Working in the sentimental and romantic tradition of such artists as Cattermole, Phiz, and Tenniel, Sir John Gilbert (1817-97) illustrated some hundred and fifty books -- including such well-known children's works as Marryat's Children of the New Forest (1847) and Countess D'Aulnoy's Fairy Tales (1881). “He made a reputation however, out of elaborate semi-allegorical pages, festive Christmas scenes and representations of the seasons for special issues of magazines, for which he was paid enormous sums of money” (Houfe 316).

Born in Blackheath, Gilbert was, like other illustrators of his generation, self-taught. His career as a painter began with his exhibiting his first watercolours and oils in 1836. Owing doubtless to his prolific output, John Gilbert was often referred to as "The Scott of Painting," although he was equally prolific as a book illustrator, producing cuts for editions of Shakespeare, Cervantes, Sir Walter Scott, and other writers venerated during the Victorian era, as well as such contemporary and popular writers as Dickens (the American serial printing of A Holiday Romance in Our Young Folks in 1868) and Wilkie Collins's novels Hide and Seek (1854) and Basil (1862). The magazines he illustrated included Once A Week, Punch, and (from its inception in 1842 ) The Illustrated London News, for which periodical he is reputed to have to have contributed some 30,000 pictures. Credited by Forrest Reid as "the most prolific black and white artist of his time" (20), John Gilbert was so remarkably quick that he was able to produce a full-page block while the publisher's messenger waited. Moreover, he was noted for his reliability and the high quality of his work, customarily signed in the lower-left corner with his hallmark, a J through a G.


Houfe, Simon. The Dictionary of British Book Illustrators and Caricaturists 1800-1914. Woodbridge, Suffolk: Baron Publishing and The Antique Collectors' Club, 1978.

Reid, Forrest. Illustrators of the Sixties (London: Faber & Gwyer), rpt. as Illustrators of the Eighteen-Sixties: An Illustrated Survey of the Work of 58 British Artists. New York: Dover, 1975.

Last modified 30 July 2010