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


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.”

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.

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