Stephens on Gilbert


F. G. Stephens, "Sir John Gilbert, R.A," Artists at Home, 1884.

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John & Charles Watkins, Sir John Gilbert, 1860s, National Portrait Gallery. 

In the abbreviated professional biography written for Artists at Home, F. G. Stephens chronologically recounts the story of the English artist, illustrator, and engraver Sir John Gilbert. He accurately and succinctly summarizes Gilbert’s life and importance, referring to him as the “Rubens of our time.” Although Gilbert began his career working as a clerk in a Blackheath counting house, it soon became clear that “figures were his forte.” In chronicling Gilbert’s artistic career, Stephens notes that among Gilbert’s most important works were the illustrations he completed for Howard Staunton’s reprinting of Shakespeare’s plays: Gilbert produced thousands of designs, and “not one," Stephens declares, " . . . is without a charm, or void of some potent spark of life.” Stephens summarizes Gilbert’s artistic prowess, explaining that his facility in drawing “was a natural complement to his artistic birthright and a mode of expressing his power of dramatically realizing subjects the pictorial qualities of which he intuitively recognized.” After citing a number of books in which Gilbert’s designs appear, Stephens says, “Here are enough works for the life of one man; many accomplished draughtsmen have given us fewer,” distinguishing Gilbert as a rapid, prolific, and skillful illustrator. On March 14,1872, Gilbert was knighted, which not only honored his achievements in painting, engraving, and watercolor, but also indicated royal recognition of watercolor's importance as a branch of art. F. G. Stephens provides a clear summary of Gilbert’s life and artistic accolades, emphasizing how he shaped the Victorian artistic era.

Gabriella Meier

Note: Upon Gilbert's death in 1897, Stephens returned to the profile of the artist published years before in Artists at Home for the details of his life and career, preceding the extended excerpt with the coy explanation, "according to one of his biographers, whose memoir Sir John revised. . ." And later, turning to Gilbert's works in black-and-white for illustrated books and newspapers, "As to them, we cannot do better than condense what the biographer of Gilbert whom we have above mentioned has said. He tells us that. . . . " [F. G. Stephens], "Sir John Gilbert, R.A.," The Athenaeum no. 3650 (October 9, 1897): 494-95.


Stephens on Gilbert