David Esterly, 75, Master Carver Steeped in History and Nature, Dies
A self-taught artist’s muse was a 17th-century master woodcarver for the English crown.
By Katharine Q. Seelye
June 21, 2019
David Esterly was in London in 1974, walking with his girlfriend to meet her parents for the first time, when she steered him into St. James’s Church, Piccadilly, to see the intricate woodcarvings by Grinling Gibbons, widely considered one of the greatest woodcarvers in history.
Mr. Esterly, an American who had studied at Cambridge University in England and was trying to figure out what to do with his life, had never heard of Gibbons and knew nothing of woodcarving.
But inside the church he was mesmerized by what he saw — a cascading cornucopia of delicate, lifelike blossoms, foliage and fruit above the altar, all sculpted in wood by Gibbons in the late 1600s.
“I was seduced by the power of the carving and its capacity to convey the beauty of nature,” Mr. Esterly told The New York Times in 1998. “It seemed to me beyond belief that a human hand had fashioned those seashell swags, drooping bellflower chains, birds with laurel twigs in their beaks and dense whorls of acanthus. My fate was sealed.”
He decided to learn more about Gibbons, and to do so, he realized, required taking chisels into his own hands. He taught himself woodcarving, becoming so skillful that when some of Gibbons’s 300-year-old carvings were destroyed by fire, Mr. Esterly was summoned to recreate them. He became not only an expert on Gibbons, but also the maker of sought-after sculptures of his own.
“There was nobody else in the world who was doing what David was doing at that level,” Laura Bennett, director of W.M. Brady and Co., the Manhattan art gallery that represented him, said in a phone interview.
Mr. Esterly died on June 15 at his home in Barneveld, N.Y., a rural hamlet near Utica. He was 75. His wife, Marietta von Bernuth, the erstwhile girlfriend who had introduced him to Gibbons, said the cause was amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.
Mr. Esterly’s life was shaped by his obsession with Gibbons, master carver to the crown, who was commissioned to work in Windsor Castle, Kensington Palace and St. Paul’s Cathedral, among other landmarks.
After Ms. von Bernuth introduced Mr. Esterly to Gibbons’s work, she became a cook at a country estate near Eastbourne, on the south coast of England, where a cottage came with the job. Mr. Esterly spent eight years there teaching himself woodcarving before he and Ms. von Bernuth moved to upstate New York. He then began creating commissioned pieces for collectors.
For Mr. Esterly, carving was as much an intellectual exercise as a physical one.
“The wood is teaching you about itself, configuring your mind and muscles to the tasks required of them,” he wrote in his book “The Lost Carving: A Journey to the Heart of Making” (2012). “To carve is to be shaped by the wood even as you’re shaping it.”
The Times Literary Supplement called the book a meditation on “imitation and illusion, technique and genius, and on the strange physical and mental immersion that enables the transmission of vision from brain to hand, tool to wood.”
Mr. Esterly also wrote “Grinling Gibbons and the Art of Carving,” published in 1998, the same year he curated a Gibbons exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
Carving started for him, as it did for Gibbons, with lime wood, known in America as linden wood, which is pale, pliable and almost grain free, so much so that it resembles smooth marble. The tools were chisels and gouges with a variety of blades; Mr. Esterly had 130 such implements on hand at his workbench.
He worked slowly, creating only about 50 pieces in his lifetime. But as his literary agent, Robin Straus, said by email, he was “equally fluent with words and wood”; besides books, he wrote numerous articles and reviews about art and carving.
The subjects of his carvings varied. One might be Gibbons-like but with a twist — a spray of delicate roses, but with insect holes in the leaves, or a broken stem; another might be a head covered in elaborately carved vegetation.
In most cases Mr. Esterly carved to the specifications of a patron. For a buyer who revered Thomas Jefferson, he carved a necklace like one sent back by Lewis and Clark, whom Jefferson had sent to explore the Northwest Territory. In others he whimsically updated traditional themes by inserting, say, a carved iPhone or a set of car keys.
After a fire in 1986 at Hampton Court, Henry VIII’s palace, Mr. Esterly spent a year creating a replica of a seven-foot-long Gibbons carving that had been destroyed.
“It’s not a matter of keeping alive a tradition, or even reviving it,” Mr. Esterly told The Times in 1989 as he prepared to go to Hampton Court.
“The tradition is dead as a doornail. Nevertheless, I have marinated myself in Gibbons. He has the strength of line and assuredness that, to another carver, are awe-inspiring.”
James David Esterly Jr. was born on May 10, 1944, in Akron, Ohio, where his father was an executive with the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company. His mother, Carolyn (Neal) Esterly, was a homemaker.
The family moved to Orange County, Calif., when David was 11. He went on to study English literature at Harvard, graduating in 1966. He was a Fulbright scholar at Cambridge, where he specialized in Yeats and the ancient philosopher Plotinus and earned his doctorate in 1972.
At that point he was at loose ends. All signs pointed to a career in academia, but he wasn’t enthused by the prospect.
“He always had a dream of living in the country and working with his hands,” Ms. von Bernuth said in a phone interview. “Then he fell in love with Gibbons.”
Mr. Esterly married Ms. von Bernuth in 1980. In addition to her, he is survived by their daughter, Flora Esterly; his sister, Jane Carney Johnsen; and his brother, Neal.
Lou Gehrig’s disease, diagnosed in 2018, limited Mr. Esterly’s ability to carve. He told CBS News’s “Sunday Morning” in a segment that aired this month, that he found it meaningful that he had lived his life “by the connection between brain and hand.”
“And now,” he added, “I’m ending it by precisely that connection being snatched away from me.”
But he said that no one should feel sorry for him.
“I’m pretty old,” he said. “I’ve led a very interesting life. And you’ve got to die of something.”
SEE David's art: