David Esterly, wood-carver, died on June 15th, aged75
It might happen at any time of day. David Esterly would be at his workbench, gouge in hand, when he felt the breath on his shoulder. The voice would say: "I wouldn't do it like that," or "I've made a leaf curl that way before. Why are you bothering?" He did not need to ask who it was. The man's portraits at three different stages of his life, the last plump, bewigged and comfortable, hung round his workshop in a converted barn at Barneveld, in upstate New York.
Grinling Gibbons, England's 17th-century genius of wood carving, was the god of the place. For ten years his admirer had been labouring to emulate his astonishingly meticulous chain sand cascades of foliage, fruit, flowers, feathers and shells in the same white lime or linden wood. The tradition of such carving was long-lost. Mr Esterly, whose studies as a Fulbright scholar at Cambridge had been in Yeats and the philosopher Plotinus, hoped he had found a way to combine intellectual, moral and sensory experience into what Yeats called "unity of being".
There were many satisfactions in working as Gibbons had done. Standing at his workbench—not sitting, for carving involved the whole body—he would take up, with a quick flip of the hand, one of the dozens of tools spread before him. He could have done it blindfolded, knowing just where each one was. The multiplicity of blades reflected the fecundity of nature, which he would strive to reproduce with ever-more-delicate gouging.
He began each piece by stabbing down the outline on a sawn board a few inches thick, then wasting away the wood around it and modelling the form. The rearward hand, and that half of his body, propelled the tool; the forward hand, on the wood, resisted. This opposition gave him exquisite control over the blade edge. It reminded him of the empowering contrast between Dionysian impulse and Apollonian restraint; and of Hamlet, too, torn between action and thought, whose tension drove through the play.