1902 Encyclopedia > J Gibson

John Gibson
British sculptor

JOHN GIBSON, (1790-1866), sculptor, was born near Conway, in 1790, in very humble circumstances, his father being a market gardener. He is a notable example of one who, with no so-called start in life, carved his way to dis-tinction by the force of a steady purpose and strong will. To his mother, whom he described as ruling his father and all the family, he owed, like many other great men, the energy and determination which carried him over every obstacle. He narrowly escaped emigration to America, the first step towards which took the family to Liverpool, where his mother's will interposed to keep them. He was then nine years of age, and was sent to school. The windows of the print shops of Liverpool riveted his atten-tion ; and, having no means to purchase the commonest print, he acquired the habit of committing to ocular memory the outline of one figure after another, drawing it on his return home. Thus early did he form the system of observing, remembering, and noting, sometimes even a month later, scenes and momentary actions from nature^—a habit peculiar in that degree to himself, but of the utmost importance to all artists to practice. In this way he, by degrees, transferred from the shop window to his paper at home the chief figures from David's picture of Napoleon crossing the Alps, which, by particular request, he copied in bright colours as a frontispiece to a little schoolfellow's new prayer-book, for sixpence. At fourteen years of age Gibson was apprenticed to a firm of cabinetmakers,—por-trait and miniature painters in Liverpool requiring a premium which hfc father could not give. This employ-ment so disgusted him that after a year (being interesting and engaging then apparently as in after life) he per-suaded his masters to change his indentures, and bind him to the wood-carving with which their furniture was ornamented. This satisfied him for another year, when an introduction to the foreman of some marble works, and the sight of a small head of Bacchus, unsettled him again. He had here caught a glimpse of his true vocation, and in his leisure hours began to model with such success that his efforts found their way to the notice of Mr Francis, the proprietor of the marble works. The wood-carving now, in turn, became his aversion; and having in vain entreated his masters to set him free, he insti-tuted a strike. He was every day duly at his post, but did no work. Threats, and even a blow, moved him not. At length the offer of £70 from Francis for the rebellious apprentice was accepted, and Gibson found himself at last bound to a master for the art of sculpture. Francis paid the lad 6s. a week, and received good prices for his works,—sundry early works by the youthful sculptor, which exist in Liverpool and the neighbourhood, going by the name of Francis to this day. It was while thus apprenticed that Gibson attracted the notice of Mr Roscoe, whose taste in Greek art seems to have been superior to his judgment in Italian history. For him Gibson executed a basso rilievo in terra cotta, now in the Liverpool Museum. Roscoe opened to the sculptor the treasures of his library at Allerton, by which he became acquainted with the designs of the great Italian masters. A cartoon of the Fall of the Angels marked this period,—now also in the Liverpool Museum. We must pass over his studies in anatomy, pursued gratu-itously by the kindness of a medical man, and his introduc-tions to families of refinement and culture in Liverpool. Roscoe was an excellent guide to the young aspirant, point-ing to the Greeks as the only examples for a sculptor. Gib-son here found his true vocation. A basso rilievo of Psyche carried by the Zephyrs was the result. He sent it to the Royal Academy, where Flaxman, recognizing its merits, gave it an excellent place. Again he became unsettled. The ardent young breast panted for "the great university of Art"—Rome ; and the first step to the desired goal was to London. Here he stood between the opposite advice and influence of Flaxman and Chantrey—the one urging him to Rome as the highest school of sculpture in the world, the other maintaining that London could do as much for him. It is not difficult to guess which was Gibson's choice. He arrived in Rome in October 1817, at a comparatively late age for a first visit. There he immediately experienced the charm and goodness of the true Italian character in the person of Canova, to whom he had introductions,—the Vene-tian putting not only his experience in art but his purse at the English student's service. Up to this time, though his designs show a fire and power of imagination in which no teaching is missed, Gibson had had no instruction, and had studied atno Academy. In Rome he first became acquainted with rules and technicalities, in which the merest tyro was before him. Canova introduced him into the Academy supported by Austria, and, as is natural with a mind like Gibson's, the first sense of his deficiencies in common matters of practice was depressing to him. He saw Italian youths already excelling, as they all do, in the drawing of the figure. But the tables were soon turned. His first work in marble—a Sleeping Shepherd modelled from a beautiful Italian boy—has qualities of the highest order. Gibson was soon launched, and distinguished patrons, first sent by Canova, made their way to his studio in the Via Fontanella. His aim, from the first day that he felt the power of the antique, was purity of character and beauty of form. He very seldom declined into the pretti-ness of Canova, and if he did not often approach the masculine strength which redeems the faults of Thorwaldsen, he more than onee surpassed him even in that quality. We allude specially to his Hunter and Dog, and to the grand promise of his Theseus and Robber, which take rank as the highest productions of modern sculpture. He was essen-tially classic in feeling and aim, but here the habit of observation we have mentioned enabled him to snatch a grace beyond the reach of a mere imitator. His subjects were gleaned from the free actions of the splendid Italian people noticed in his walks, and afterwards baptized with such mythological names as best fitted them. Thus a girl kissing a child, with a sudden wring of the figure, over her shoulder, became a Nymph and Cupid ; a woman helping her child with his foot on her hand on to her lap, a Bac-chante and Faun ; his Amazon thrown from her Horse, one of his most original productions, was taken from an accident he witnessed to a female rider in a circus ; and the Hunter holding in his Dog was also the result of a street scene. The prominence he gave among his favourite subjects to the little god " of soft tribulations " was no less owing to his facilities for observing the all but naked Italian children, in the hot summers he spent in Rome.

In monumental and portrait statues for public places, necessarily represented in postures of dignity and repose, Gibson was very happy. His largest effort of this class—the group of Queen Victoria supported by Justice and Clemency, in the palace of Westminster—we agree with himself in pronouncing his finest work in the round. Of noble character also in execution and expression of thought is the statue of Mr Huskisson with the bared arm; and no less, in effect of aristocratic ease and refinement, the seated figure of Dudley North. He lays down the axiom in his journal that the Greeks represented " men thinking, and women tranquil," and to the departure from this rule we attribute the unattractive colossal statue of Sir Robert Peel in West-minster Abbey. The very animation he has given to the head is too individual to harmonize with the classic drapery, or with the real character of the man. The great states-man is here colloquial rather than eloquent in expression, while the position of the right foot suggests the idea of a walking figure. Great as he was in the round, Gibson's chief excellence lay in basso rilievo, and in this less disputed sphere he obtained his greatest triumphs. His thorough knowledge of the horse, and his constant study of the Elgin marbles—casts of which are in Rome-—resulted in the two matchless bassi rilievi, the size of life, which belong to the earl of Fitzwilliam—the Hours leading the Horses of the Sun, and Phaethon driving the Chariot of the Sun. Most of his monumental works are also in basso rilievo. Some of these are of a truly refined and pathetic character, such as the monument to the countess of Leicester, that to his friend Mrs Huskisson in Chichester Cathedral, and that of the Bonomi children. In reviewing the qualities most characteristic of this great artist, that of passionate expres-sion may be said to stand foremost. Passion, either indulged or repressed, was the natural impulse of his art:— repressed as in the Hours leading the Horses of the Sun. and as in the Hunter and Dog; indulged, as scarcely before seen in the same intensity in the whole range of sculpture, as in the meeting of Hero and Leander, a drawing executed before he left England. Gibson's power of drawing may be pronounced to have been unsurpassed by any modern. He had an iron hand, and used the pen in rapid action with as much certainty as if it had been the graver. Nowhere is the fire of his genius so unmistakably seen as in these first-hand productions. Nor can we wonder that marble, however highly wrought, could never entirely compensate for what was necessarily lost in the translation. Gibson was the first to introduce colour on his statues,—first, as a mere border to the drapery of a portrait statue of the Queen, and by degrees extended to the entire flesh, as in his Venus, and in the Cupid tormenting the Soul, belonging to Mr Holford. In both of these it amounts to no more than the slightest tiut. Gibson's individuality was too strongly marked to be affected by any outward circumstances. In all worldly affairs and business of daily life he was simple and guileless in the extreme; but he was resolute in matters of principle, determined to walk straight at any cost of personal advantage. Unlike most artists, he was neither nervous nor irritable in temperament. It was said of him that he made the heathen mythology his religion ; and indeed in serenity of nature, feeling for the beautiful, and a certain philosophy of mind, he may be accepted as a type of what a pure-minded Greek pagan, in the zenith of Greek art, may have been. Gibson was elected R.A. in 1836, and bequeathed all his property and the contents of his studio to the Royal Academy, where his marbles and casts are open to the public. He died at Rome in January 1866.

The letters between Gibson and Mrs Henry Sandbach, grand daughter of Mr Roseoe, and a sketch of his life that lady induced him to write, furnish the chief materials for his biography. volume of engravings from his finished works renders them very indifferent justice. A volume of facsimiles from his drawings is more worthy of him. (B. E.)

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