Sir John Gilbert, A.R.A.
Engraving of a photograph by John Watkins
Source: The 1872 Illustrated London News
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Biographical article on the page preceding the portrait
We some time back announced that the Queen had expressed her gracious intention to confer the honour of knighthood on the distinguished artist John Gilbert. The actual formality of the investiture was, however, delayed; but we understand it is to be gone through about the time we go to press with the earliest portion of this Number. Consequently, before this reaches the reader’s eye we shall, in all probability, have the Royal warrant for the heading to this biographical sketch. In this instance, if formerly it was not always so, the title bestowed has a special significance and justification. It was given on the election of the then Mr. Gilbert to the presidency of the Old Society of Painters in Water Colours, in succession to Mr. Frederick Tayler, on his resignation; and it was understood as not only conferring well-earned distinction on an individual, but also as at the same time showing the Royal recognition of a very important branch of art in this country. If the presidents of the Royal Academy (consisting chiefly of oil-painters), from Reynolds down to the present day, have been dubbed Knights as by prescriptive right, why should not the same honours be conferred on the president of a society which most ably represents water-oolour painting — an art so peculiarly English, the native professors of which have so few foreign rivals, which is so extensively practised, which virtually has sprung into being, and has grown to ripe maturity since the foundation of the Academy, and while our practice in oil has made little progress, if it has not essentially retrograded?
There are scant materials of the ordinary sort for a memoir of John Gilbert — as, from habit, we must still familiarly call him. A life spent in the studio can furnish few incidents for narration. In this, as in most instances, the artist's works form his best biography; into them he has thrown an energy, an indomitable perseverance and industry, and a fertility of resource which, otherwise directed, would have qualified a warrior or statesman for high achievements. Some few particulars we are, nevertheless, able to supply. The artist was born at Blackheath, in Kent, not far from where he now resides, in 1817. It is a remarkable fact, and should be borne in mind in our estimate of his success, that he was intended by his friends for a mercantile life, and never had any regular artistic education or training, having only received a few lessons — principally, we believe, in colour — from Lance, the painter of still life. Despite this initial disadvantage, the almost self-taught student exhibited a picture when only nineteen years of age, and it is interesting to know that this first picture was in water colours. The subject shows the early bent of his mind to historical illustration, being “The Arrest of Lord Hastings at the Council Board in the Tower by the Protector, Richard, Duke of Gloucester.” It was exhibited at the Suffolk-street Gallery; while an oil-picture which he sent, the same year (1836), to the Royal Academy, Somerset House, was refused. The first oil-picture he exhibited, “The Coronation of Inez de Castro,” appeared at Suffolk-street the following year.
The same year some pen-and-ink drawings by young Gilbert (then, be it remembered, only twenty years of age) were shown by the late Mr. Sheepshanks to Mulready, who exclaimed, “Why does he not draw on wood for the engravers for book illustrations?” The special power in this direction thus early manifested was soon developed. The next year he made a set of drawings on wood which were engraved and published in a child’s book of, we believe, “Nursery Rhymes.” Thenceforward for about thirty years John Gilbert was chiefly engaged as a designer and illustrator for engravers on wood; and the invention, power, fecundity, and facility he displayed in this department are simply marvellous. He is the universally acknowledged prince of designers and illustrators on wood. Calculations have been made as to the thousands of designs which Gustave Doré has thrown off; but the number must have been vastly exceeded by John Gilbert. Stories are often told of his wonderful rapidity — as, for example, his having dashed in an elaborate subject on a large block while a messenger waited an hour or so. By his illustrations of various kinds he must be known to many hundreds of thousands who have never seen any of his paintings. He has been justly compared to Rubens, and some of his large oil-pictures prove that the facility of design displayed by him on wood would have sufficed, under other conditions and in a different age, to produce a great decorative or mural painter. It would be impossible within our limits to particularise the extent of his labours on wood. The difficulty would be to say what he has not done. He has illustrated books of literally all kinds — notably most of the English poets, including the splendid edition of Shakepeare published by Routledge; as also Longfellow, and numerous American books; besides innumerable journals and periodicals. His influence developed an eminently daring, suggestive, picturesque, aud playful style of wood-engraving quite novel in the history of the art, which commends itself by its admirable appropriateness to the nature of the material and the method of printing.
It would be no less great an omission in any memoir of the artist, than it would be false delicacy or injustice as regards oureelves, not to gratefully acknowledge the long and advantageous connection of Sir John Gilbert with this Journal. That connection was very nearly co-extensive with Sir John’s practice as a designer on wood; and we may be pardoned for saying that it is gratifying to us to know that the eminent artist refers to his association with us, and to his friendship with the late Mr. Herbert Ingram, the founder of this the first illustrated newspaper, as recollections always pleasant to him. It was John Gilbert who thirty years ago made drawings for the very first Number of the Illustrated London News, and drawings for the same Paper were among the last which he executed before discontinuing this branch of his art. Our subscribers of longest standing will best remember the various phases of felicitous and rich design through which the artist passed in the almost weekly embellishment of our pages.
Throughout his career, however, Sir John painted more or less, both in oil and water colours, his practice in the latter medium being principally during the last twenty years. A favourite place of exhibition with him was the British Institution; but he also contributed, not unfrequently, to the Royal Academy, and occasionally to the Gallery of the Society of British Artists. Between the years 1839 and 1816 he appears to have painted, or at least exhibited, comparatively little. In 1847 the artist contributed to the British Institution “Anne of Austria Showing the Young King to the Rioters — Fronde Riots;” and he appeared as a painter regularly before the public in succeeding years, in a hundred historical or literary illustrations (especially from Shakspeare and “Don Quixote”), cavalry charges, tournaments, battlefields, processions, &c. In 1852 John Gilbert was elected an associate of the Old Water-Colour Society, and next year full member. A few months back he was elected President of that society, as already stated; and still more recently he has been elected an Associate of the Royal Academy. He is an honorary member of the Belgian Royal Society of Water-Colour Painters; a member of the Society of Artists of Belgium, and honorary President of the Liverpool Society of Water-Colour Painters.
It would far exceed our limits to give a list of the pictures and drawings which this most prolific of all Euglish artists has annually exhibited. We may, however, simply to refresh the reader's memory, give the titles of some of his principal works. It is hard to make a selection; but the following were much noticed at the time of exhibition: Oil pictures — “Don Quixote giving Advice to Sancho Panza,” “The Education of Gil Blas,” “Scene from ‘Tristram Shandy,” “Othello Before the Senate,” “The Murder of Thomas à Becket,” “The Plays of Shakspeare (the principal characters grouped),” “Battle of Naseby,” “A Drawingroom at St. James’s,” “A Regiment of Royalh Cavalry,” “Rubens and Teniers,” “The Studio of Rembrandt,” “Wolsey and Buckingham,” “March of Troops — Baggage Waggons,” “Rembrandt Painting a Portrait,” and “Convocation of Clergy” (in the Academy last year). Watercolour drawings — “The Queen Inspecting the Wounded Coldstream Guards After the Return from the Russian Campaign,” “The Rhine Wine — a Party of German Students,” “The Morning of the Battle of Agincourt,” “The Battle of the Boyne,” “Trial Scene — ‘Merchant of Venice,’” “Cromwell in Battle,” “The Battle of Agincourt,” “A Venetian Council,” “The Marriage of Catherine and Petruchio,” “An Incident in the Siege of Calais,” “Lear and Cordelia,” “The Burial of Ophelia,” “The Arrest of Guido Fawkes,” “The Trial of Queen Katherine — ‘Henry VIII,’” “The Entry of Joan of Arc into Orleans.”
Sir John Gilbert’s works come before us so frequently for review that to offer any general criticism on them would be supererogatory. We can hardly in justice, conclude, however, without saying that he is much more than the gifted draughtsman and skilful illustrator which we have more especially described. In painting, both in oil and water colours, he takes rank as a first-rate colourist and executant. His colouring is quite as rich and fine, and his handling as brilliant in its frank conventionality, as his arrangement is picturesque, and his invention inexhaustible.
The portrait of Sir John Gilbert is from a photograph by Mr. John Watkins, of Parliament-street, Westminster.
“Sir John Gilbert, A.R.A.” Illustrated London News (16 March 1872): 237. Hathi Trust Digital Library version of a copy in the University of Michigan Library. Web. 11 December 2015. The passage quoted above was created using ABBYY FineReader to render the Hathi Digital Library images into text. — George P. Landow
Created 11 December 2015