Dictionary of National Biography, 1901 supplement/Gilbert, John (1817-1897)

1389207Dictionary of National Biography, 1901 supplement, Volume 2 — Gilbert, John (1817-1897)1901Campbell Dodgson

GILBERT, Sir JOHN (1817–1897), historical painter and draughtsman on wood, was born at Blackheath on 21 July 1817. His father, 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 'Brunetta and Phillis' (1844), 'King Henry VIII' (1845), 'The Disgrace of Wolsey' (1849), 'The Charge of Prince Rupert's Cavalry' (1852), and several subjects from 'Don Quixote' (1842, 1854, 1867). A portrait exhibited in 1838 was his first contribution to the Royal Academy. This was followed by 'Holbein painting the Portrait of Anne Boleyn,' two subjects from 'Don Quixote' (1842, 1844), 'Charlemagne inspecting the Schools' (1846), 'Touchstone and the Shepherd' (1850), and 'The Destruction of Job's Flock' (1851). After 1851 he exhibited no more pictures at the Royal Academy till 1867.

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, Cowper (1841); Pope, Goldsmith, Burns, and others included in Routledge's 'British Poets' (1853, &c.); 'Evangeline' (1856), Longfellow's 'Poems' (1858, &c.), Scott (1857), Wordsworth (1869), Milton (1864), and many others. Among religious compositions may be mentioned his fifty illustrations to the Book of Job (1857), 'The Proverbs of Solomon illustrated by Historical Parallels' (1858), 'The Pilgrim's Progress (1860), and Fox's 'Book of Martyrs' (1865). He also illustrated many novels and tales for boys by Ainsworth, Marryat, Kingston, and other writers; a variety of miscellaneous books for children, and numerous books of ballads and other anthologies. But the most famous of all his illustrations are those which he designed for Howard Staunton's edition of Shakespeare, published by Routledge in monthly parts, beginning in December 1856. The whole work was issued in three volumes in 1860. A complete set of proofs of the woodcuts, engraved by the brothers Dalziel, is in the print-room at the British Museum ; they are 829 in number, including the tail-pieces to each play. They have been justly popular, and several reprints have appeared. Another writer of whom, as of Shakespeare and Scott, Gilbert was throughout his life a devoted admirer, was Cervantes. In addition to numerous pictures inspired by 'Don Quixote,' Gilbert designed a set of illustrations for an edition of the work published in 1872.

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 Feb. 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 Jan. 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.

Almost the whole of Gilbert's uneventful and industrious life was passed at Blackheath, where he died, unmarried, at his residence in Vanbrugh Park on 5 Oct. 1897. He was buried in Lewisham cemetery.

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.

[Roget's Hist, of the Old Water-colour Society, ii. 359-69; Times, 7 Oct. 1897; Athenæum, 9 Oct. 1897; Memoir by M. H. Spielniann in Magazine of Art, 1898, p. 53.]

C. D.