Sir John Gilbert, R.A., P.R.W.S.
(21 July 1817 - 5 October 1897)
Historical English painter, illustrator, and draughtsman on wood, was born at Blackheath. One of eight children of George Felix Gilbert, who came of a Derbyshire family, had been a captain in the royal East London militia, but had adopted, on that regiment being disbanded, the profession of a land and estate agent. A Blackheath neighbour, the senior partner in the firm of Dickson & Bell, estate agents, found a place for young Gilbert, on leaving school in 1833, in his own office, which was situated in Charlotte Row, a continuation of Walbrook, since demolished, and commanded a view of the side-door of the Mansion House. The lad, who was born to be an artist, not a clerk, spent much of his time in sketching on the office paper the busy life of the great city thoroughfare which he saw from the windows, and especially the displays of civic pomp which were frequently to be seen in the neighbourhood of the Mansion House. He feasted his eyes on gorgeous coaches, liveries, and trappings, and stored his memory with a stock of information which was of the greatest use in his subsequent career. He spent many leisure hours in watching military displays on Woolwich Common, where he sketched the manœuvres of the royal horse artillery and other troops, and made accurate notes of their uniforms.
After two years spent at the city office his parents decided to let him follow his bent, and he devoted himself to learning every variety of technique which was likely to be of use to him: painting in oils, water-colours, and fresco, modelling, carving, drawing on paper, wood, and stone, engraving and etching. In all these arts he was mainly self-taught, for he frequented no school and had no regular instruction except some lessons in the use of colour from George Lance, the painter of fruit.
In 1836, he made his first appearance as an exhibitor with two drawings of historical subjects in Suffolk Street, and in 1837, he sent two oil-paintings, subjects from 'Ivanhoe' and 'Old Mortality', to the British Institution. He continued for many years to contribute frequently to both these exhibitions. Some of the more important of his pictures in oils (forty in all), exhibited at the British Institution, were:
A portrait exhibited in 1838, was his first contribution to the Royal Academy. This was followed by
In spite of all his industry with the brush, Gilbert's chief employment during these years had been in black-and-white work for book illustration and pictorial journalism. When he was about twenty some of his pen-and-ink drawings had come into the hands of the well-known collector, John Sheepshanks, who showed them to Mulready. The latter discerned Gilbert's great aptitude for illustration, and advised him to seek employment in drawing on wood.
He began in 1838, by illustrating a book of nursery rhymes, and soon devoted most of his time to this branch of art. He illustrated the works of most of the English poets; for instance:
Gilbert must also be regarded as one of the pioneers of pictorial journalism. He had contributed a few drawings to Punch in its early days, including a design for the cover used in 1843, but he soon left the paper in consequence of a disagreement with the editor, Douglas Jerrold, who said that he did not want a Rubens on the staff. When Herbert Ingram founded the Illustrated London News in 1842, he at once secured Gilbert's services, and from the first number published on 14 May in that year for a period of about thirty years Gilbert was the mainstay of the paper.
His fertility and quickness were amazing, and it is estimated that his contributions to the paper, all drawn by himself upon the wood-block, amount to about thirty thousand. It was quite usual for the editor to send a messenger to Gilbert's house at Blackheath with a wood-block and a request for a drawing of a given subject; Gilbert would improvise and complete in an hour or so a drawing ready for the engraver to cut in facsimile. When large subjects were required, covering two pages or more of the newspaper, Gilbert would first sketch the whole subject very slightly in ink, and then complete the drawing in sections, unscrewing each portion of the composite block of boxwood as it was finished, and passing it on to the engraver, while he continued his work on the next piece of wood, with a perfect recollection of its relation to the whole design.
He was always very successful with those civic and military pageants and displays of picturesque ceremonial, which he had loved to draw in his early days.
Besides other periodicals and newspapers, the London Journal, founded in 1845, used to contain for many years a regular weekly contribution by Gilbert in the shape of an illustration to the melodramatic and sensational serials which that journal published. A complete set of these woodcuts, very superior as works of art to the fiction which gave rise to them, was preserved by Gilbert himself and presented to the Guildhall library.
The British Museum also possesses proofs of the woodcuts to four novels published in the London Journal from 1852 to 1854. Gilbert also contributed to Reynolds's Miscellany. He drew upon stone a series of Chronological Pictures of English History (1842-3); thirty-three of these lithographs are his work, the remaining five that of Waterhouse Hawkins. He etched some illustrations to Carleton's Traits and Stories of the Irish Peasantry. He was the author of Fragments towards the History of Stained Glass and the Sister Arts of the Middle Ages, of which only one part was published, in 1842.
An important event in Gilbert's career was his election as an associate of the Old (now Royal) Water-colour Society, which took place on 9 February 1852. He was elected a full member on 12 June 1854. From that time till his death Gilbert's connection with the society was intimate and uninterrupted. He exhibited about 270 water-colours in the society's gallery, and it was on his initiative that the first experimental exhibition of sketches was held in the winter of 1862, which led to the establishment of regular winter exhibitions.
He was elected president on the retirement of Frederick Tayler [q.v.] in June 1871; he resigned the appointment in 1888, but was unanimously re-elected and persuaded to continue in office. On his election as president Gilbert received the honour of knighthood; the compliment was offered and accepted in August 1871, and actually conferred on 14 March 1872. In the meanwhile Gilbert, who had resumed his contributions to the Royal Academy exhibitions in 1867, was elected an associate of the academy on 29 January 1872. He exhibited in that year 'King Charles leaving Westminster Hall,' and in 1873 one of his best pictures, 'Naseby.' On 29 June 1876, he was elected an academician. 'Richard II. resigning the Crown to Bolingbroke,' now at the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, was his diploma picture. After that time he was rarely absent from the Royal Academy exhibitions, to which he contributed in all more than fifty works.
In 1878 his 'Doge and Senators of Venice' excited much admiration at the Paris exhibition, and the artist was appointed chevalier of the legion of honour. He received similar compliments in Austria and Belgium, and was honorary member of several British and colonial societies of artists.
About 1885, Gilbert formed the resolution of selling no more of his pictures, with a view to presenting a collection of them to the nation. He made the intention public in April 1893, and the gift took effect in that year, when he divided a number of his pictures between the municipal galleries of London, Birmingham, Liverpool, and Manchester. The corporation of London acknowledged the gift by presenting Sir John Gilbert with the freedom of the city. A volume of collotype reproductions of the pictures presented to the Guildhall Gallery, with an introduction by Mr. A. G. Temple, F.S.A., was published in the same year. Gilbert also presented a collection of his sketch-books to the Royal Academy.
Gilbert was before all things a draughtsman, and is likely to be remembered rather as an illustrator than as a painter. In water-colour his technique was largely determined by his practice in black-and-white. He would model his surfaces with the brush as if he were hatching with pen or pencil. Alike in water-colour and in oils he was a powerful colourist, with a special fondness for red; his shadows were often too black. Of the old masters he owed most to Rubens, something to Rembrandt; while in landscape he has been compared to Salvator Rosa and to Gaspar Poussin. In the English school he is most nearly allied to Cattermole, whom he surpasses, however, in vigour and rapidity of movement.
While he led a reaction against the caricature of Cruikshank and the sentimental style of the annuals, he was wholly uninfluenced by the contemporary 'pre-Raphaelite' movement. He was never realistic, and it was not the art or literature of the middle ages, but their stirring life and picturesque costume, that inspired his robust and manly art. His subjects, whether suggested by poets or novelists, by history or by his own fanciful reconstruction of the past, were always romantic, but seldom theatrical or mannered.
Almost the whole of Gilbert's uneventful and industrious life was passed at Blackheath, where he died at his home -- Ivy House, Vanbrugh Park; he was unmarried, and left a fortune reportedly worth over £200,000. He was buried in Brockley and Ladywell Cemeteries, Lewisham.[Roget's Hist, of the Old Water-colour Society; Times, 7 Oct. 1897; Athenæum: A Journal of Literature, Science, the Fine Arts, Volume 2, 9 Oct. 1897; Memoir by M. H. Spielniann in Magazine of Art, 1898; Dictionary of National Biography, 1901 supplement, by Campbell Dodgson]
Gilbert, Sir John, R. A.
From the beginning of his career he has painted in oil and water-colors, besides drawing on wood. Self-taught, he first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1838. Among his earlier works are several scenes from
"Sir John Gilbert has the facility of thinking out his subject at the end of his penciL He extemporizes on paper as a musician does on the piano; a theme given, he can reduce it to form; a narrative read, he at once knows how best a picture can be made. His fertility of pictorial invention is inexhaustible. He makes his whole picture speak; he is not only painter, but actor; and nature and human nature are his stage properties." J. B. Atkinson in English Artists of the Present Day.
"Sir John Gilbert is one of those painters whose manner is such that we have no desire to see it changed; for in his smaller drawings there is a sweetness and a spirit apparent in the work of but few others." -- Art Journal, June, 1873.
"Sir John Gilbert's 'Cardinal Wolsey at Leicester' [R. A., 1877] is a fine historical work, full of the gorgeous color and exquisite roundness of outline characteristic of this famous artist." -- London Letter to New York Times, June 14, 1877.
"Sir John Gilbert is well known among us by his masterly illustration of old-time scenes." -- Benjamin's Contemporary Art in Europe.[Artists of the Nineteenth Century, their Work & Biographical Sketches, Clara Erskine Clement & Laurence Hutton, 1879.]
GILBERT, Sir John; this eminent artist was born at Blackheath in 1817. His father was a captain in the Royal East London Militia, who, after the disbanding of his regiment, adopted the calling of an estate agent, and young Gilbert was brought up to the same business. Early in his life, after a very scanty education, he was placed with a firm in Charlotte Row, City of London, as a clerk; but the work was such a drudgery to him, and his interests were so completely on the side of art, that after two years his parents were convinced of their error, and allowed him to select his profession and devote himself to art.
From the very earliest years he had sketched with more than ordinary ability, and had taken off prizes repeatedly for his drawings, but he needed education, and on release from the work of the office he set about obtaining it. He failed in his attempt to enter the Academy schools, greatly to his father's disappointment; but he placed himself under George Lance, who had been a pupil of Haydon, and worked for a while in his studio. He also attended evening classes, and filled up every scrap of his time by sketching and by learning from others wherever he could. At the age of nineteen he sent in his first picture for exhibition, a water-colour of the 'Arrest of Lord Hastings,' which was hung at the Society of British Artists in 1836. Two years after that, he was exhibiting at tlie Royal Academy, and there he exhibited till 1851, when a picture of his, having been badly hung, he declined to send in on the following year, and continued, with the exception of a single exhibit in 1863, his refusal to have anything to do with the Academy. In 1867, however, he was persuaded to return to the Gallery, and from that time to the date of his death he was a constant exhibitor. He became A.R.A. in 1872, and R.A. in 1876, and his works were always great attractions to the annual show at Burlington House.
He was elected an Associate of the Old Water-Colour Society as far back in his career as 1852, and in the following year became a full member. In 1871, he was President, and at that time the honour of knighthood was conferred upon him by Queen Victoria. Many of his works he had kept in his own hands, refusing to part with them on any consideration, and his purpose in such action was revealed in 1893, when, having gathered together a large collection of his pictures, he presented them to the various important art galleries of the country, giving them to the Guildhall Gallery in London, and to the Galleries of Birmingham, Blackburn, Liverpool, and Manchester. His large collection of sketch-books he presented to the Royal Academy. His gifts were received with much acclamation, and the City of London gave him its freedom, he being the first artist upon whom such a signal honour had been conferred. His most popular work was that of an illustrator, and it is in this department of his labours that he has earned undying fame. In Punch and the Illustrated London News his best work can be seen, whilst such books as Mackey's Thames, Knight's Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Scott, Cowper, Longfellow, Percy Tales, English Ballads, and the Proverbs of Solomon, owe much of their interest and delight to the charming and always suitable illustrations which Gilbert drew for then. The extraordinary feature of the whole of his work is that it was not drawn from models. He had so stocked his mind with figures, with ornaments, and with scenes, from his constant habit of sketching upon every occasion, that he could sit down wherever he was and prepare a drawing, wliich was wonderful in its accuracy and in its dramatic force.
All his armour according to one credible account was drawn from a dish-cover which he kept in his studio, most of his vestments from some scraps of velvet and brocade which he had by him, and yet the truth of the work was quite wonderful, and his memory was so extraordinary that his results were seldom at fault. He is said to have painted nearly 400 pictures, but in addition to those, to have executed nearly 40,110 drawings, so that his total output must have been a tremendous one, and can only be accounted for by the fact that he was never idle, end always hard at work, even up to the last few days of his life. His faculty, as has been well said, was prodigious, and his work was original, brilliant and full of verve. He was supreme in composition, in depicting movement and in a sense of dignity, and was fond of incident and of historical scenes. His colouring was rich and robust, his drawing sensitive and charming, with a wonderful quality of beauty about it, but there was no repose, no poetry, and but little grandeur in any of his works, and they were to the last strangely sketch-like and curiously lacking in finish. Their vigour is, however, unmistakable, and the characteristics of breadth, robust colour, spirited incident, and buoyant life are never lacking; and although he ignored questions of "tone" and "value," and the deeper problems of atmosphere, and was frankly pictorial and gloried in opulent colour, yet his pictures will ever be popular and noteworthy, and so sound was his craftsmanship that they are likely to perpetuate his fame for many a long year to come. He lived beloved by all who knew him, and died in 1897, Sir John Gilbert, by M. H. Spielman, in Magazine of Art, and other articles which appeared soon after his death. (G. C. W.) George Charles Williamson;
Bryan's dictionary of painters and engravers, 1903.]
Sir John Gilbert Dead
In 1839 one of his pictures was admitted to the annual exhibition of the British Institution, and he has seldom been unrepresented at the exhibitions since that year, and also occasionally sent canvases to the Royal Academy displays. His subjects were as a rule historical, and are marked by facile handling of large groups, fine composition, virile drawing and action, and high color. He was made an associate of the Royal Academy in 1872, and an Academician in 1876. The Queen knighted him in 1872, on his election to the Presidency of the Water Color Society, of which he had become a member in 1852. Some of his best known historical pictures are a series of scenes from Don Quixote, "Othello Before the Senate," the "Murder of Thomas 'a Becket." "Rubens and Teniers," and the "Field of the Cloth of Gold."
His painting of "Rubens in His Studio" is owned by George Vanderbilt, and is in the gallery of his house in this city.
Sir John Gilbert was almost as well known as an illustrator of books and periodicals as a painter. His illustrations appeared in The London Illustrated News for many years. He was an honorary member of the leading art societies of Belgium, of the Liverpool Society of Water Color Painters, and of the Royal Society of British Artists, and was a chevalier of the Legion of Honor. In 1883, he gave his chief pictures, which he never could be induced to sell or part with, to the Public Art Galleries of London, Liverpool, Manchester, and Birmingham, and the city of London presented him with its honorary freedom for his princely donation. Published October 7, 1897. New York Times.
SIR JOHN GILBERT, R.A.
The most prolific and powerful of that great army of illustrators of books which modern demands have called into being died on Tuesday last in the house at Blackheath where he had lived during the greater part of his long and honourable career.
At Blackheath, he was born in 1817, and there he went to school, and from the same place he started to "begin the world" as a clerk in a City counting-house. According to one of his biographers, whose memoir Sir John revised, "Thus he remained until it was indisputable that, as the wits said, 'though figures were his forte' those he dealt in were not much in demand in Cheapside," and after spending many weary months and filling quires of office paper with designs in pen and ink he quitted it for ever. Long before this time constant sketching from nature and sedulous copying from prints had given the boy that tact in delineation which should distinguish every artist.
The only sort of art teaching which he enjoyed consisted of lessons in the use of colours from Haydon's pupil, the once renowned painter of fruit, George Lance. Although Gilbert proved a master of style, it is not true that he studied in the British Museum from the antique, nor, although he was so accomplished with the portcrayon and the brush, that he entered any of the Royal Academy's schools.
He never studied on the Continent, nor, it is said, even crossed the Channel till he was over thirty years of age. Yet he was perfectly versed in technical matters and methods, and drew on metal, wood, stone, and paper with equal facility, could model in wax or clay, or carve in marble, could paint in oil, water, and fresco, and depict figures and faces in miniature as well as at life size, besides etching, and, we believe, engraving on copper and steel. His industry was inexhaustible, and, as was said of Millais, he was born an artist, and no artistic methods came amiss to him, because he thought out his subjects by instinct.
Gilbert made his debut in 1836, when he sent to Suffolk Street two drawings, 'The Arrest of Lord Hastings' and 'Abbot Boniface,' from Scott's 'Monastery.' To the same gallery he contributed 'The Coronation of Inez de Castro' (1837), 'Commodore Trunnion's Courtship' (1838), and various other paintings in oil as well as water, of which the most ambitious was 'Christian over the Mouth of the Burning Pit' (1880). In 1837, he also contributed to the British Institution, sending 'A Scene from Ivanhoe and 'Old Mortality,' both of them in oils. From that time till the gallery in Pall Mall was finally closed he exhibited there many excellent oil pictures, often of rather large dimensions, of which the best known are:
Prolific as these lists of his contributions to various galleries show Gilbert to have been, there yet remain to be reckoned his really countless designs in black and white for the illustration of books and newspapers. As to them, we cannot do better than condense what the biographer of Gilbert whom we have above mentioned has said. He tells us that Gilbert illustrated books, magazines, and other periodicals, from the London Journal, which published hundreds of his cuts, to the Illustrated London News on the one hand, and on the other to costly and handsomely printed volumes. These include some of Shakspeare's plays, such as The Merchant of Venice, which were published severally, and Mr. Howard Staunton's edition of Shakspeare. Of such designs the artist has produced many thousands, not one of which is without a charm or devoid of life. The draughtsman's earliest work of this class was
Here are enough works for the life of one man. Several of these books comprised scores of cuts; many an accomplished draughtsman who never painted a picture has given us fewer. It would not have been possible even for the abundant invention and facile hand of the designer to produce so much work had he not quite early in his career as an illustrator (that is before photography had lent its aid to the transference of designs from paper to wood) acquired the power of drawing on the wood-blocks. In a little while certain engravers learned to understand the artist's technique, and, unlike the majority at that date, preserved its essential qualities, instead of obliterating its individual vitality and energy.
Many anecdotes of Gilbert's facility and wealth of resources as a designer have got into print. The truest of them illustrates the ways of the man. It was quite usual with the editors of periodicals for which he worked to send an office-boy to Blackheath with a wood-block of the size required and a note naming the subject to be illustrated. The boy waited till the block was drawn upon, and brought it back to town ready to be cut and printed from. The variety of the subjects is enough to indicate Gilbert's sympathy with romance, the drama, the stage, poetry, and emotions of many sorts. He viewed everything picturesquely as well as dramatically, and if his art had faults it was that it was too picturesque and dramatic; but, in spite of some demonstrativeness, he was never exactly theatrical. He was a stylist, but not a mannerist; an excellent draughtsman and a powerful colourist, he did not over-refine; as a landscape painter he belonged to the school of Gaspar Poussin, and, like that master, never failed to infuse a touch of pathos into the least ambitious of his efforts; as a colourist his sole shortcoming was the excessive blackness of the shadows. He used pigments so discreetly that few of his pictures have suffered any change. The florid character of every element of his art led people to call him the Rubens of our time; but the forms of his human types were never exuberant. He often painted beautiful women, and his men were never ruffians or failed to be masculine. Some of his children are charming. He was an admirable painter of armour and drapery; and, in short, he vitalized everything he touched, adding to it a vigorous grace, and into the romantic themes infusing an element of glamour which few can resist.
His death leaves the "Old Society" in a difficult position, for the members will have to elect a new President, a matter about which many doubts and fears have long been gathering. In him the Royal Academy has lost one of its best members, but one who, strange to say, was rarely seen within its walls.
The Athenaeum: A Journal of Literature, Science, the Fine Arts, Volume 2, No. 3650, July to December, 1897, edited by James Silk Buckingham, John Sterling, Frederick Denison Maurice, Henry Stebbing, Charles Wentworth Dilke, Thomas Kibble Hervey, William Hepworth Dixon, Norman Maccoll, John Middleton Murry, Vernon Horace Rendall.
View painter's art: Sir John Gilbert (1817-1897)