The Sunday Section: Art - Sir John Gilbert

This usually happens to me – I discover something or someone I think unfamiliar, only to find that I do know it or them after all.  This was the case when I came across the artist, Sir John Gilbert, a few months ago.  

Self-portrait (1872)

I had used his artwork in one of the first altered books I’d done back in 2005.

Sir John Gilbert was born in Blackheath, Surrey, in July 1817.  His father, George Felix Gilbert, was a retired militiaman who worked as an estate agent.  Obviously expected to follow in his father’s footsteps, Gilbert was apprenticed to a firm of estate agents, but his passion was art.  After about two years, he was allowed to pursue a career in art.

John Gilbert did have some formal instruction from George Lance, the renowned still-life painter.  But, like most of that generation, he taught himself to paint by copying prints.  Although he failed to enter the Royal Academy Schools, he mastered various media, including oils and watercolour.

Gilbert started exhibiting at the Society of British Artists from 1836, and at the Royal Academy in 1838.  He was encouraged to learn wood engraving, and started to produce illustrations for ‘Punch’ magazine, and the ‘IIlustrated London News’ from its launch in 1842.  For the ‘Illustrated London News’ alone, he contributed no less than 30,000 illustrations over a 30 year period.

A prolific artist, he also produced book illustrations for writers and poets adored by the Victorian era including Sir Walter Scott, Charles Dickens, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and William Wordsworth.  His Shakespeare pieces alone numbered over 800.

'The Skeleton in Armour' (poem by Henry Wordsworth Longfellow) 

In 1852, Gilbert was elected an associate to the Old Watercolour Society, becoming a full member 2 years later.  Included in the 270 works he exhibited at the society were pieces based on ‘Don Quixote’ and Shakespeare.

'Don Quixote and Sancho Panza returning to their Village' (1866)

'The Plays of William Shakespeare'

'The Arrest of Lord Hastings' (Richard III) (1871)

'Morning of the Battle of Agincourt 25th October 1415'

'King Henry V at the Battle of Agincourt'

Although the Victorians greatly appreciated the romanticism of Gilbert’s historical and literary paintings, some critics dismissed his work as “showy” and superficial.  Despite that, he exhibited over 400 paintings in watercolour and oil, and was bestowed with honours.  Made President of the Old Watercolour Society in 1871, he was knighted in 1872, and was elected as a Royal Academician in 1876.  His diploma work was the painting, ‘Convocation of Clergy’.

'Convocation of Clergy'

Gilbert retired in 1885.  In 1893, after donating his pictures to the nation, he was given the freedom of the City of London.  His pictures were shared out to the principal galleries in London, Liverpool, Birmingham and Manchester, while his sketchbooks were kept at the Royal Academy.

Sir John Gilbert died on 5th October 1897, at his home in Blackheath, London.

It was said that Gilbert could draw any subject requested by his editor while the messenger waited.  Noted for his reliability and high quality of his work, he was credited by Forrest Reid (in his book, ‘Illustrators of the Sixties’) as “the most prolific black and white artist of his time”.  

'Asking the Way'

'Lancelot du Lac'

'Margaret of Anjou taken prisoner after the Battle of Tewkesbury' (1875)

'Old Age and Youth'

'The Field of the Cloth of Gold'

'With all their banners bravely spread'

'The Enchanted Forest' (1886)