For the last few months Tate Britain has been privileged to have on display a magnificent seventeenth-century font cover by the famous wood carver Grinling Gibbons (1648-1721). On loan from the London City church of All Hallows by the Tower, it is on display as part of the Protestant Church after 1660 display, now in the final weeks of its run. It will return to All Hallows after 6 May, so this week is your last chance to see it here at Tate Britain.
Gibbons is best known for his limewood carvings in St Paul’s Cathedral, Hampton Court Palace and numerous country mansions across the country. Consisting of great profusions of fruit and flowers, they are of staggering technical ability and beauty and have come to characterise a style of late seventeenth-century ornament that is always associated with his name. His finely carved leaves and petals have an astonishing realism that fascinated his contemporaries and later admirers: Horace Walpole owned a carved wood cravat by Gibbons (now in the V&A), which he wore at a party at his home, Strawberry Hill, to fool his guests.
The All Hallows font cover, with three carved cherubs surrounded by garlands of fruit and ears of wheat, and surmounted by a dove, was a gift to the parish from James Foyle in 1682. It cost £12 and the iron branch to support it, given by George Crosley, £3. In the 1640s religious imagery had come under Puritan attack and in London the Committee for the Demolition of Monuments of Superstition and Idololatry was charged with purging churches of anything offensive, which could include symbols such as the dove, which represents the Holy Ghost. But Gibbons’ font dates from a period when ornamentation and decoration in the Anglican church was again being encouraged – but in a style that was restrained and dignified to reflect the nature of the Protestant church.
The All Hallows font cover is on display in The Protestant Church after 1660 at Tate Britain until 6 May 2012.