"Though Sir John Gilbert practised art in many of its branches, it is only in one - and that not, in the public estimation, the one by which he defied the rivalry of all comers - that he showed himself head and shoulders above the draughtsmen of his time... It is in virtue of his achievements in black and white that he takes his place among the few masters, not of his age and country only but of all time, who, through the medium of the hand or printing press, have ranged themselves among the highest."
The Magazine of Art
From Willmott's Poets of the 19th Century
Born in Blackheath, South London, and apprenticed to a firm of estate agents, John Gilbert taught himself sketching from nature and by copying prints. He failed to enter the Royal Academy Schools, but nevertheless was able to master watercolour, oil, etching, modelling and sculpture. He became a painter, exhibiting at the Society of British Artists from 1836, and at the RA from 1838. However, after some of his pen and ink sketches were seen by Sheepshanks and William Mulready, it was suggested that he become a black and white artist on wood. Gilbert started with Punch, including producing a cover in 1842, and then moved on to the Illustrated London News. He produced an incredible number of woodcuts for that publication - the figure of 30,000 was mentioned (and disputed) - and large numbers for the London Journal. He also drew thousands of illustrations for books, including nearly all the important English poets (his Shakespeare of 1856-8 had 800 drawings). And of course, some 400 pictures in water-colour and oil exhibited at the various societies. He became ARA in 1872, and was knighted in the same year. He became RA in 1876, the same year as E. J. Poynter. After he died, a large memorial exhibition of his works at the Royal Watercolour Society, organised by Herkomer, 'fairly staggered the visitor by its beauty and excellence'.
Gilbert's vast output was due to his industry and to his great speed of working, it being said that on being given a commission, he could draw a block while the messenger waited. One critic, writing in 1884, summed up the prevalent feeling:
'His facility is such that nothing comes amiss to him; his pencil declines to compose badly, or even indifferently, and his invention and resource are inexhaustible.'
It appears that he had a penchant for cash in hand, and a little pile of golden coins placed on the table beside him was always sufficient to induce him to accept a commission, however busy he was.
Gilbert's decision in 1893 to distribute his paintings that he retained in his collection among the nation's art galleries was greeted with satisfaction, as described by the Magazine of Art:
'... the recipients showing their appreciation by a haste that under other circumstances might be called indecent. Members of the London Corporation called at once upon Sir John and secured for the Guildhall the cream of the collection. This consists of about 20 oil and watercolours, of a market value, it is believed, of more than 15,000 pounds. Half an hour later came the Liverpool representatives, post haste, and were also permitted to make their choice.'The Guildhall in fact ended up with 11 watercolours and 5 oils, showing various battle scenes, a good Knight Errant and a Sir Lancelot du Lac. Five large pictures, some smaller ones and 11 drawings went to Birmingham. Manchester was also a big recipient. The Baggage Wagon, and Keston Common, Kent were presented by the artist to Blackburn. Because of these gifts and the large number of pictures that Gilbert produced, most major collections have some. However, given changing tastes, his paintings are as likely to be squirrelled away in basements as to be hanging in the galleries. One good one called The Herald is at Warrington. I have not yet visited the new Guildhall Art Gallery, but understand that it has on show some of the many Gilbert oils and watercolours possessed by the Corporation. Regarding Gilbert's illustrations, a sift through the shelves of many second-hand bookshops will yield something illustrated by him; I particularly recommend his Poems of Longfellow, which contains some of his most arresting pictures.
Top of page
Illustration // Other artists