Sir John Gilbert, Fair St. George, 1881

In the year 1884, photographer Joseph Parkin Mayall photographed the renowned English painter, illustrator, and engraver Sir John Gilbert. Pictured in his studio in Ivy House in Vanbrugh Park, Blackheath, the artist sits in an armchair, staring out the window. Gilbert’s portrait was among the last to be released, appearing in the final installment of July 1884.

In Mayall’s portrait, Sir John sits at the end of a desk with one hand on his knee and the other clutching a book. Gilbert demonstrates his professionalism by wearing a three-piece suit and a monocle around his neck; the soft black beret on his head associates him, however, with the bohemian life of an artist. In the foreground, a top hat and bowler hat rest on a table, ready to take the place of the informal beret when Gilbert leaves the studio for the outside world. The artist appears pensive and solemn as he looks towards the large window that lights the studio from the right.

The artist’s studio appears cramped and cluttered.[1] Multiple canvases hang on the walls, but the most prominent feature of the studio portrait is the framed painting beside the artist, Fair St. George. One of the largest paintings Gilbert ever produced, it measures 244 centimeters by 152 centimeters. Fair St. George highlights Gilbert’s love of pageantry, pomp, and picturesque costumes. Gilbert was a skilled painter of knights and chivalric themes, studying various kinds of armor, livery, and military paraphernalia.[2] When the painting was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1881, reviews were mixed, and even F. G. Stephens’s assessment in The Athenaeum was ambivalent:

We resume our notes by turning to Sir John Gilbert’s single contribution, Fair St. George (No. 149), the knight in armour, and the Lady Saba all in white, but wearing a gold and back brocaded mantle, and in the act of leading the most submissive of dragons. The painting of the armour is so splendid, solid, rich, and vigorous as to be worthy of Rubens; it is perhaps superior to anything yet produced on so large a scale by Sir John Gilert. Almost equally admirable is the painting of the robes of Saba. The wild and stormy landscape is most impressive. The picture is full of tone, and so striking as to compel us to overlook the questionable drawing and want of energy in both the figures and the weak idea of the dragon.[3]

In the biographical sketch he wrote for Artists at Home, however, Stephens overcame his objections to declare the painting to be "one of the most refined examples Sir John Gilbert has given us."

It is telling that Fair St. George remained in Gilbert's studio at the time Mayall took his picture, three years after its exhibition at the Royal Academy, and it is even possible that its prominent display in the portrait was calculated to advertise its availability. After its poor critical reception, the work had not found a buyer, despite a reduction in price from the £1,500 he had asked for it in 1883 to £900 in 1883. Gilbert became increasingly disillusioned and depressed by the dwindling sale of and public interest in his work, writing despondently in June 1886, "It is really no use painting. Nothing sells. No one comes near me. There is such an utter stagnation that it is quite offensive and disheartening." In the end, he resolved to sell no more of it, preferring to distribute his works among municipal art museums, including the Guildhall Art Gallery (at Frederic Leighton's suggestion), which was received Fair St. George.[4]

In Gilbert’s studio, one small marble portrait bust is positioned on a pedestal, and a drawing portfolio has been placed on his table. The fireplace indicates that this is the heart of the home. The heavy, neoclassical mantelpiece has a Greek key pattern below the mantelshelf, and before it stands a fire screen, a new invention that served to protect the face of whomever was standing in front of the fire, while the rest of the body stayed warm.[5] An ornate carpet covers the floor, and tapestries and textiles hang on walls covered with wallpaper. In addition to the tables, chairs, and bookcases is an ornate chandelier with a small monkey or human figure climbing up the port. The number of books and other printed materials suggest that reading and the accumulation of knowledge was important to Gilbert. In the left-hand corner, a cat lounges on a cushion in the background.

 Gabriella Meier

[1] Sally Woodcock has examined the account ledgers of Gilbert’s colorman Charles Roberson, 1859–97, and found that the artist’s purchases had been “relatively small and unadventurous”: “His account does not record the artistic clutter of sketching umbrellas, portfolio stands, stools, seats, rest sticks and lay figures purchased by many of his contemporaries, and it is possible that the tidy studios shown in Mayall’s photogravure of 1883 and Gilbert’s own image of A Painter at Work in his Studio of 1881 reflect Gilbert’s working environment fairly accurately.” “Utility, Versatility and Obscurity: The Sources and Selection of Sir John Gilbert’s Oil Painting Materials,” in Sir John Gilbert: Art and Imagination, edited by Spike Bucklow and Sally Woodcock (Burlington, VT: Lund Humphries, 2011), 223. (LM)

[2] "Victorians Decoded: Free Exhibition at Guildhall Art Gallery," Londonist, last modified September 16, 2016 accessed September 30, 2016. Fair St. George is currently on display in the Guildhall Art Gallery in London. The work has not been on display since the year 2002. 

[3] [F. G. Stephens], “The Royal Academy (Second Notice),” The Athenaeum, no. 2793 (May 7, 1881): 628. Kathleen Froyen points out that Victorian critics tended to forgive Gilbert’s faults in light of the “vigour and inventiveness” of his works: see “Sir John Gilbert and the Old Masters,” in Sir John Gilbert: Art and Imagination, 156. For more on this painting, see Nicola Bown, “Gilbert in Fairyland: The Enchanted Forest and the Transfigured Landscape,” in Sir John Gilbert: Art and Imagination, 143–44. (LM)

[4] Vivien Knight and Mark Bills, “Sir John Gilbert: A Biographical Sketch,” in Sir John Gilbert: Art and Imagination, 52–53. (LM)

[5] “Victorian Era Fireplace Designs,” Victorian Era Information for Kids, accessed October 12, 2016,



Albumen carte-de-visite by John Done & Co., ca. 1876-78


The Aldine, 1877


Albumen cabinet card, September 1883, by Alexander Bassano


Self-Portrait, 1885

Gilbert's black beret appears to be something of a trademark: it appears in portraits of the artist throughout his career, including his 1885 self-portrait.