its topic.Credit scoreMarietta von Bernuth

“There was no person else on the planet who was doing what David was doing at that degree,” Laura Bennett, director of W.M. Brady and Co., the Manhattan artwork gallery that represented him, stated in a telephone interview.

Mr. Esterly died on June 15 at his house in Barneveld, N.Y., a rural hamlet close to Utica. He was 75. His spouse, Marietta von Bernuth, the erstwhile girlfriend who had launched him to Gibbons, stated the trigger was amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, generally referred to as Lou Gehrig’s illness.

Mr. Esterly’s life was formed by his obsession with Gibbons, grasp carver to the crown, who was commissioned to work in Windsor Castle, Kensington Palace and St. Paul’s Cathedral, amongst different landmarks.

After Ms. von Bernuth launched Mr. Esterly to Gibbons’s work, she grew to become a cook dinner at a rustic property close to Eastbourne, on the south coast of England, the place a cottage got here with the job. Mr. Esterly spent eight years there instructing himself woodcarving earlier than he and Ms. von Bernuth moved to upstate New York. He then started creating commissioned items for collectors.

For Mr. Esterly, carving was as a lot an mental train as a bodily one.

“The wooden is instructing you about itself, configuring your thoughts and muscular tissues to the duties required of them,” he wrote in his e book “The Lost Carving: A Journey to the Heart of Making” (2012). “To carve is to be formed by the wooden whilst you’re shaping it.”

The Times Literary Supplement known as the e book a meditation on “imitation and phantasm, method and genius, and on the unusual bodily and psychological immersion that allows the transmission of imaginative and prescient from mind handy, instrument to wooden.”

Carving began for him, because it did for Gibbons, with lime wooden, identified in America as linden wooden, which is pale, pliable and nearly grain free, a lot in order that it resembles clean marble. The instruments had been chisels and gouges with quite a lot of blades; Mr. Esterly had 130 such implements readily available at his workbench.

He labored slowly, creating solely about 50 items in his lifetime. But as his literary agent, Robin Straus, stated by e-mail, he was “equally fluent with phrases and wooden”; in addition to books, he wrote quite a few articles and evaluations about artwork and carving.

The topics of his carvings various. One is likely to be Gibbons-like however with a twist — a sprig of delicate roses, however with insect holes within the leaves, or a damaged stem; one other is likely to be a head lined in elaborately carved vegetation.

A feminine botanical head (2002), for a personal shopper, impressed by the 16th-century Italian artist Arcimboldo.CreditPamela Underhill Karaz

In most instances Mr. Esterly carved to the specs of a patron. For a purchaser who revered Thomas Jefferson, he carved a necklace like one despatched again by Lewis and Clark, whom Jefferson had despatched to discover the Northwest Territory. In others he whimsically up to date conventional themes by inserting, say, a carved iPhone or a set of automotive keys.

After a hearth in 1986 at Hampton Court, Henry VIII’s palace, Mr. Esterly spent a 12 months creating a reproduction of a seven-foot-long Gibbons carving that had been destroyed.

He chronicled that 12 months in “Grinling Gibbons and the Art of Carving,” printed in 1998, the identical 12 months he curated a Gibbons exhibition on the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

“It’s not a matter of preserving alive a convention, and even reviving it,” Mr. Esterly advised The Times in 1989 as he ready to go to Hampton Court. “The custom is lifeless as a doornail. Nevertheless, I’ve marinated myself in Gibbons. He has the energy of line and assuredness that, to a different carver, are awe-inspiring.”

Elements to go over a mantel, with a gardening theme.CreditPamela Underhill Karaz

James David Esterly Jr. was born on May 10, 1944, in Akron, Ohio, the place his father was an government with the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company. His mom, Carolyn (Neal) Esterly, was a homemaker.

The household moved to Orange County, Calif., when David was 11. He went on to review English literature at Harvard, graduating in 1966. He was a Fulbright scholar at Cambridge, the place he specialised in Yeats and the traditional thinker Plotinus and earned his doctorate in 1972.

At that time he was at free ends. All indicators pointed to a profession in academia, however he wasn’t enthused by the prospect.

“He at all times had a dream of dwelling within the nation and dealing along with his palms,” Ms. von Bernuth stated in a telephone interview. “Then he fell in love with Gibbons.”

Mr. Esterly married Ms. von Bernuth in 1980. In addition to her, he’s survived by their daughter, Flora Esterly; his sister, Jane Carney Johnsen; and his brother, Neal.

Lou Gehrig’s illness, recognized in 2018, restricted Mr. Esterly’s skill to carve. He advised “CBS Morning News,” in a phase that aired final June, that he discovered it significant that he had lived his life “by the connection between mind and hand.”

“And now,” he added, “I’m ending it by exactly that connection being snatched away from me.”

But he stated that nobody ought to really feel sorry for him. “I’m fairly outdated,” he stated. “I’ve led a really attention-grabbing life. And you’ve received to die of one thing.”

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