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Sir Alfred Gilbert (12 August 1854 – 4 November 1934) was an English sculptor and goldsmith who enthusiastically experimented with metallurgical innovations. He was a central — if idiosyncratic — participant in the New Sculpture movement that invigorated sculpture in Britain at the end of the nineteenth century.
Alfred Gilbert's parents, Charlotte Cole and Alfred Gilbert, were musicians who lived at 13 Berners Street, London, where Alfred was born. He spent seven years at Aldenham School in Hertfordshire but received his artistic education mainly in Paris (Ecole des Beaux-Arts, under Jules Cavelier), and studied in Rome and Florence where the significance of the Renaissance made a lasting impression upon him and his art. He also worked in the studio of Sir Joseph Boehm, R.A.
On 3 January 1876 he married his first cousin, Alice Jane Gilbert (1847–1916), with whom he had eloped to Paris. They had five children. Bankruptcy made him flee from Britain in 1901 and for the next 25 years he settled in Bruges. His wife left him in 1904. They never divorced, but lived separated, Alice being a patient in a mental hospital.
After Alice's death, of which he received news only after the war, he married on 1 March 1919 his housekeeper Stéphanie Debourgh (Bruges 1863–1937), the widow of Alphonse Quaghebeur (Bruges 1863–1903), a modest typesetter; she, previously a lacemaker, and six of her seven children had lived with Gilbert since 1907 and throughout the War and the German occupation. As he was living underground, the presence of a large family was a good cover for the quantity of food needed in the household.
Gilbert traveled to Rome in 1923, where his fortunes improved, and three years later was able to return to England to complete the "Clarence Memorial", this time under the royal patronage and settled in the study of Lady Helena Gleichen. In that year he was commissioned to produce a final major work, the "Queen Alexandra Memorial" which was released in 1932. Gilbert was knighted for this work and was reelected to the RA, so his later years saw their full rehabilitation in the highest echelons of British artistic society, before dying in 1934.
His first work of importance was the charming group of the Mother and Child, then The Kiss of Victory, followed by Perseus Arming (1883), produced directly under the influence of the Florentine masterpieces he had studied. Its success was great, and Lord Leighton forthwith commissioned Icarus, which was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1884, along with a remarkable Study of a Head, and was received with general applause. Then followed The Enchanted Chair, which, along with many other works deemed by the artist incomplete or unworthy of his powers, was ultimately broken by the sculptors own hand.
In 1888 was produced the statue of H.M. Queen Victoria, set up at Winchester, in its main design and in the details of its ornamentation the most remarkable work of its kind produced in Great Britain, and perhaps, it may be added, in any other country in modern times. In 1892–1893 Gilbert was occupied with the Shaftesbury Memorial Fountain, in Piccadilly Circus, London, a work of great originality and beauty representing Anteros, yet shorn of some of the intended effect through restrictions put upon the artist. Other statues of great beauty, at once novel in treatment and fine in design, are those set up to Lord Reay in Bombay, and John Howard at Bedford (1898), the highly original pedestal of which did much to direct into a better channel what are apt to be the eccentricities of what is called the New Art School. The sculptor rose to the full height of his powers in his Memorial to the Duke of Clarence, and his fast developing fancy and imagination, which are the main characteristics of all his work, are seen in his Memorial Candelabrum to Lord Arthur Russell and Memorial Font to the son of the 4th Marquess of Bath.
Gilbert's sense of decoration was paramount in all he did, and although in addition to the work already cited he produced busts of extraordinary excellence of Cyril Flower, John R. Clayton (since broken up by the artist, the fate of much of his admirable work), G. F. Watts, Sir Henry Tate, Sir George Birdwood, Sir Richard Owen, Sir George Grove and various others, it is on his goldsmithery that the artist would rest his reputation; on his mayoral chain for Preston, the epergne for Queen Victoria, the figurines of Victory (a statuette designed for the orb in the hand of the Winchester statue), St Michael, and St George, as well as smaller objects such as seals, keys and the like. He also designed the statue of David Davies of Llandinam in front of the Barry Docks Offices. Gilbert was chosen associate of the Royal Academy in 1887, full member in 1892 (resigned 1909), and professor of sculpture (afterwards resigned) in 1900. He was a member of the International Society of Sculptors, Painters and Gravers. In 1889 he won the Grand Prix at the Paris International Exhibition. He was created a member of the Victorian Order in 1897.
While Gilbert was known for his sculpture, he also periodically made oil paintings. Among his favourite subjects were still lifes.
- Beattie, Susan. The New Sculpture. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983.
- Dorment, Richard. Alfred Gilbert. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985.
- Dorment, Richard, et al. Alfred Gilbert: Sculptor and Goldsmith. London: Royal Academy of Arts, 1986.
- Edwards, Jason. Alfred Gilbert's Aestheticism: Gilbert Amongst Whistler, Pater, Wilde, and Burne-Jones Aldershot: Ashgate, 2006.
- Getsy, David. Body Doubles: Sculpture in Britain, 1877–1905. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2004.
- Read, Benedict. Victorian Sculpture. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1982
- The statue at the Shaftesbury Memorial Fountain, commonly known as the statue of Eros, in Piccadilly Circus, London
- The tomb of Albert Victor, Duke of Clarence in St. George's Chapel, Windsor
- The Queen Alexandra Memorial, Marlborough Gate, London (a Grade I listed building)
- "The International Society of Sculptors, Painters and Gravers". Mapping the Practice and Profession of Sculpture in Britain and Ireland 1851–1951. Glasgow University. Retrieved 31 May 2013.
Media related to Alfred Gilbert at Wikimedia Commons
- Centre for Whistler Studies profile of Alfred Gilbert
- Works by Gilbert in the Tate Collection, London
- "Model for the tomb of Prince Albert Victor". Sculpture. Victoria and Albert Museum. Retrieved 2007-09-22.