Descendent peeks at Peake’s forgotten genius

Nicki Holt gazing at the astonishing work her genius great grandfather carved in 1895

The great granddaughter of one of the country’s finest, but forgotten, wood carvers was introduced to arguably his greatest work after it was purchased by a top dealer.

Nicki Holt was invited by Charles Wallrock of Wick Antiques in Lymington, Hants, to see the stunning work he displayed at the recent Chelsea Antiques Fair.

The piece by James Peake shows a spray of incredibly detailed flowers and fruit created over four months from a single piece of wood.

James Peake’s masterpiece

Detail from James Peake’s masterpiece

Detail from James Peake’s masterpiece

Detail from James Peake’s masterpiece

His name is not well known but his ability to carve superb pieces from just an image in his head means he is deserving to be recognised as one of the greats.

James Peake, a wood carver whose genius has been overlooked

Peake, who died in 1918, counted King Edward VII as a friend and admirer and he also won a medal at the Paris Exhibition in 1900 after he was persuaded to attend.

Charles Wallrock bought the antique from a UK sale and research has shown how Peake was a master craftsman – feted in his day – who art history has overlooked.

He was known in his lifetime as ‘the modern Grinling Gibbons’ after the 17th / 18th century Anglo-Dutch genius who worked on Windsor Castle, Hampton Court Palace and St Paul’s Cathedral.

The carving that was displayed at the Chelsea Antiques Fair was created in 1895 from a single piece of lime wood in Lambeth where Peake lived and worked.

A ‘labour of love’ was how the artist described it and the carving that vanished from the family after his death has now been identified for what it is – and the asking price is £38,500.

Many of Peake’s works are thought to have been lost when Lambeth Palace and the area was bombed in the war, so those that exist are becoming more highly prized.

The Peake family’s photo of the carving which was damaged during the Blitz

His great granddaughter Nicki, an artist herself, said: “It was thrilling to see this piece by my great grandfather – I had never seen it before.

Nicki Holt gazing at the astonishing work her genius great grandfather carved in 1895

“It has always been a bit of a legend in the family and no one knew where it was. I have a table of his but where most of his pieces went nobody knows.

“He was an incredibly modest person who let his work speak for itself and had no interest in fame. His genius was recognised during his lifetime but afterwards his name was overlooked.

“It was while I was researching him that I noticed this work advertised on Wick Antiques’ website. I got in touch with Charles and he invited me to see it.

“James Peake described it as a labour of love and did it for himself over four months of spare time. When he worked he had no plans or designs, he just formed a picture in his mind and began carving.

“My father said he was a friend of the king who we know admired his work, and Archbishop Temple who introduced his carving to the monarch was also an excellent patron.

“In the family he was known as ‘Naughty Jim’ because he had 13 children; but he was also a teetotaller and saved six people from death during his life but rarely spoke about it.

“It would be wonderful if this carving ended up in an institution where people could admire it.

“We think the work might have been gifted to the borough on Peake’s death and then sold into the market, but we can’t be sure.”

Charles Wallrock, the dealer who bought the piece, said: “It was clearly the work of a genius and that is why I bought it – it just stood out.

“It was signed and dated but such is the lack of awareness about Peake’s skill and ability that it didn’t attract the attention it should have.

“Peake’s reputation really needs restoring because he is an artist of remarkable ability. There maybe many of his carvings that survive but the owners just don’t know what they’ve got.”

Peake was born in 1839, the son of a carver, and he developed a fine reputation and was persuaded to attend the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1900.

He took a carved fireplace with him and later explained that the image came to him in a flash and he made it just in time for it to be shipped to Paris where it won bronze.

As well as being likened to Grinling Gibbons Peake was also said to be a ‘glorification of Chippendale’.