Date Created

c. 1884


Frederick George Stephens (1828-1907), author and editor


F. G. Stephens, Artists at Home, photographed by J. P. Mayall and reproduced in facsimile by photoengraving on copper plates; edited, with biographical notes and descriptions, by Frederick George Stephens (London: Sampson Low, Marston, Searle and Rivington; New York: Appleton & Co., 1884), pp. 61-64


Gilbert, John (1817-1897), English painter, illustrator, and engraver

Date Issued

July 1884


Sir John Gilbert, born on July 21, 1817, is an English Romantic painter and illustrator of literary classics. He is especially well known for his woodcut illustrations. A prolific watercolorist, Gilbert has been associated with the Old Water-Colour Society from 1852 and became its president in 1871, shortly after which he was knighted. He was made a member of the Royal Academy in 1876.

Is Referenced By

[F. G. Stephens]. “Sir John Gilbert, R.A.” The Athenaeum, no. 3650 (October 9, 1897): 494-95.


The online edition of this work in the public domain, i.e., not protected by copyright, has been produced by the National Gallery of Art.




Department of Image Collections, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC
Omeka record contributed by Gabriella Meier

Date Submitted

September 29, 2016
December 16, 2016 (by LM)

Date Modified

October 1, 2016
January 19, 2017, by LM




THE Rubens of our time, as this admirable artist is not inadvisedly called, was born at Blackheath in 1817, and, having been educated at a school in the neighbourhood of that place, where the greater part of his life has been spent, began the world in that position from which not a few of our best painters have escaped, i.e., as a clerk in a City counting-house. Thus he remained until it was indisputable that although, as the wits said, “figures were his forte,” those our student dealt in were not much in demand in the purlieus of Cheapside, which (after wearily spending many months and spoiling quires of office paper, on which he made designs with office pens and ink) he quitted in due course and for ever. Long before this time sedulous devotion to sketching from nature in all forms, and diligent copying of prints in childhood, had given to the boy’s hands that forthright tact in delineation which is one of the marvels of his art.

            This facility 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. As men are said to think in the languages of their youth, so young John Gilbert thought in pictures. To such a mind technical exercises are, even when difficult, delightful, and the artist knows no fatigue in studies, however onerous they may be. John Gilbert has been described as a self-taught painter, and there can be no doubt that like Mr. Yeames, he failed in the “little go” of the Royal Academy, i.e., he did not obtain the Studentship of that institution. He did not work at that fertile Academy of English art the Sculpture Gallery of the British Museum, which has produced the larger proportion of the more accomplished painters and sculptors of our time. He had, it is said, some lessons in the use of colours from Haydon’s pupil, George {62} Lance, the fruit-painter, and one who seems to have been a capable teacher. On the whole, however, it is certain that Gilbert’s true master was himself, and that he had a most energetic and diligent pupil.

            That power of delineation, and its complementary insight to the “paintableness” of a subject to which I have alluded, qualified the owner to illustrate books, magazines, and other periodicals, from the “London Journal,” which flourished with hundreds of his cuts, to the “Illustrated London News” and a similar newspaper, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, to volumes of beautiful typography. These splendid tomes include some of Shakespeare’s plays, such as “The Merchant of Venice,” which were published severally, and Mr. Howard Staunton’s “Shakespeare” at large, a noble example of what book illustrating might effect, and abundantly furnished with designs, tragic, passionate, sedate, humorous, and gay. Of such designs the artist has produced thousands, not one of which is without a charm, or void of some potent spark of life. The draughtsman’s earliest work of this class, apart from the “Illustrated London News,” to the first number of which he added light, and to which he continued to contribute for many years, was entitled “The Thames and its Tributaries,” 1840.  To this succeeded “Chronological Pictures of English History,” 1842-3; “The Crystal Palace that Fox built,” 1851; “The Poetical Works of Sir W. Scott,” 1857; “The Book of Job,” comprising fifty designs, 1857; “The Poetical Works of Professor Longfellow,” 1858; “The Triumph of Steam,” 1858; “The Proverbs of Solomon,” 1858; “Wordsworth’s Poems,” 1859; “Shakespeare’s Songs and Sonnets,” 1863; “The Poetical Works of John Milton,” 1864; “A Picture Story Book,” one of the best of its class as now represented, 1866, and “The Book of Brave Old Ballads,” 1869.  Here are enough works for the life of one man; many accomplished draughtsmen have given us fewer. It would not have been possible even to the abundant invention and facile hand of the designer to produce so much work if, quite early in his career as an illustrator, he had not acquired power to draw on the wood blocks from which the designs are printed. In a little while certain engravers understood the artist’s technique, and preserved its essential qualities instead of “editing” away all the idiosyncratic virility, vitality, and energy in which his designs excel. The usual process of cutting drawings on wood is fatal to everything but the smoothness of a mechanical translation from vigorous originals to rapid and polished versions, exhibiting more of the “editor” than the author.

            Great as was John Gilbert’s activity, and overflowing as his resources appear in the multitude of designs on wood, the entire category may be compared with the considerable number of water-colour drawings and oil pictures he has produced. He had acquired great technical skill ere, for the first time, sending work in colours to an exhibition. He appeared thus at the Gallery of the Society of British Artists in 1836, with two drawings, entitled “The Arrest of Lord Hastings,” and “Abbot Boniface,” from Scott’s “Monastery.”  {63} “The Coronation of Inez de Castro” (1837) illustrated that extended choice of subjects which is noteworthy in the life of our painter. “Commodore Trunnion’s Courtship,” (1838), “Masking and Mumming in an Inn Yard in the Sixteenth Century,” and “The Feast of Fools,” referring to Scott’s “Abbot,” were oil-colour pictures in the same gallery (1839), where, in 1848, an illustration of Cowper’s “Task” was shown; these were followed by “Christian over against the Month of the Burning Pit” (1880).

            John Gilbert first contributed to the British Institution in 1837 a “Scene from Ivanhoe;” it was accompanied by “Old Mortality,” and, in 1839, followed by “The Supper at Rotherwood,” from “Ivanhoe;” “Falstaff with the Buck’s Head,” and “Don Quixote giving Advice to Sancho Panza” (1841); “The Duke promises Sancho the Government of an Island,” and “Tristram Shandy,” Trim proposing to construct fortifications (1842); “The Education of Gil Blas” (1843); “Brunetta and Phillis,” from the “Spectator, No. 80,” and “The Lady in the Robbers’ Cave,” from “Gil Blas,” “Chap. X. (1844); “Gipsies,” and “King Henry VIII.,” Act iii. Scene 2, Norfolk and Wolsey (1845); “The Death of Cardinal Beaufort,” and “John Bunyan writing his ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’ in Prison” (1846); “Celia’s Triumph,” from Ben Jonson, and “The Fronde Riots” (1847); “Othello,” Act I. Scene 3, Desdemona and her father, and “The Milk Cart, Antwerp” (1848); “The Murder of Thomas à Becket,” and “The Disgrace of Cardinal Wolsey” (1849); “The Plays of Shakespeare,” a tableau of the principal characters in those dramas, “A Troop of Dragoons,” and “Aladdin’s Present to the Sultan” (1850); “Signor Don Sancho Panza, Governor of Barataria” (1851); “Charge of Prince Rupert’s Cavalry at the Battle of Naseby,” and “The Queen holding a Drawing Room at St. James’s Palace” (1852); “A Spanish Landscape and Figures” (1853); “Sancho Panza informing his Wife of his coming Dignity” (1854); “A Regiment of Royalist Cavalry at the Battle of Edgehill” and “The Village School” (1857); “Rubens instructing the Younger Teniers” (1858); “Sir John Falstaff examining the ‘sufficient Men’” (1859); “The King’s Artillery at Marston Moor,” “The Taming of the Shrew,” Act iv. Scene 1, Petruchio and the servants, and “Sancho Panza describing Don Quixote to the Duke and Duchess” (1860); “The Studio of Rembrandt: (1861); “Wolsey and Buckingham” (1862); “A Trumpeter” and “The Timber Cart” (1866); and, this being the final gathering at the British Institution, “Don Quixote comes back for the last time to his Home and Family” (1867).

            At the Royal Academy the artist, in 1838, first contributed a “Portrait of a Gentleman,” one of the few works of the kind he has made public. This was succeeded, in 1841, by “Holbein painting the Portrait of Anne Boleyn,” a task which, had the great Augsburger performed it, would no doubt have been eminently pictorial and fitted for the sumptuous art of John Gilbert. “Don Quixote’s first Interview with the Duke and Duchess” was an important contribution to the gathering of 1842, and was followed, in 1844, by “Don Quixote disputing with the Priest and Barber.” “The Unrest of the King,” as described {64} in “King Henry IV.” Part II, Act iii. Scene 1 (1845); “Desdemona,” and “The Emperor Charlemagne Inspecting the Schools” (1846); “Don Quixote at the Castle of the Duke” (1847); “Don Quixote and Sancho Panza resting under the Tree” (1849); “Touchstone and the Shepherd in the Forest of Arden” (1850); “The Destruction of Job’s Flock” (1851). After this a long gap was stopped by “Rembrandt” (1867); and “Convocation of Clergy” appeared at the Academy in 1871, before the painter was elected an A.R.A. on the 29th of January, 1872. As an A.R.A., his first contribution was “King Charles leaving Westminster Hall after Sentence of Death had been Passed.” In 1873 appeared “The First Prince of Wales,” and “Naseby,” one of the most truly representative and potent of Sir John’s pictures.  “The Field of the Cloth of Gold” (1874) preceded “Tewkesbury Abbey—Queen Margaret carried Prisoner to Edward after the Battle of Tewkesbury,” “Mrs. Gilbert,” and “Don Quixote and Sancho Panza at the Castle of the Duke and Duchess” (1875); “Crusaders,” “Richard resigning the Crown,” and “Portraits of two Sisters” (1876). On the 29th of June in the last-named year Sir John Gilbert became a Royal Academician. In the next year he sent “Cardinal Wolsey at Leicester Abbey” and “Doge and Senators in Council.”  “Ready!” and “May Dew” appeared in 1878; “The Return of the Victors” in 1879; “Henry VI.,” Part II., Act iii. Scene 2, Warwick and the King contemplating the corpse of Gloucester, and “Evening,” a landscape, in 1880; “Fair St. George,” in 1881; “Don Quixote and Sancho at the Castle of the Duke,” “A Trumpeter,” “Thomas à Becket,” and “The Baron’s Raid” in 1883; and, this year, “The Morning of the Battle of Agincourt.”

            In 1852 John Gilbert was elected an Associate Exhibitor of the Society of Painters in Water Colours, and, for the first time in their gallery, he exhibited “Gloucester and the Murderers,” “The Standard Bearer,” “A Trumpeter,” and “The Toilet.”  In 1853, “The Violin,” and his important “Richard II. resigns his Crown to Bolingbroke,” proved the value of the society’s new contributor. It was bought by the Corporation of Liverpool for the permanent Art Gallery of their town, and was followed by “The Rosary,” “Hudibras and Ralpho in the Stocks,” the celebrated “Drug Bazaar, Constantinople,” and “A Turkish Water Carrier” (1854); “The Merchant of Venice,” “An Alchymist,” and “The Letter Writer” (1855). He was elected a Member of the society in 1855; its President in 1871.  After this he was knighted.  His contributions in Pall Mall are too numerous for mention here; they are more than a hundred. “The Doge and Senators of Venice” was at the Paris Exposition Universelle, 1878, when the painter was made a Knight of the Legion of Honour. Many of his works have been engraved.  In the background of the portrait is “Fair St. George,” one of the most refined examples Sir John Gilbert has given us.

Original Format

Book pages





Frederick George Stephens (1828-1907), author and editor, SIR JOHN GILBERT, R.A.

Cite As

Frederick George Stephens (1828-1907), author and editor, “SIR JOHN GILBERT, R.A.,” Victorian Artists at Home, accessed May 26, 2024,

Item Relations

This Item dcterms:relation Item: SIR JOHN GILBERT, R.A.
Item: SIR JOHN GILBERT, R.A. dcterms:relation This Item