[1] Sir Edwin Landseer RA, Portrait of John Gibson RA, c. 1850, oil on canvas. Photo: R.A./John Hammond © Royal Academy of Arts

[2] John Gibson RA, Sleeping Shepherd Boy, 1818, plaster cast. Photo: R.A./Paul Highnam © Royal Academy of Arts

[3] John Gibson RA, And casts thick darkness over Achilles' eyes, pen and ink with wash on wove paper. Photo: R.A. © Royal Academy of Arts

[4] John Gibson RA, Narcissus, 1838, marble. Photo: R.A./Paul Highnam © Royal Academy of Arts

[5] John Gibson RA, Monument to Lady Leicester, c. 1844, plaster cast. Photo: R.A./Paul Highnam © Royal Academy of Arts

Artist of the Month - November 2016


John Gibson RA (1790 - 1866)

During his lifetime, John Gibson [1] was Britain's most famous sculptor. His particular style of neoclassicism held great appeal for a large international clientele that included aristocrats and royalty as well as wealthy industrialists and connoisseurs. He was even commissioned to create sculptures of Queen Victoria, for the Royal Collection and the Palace of Westminster.

'Gibson of Rome', as he came to be known, was born in 1790 near Conwy, in North Wales, the son of a gardener. The family moved to Liverpool when Gibson was young and, as a teenager, he was apprenticed to a cabinetmaker and woodcarver in the city. However, his talent for art and his passion for the Classical world soon came to the attention of local patrons who encouraged him to study in Italy. In 1817, this group of local supporters helped finance his travel to Rome. This was a pivotal moment and proved to be the making of his long and distinguished career.

Arriving in Rome, Gibson attended the studio of Europe's leading sculptor Antonio Canova (1757-1822). There, Gibson was introduced to Canova's workshop practices and techniques as well as to many other young artists who gathered there and important patrons who visited. His Sleeping Shepherd Boy [2] of 1818 was produced with guidance from Canova. Gibson was captivated by the Eternal City, with its lively artistic community and unrivalled collections of Classical art works. Encouraged by Canova, he was soon able to set up his own studio in Rome.

As his fame grew, Gibson was encouraged to return to Britain but he preferred to stay in Rome, arguing that 'in England my life would be spent in making busts and statues of great men in coats and neckties; here I am employed upon subjects which demand the exercise of the imagination, and the knowledge of the beautiful'. He was nevertheless elected an Associate of the Royal Academy in 1833 and a full Royal Academician in 1836, despite not fulfilling the criterion of being resident in Britain. He kept up links with Britain by exhibiting his work at the Academy and other venues and by welcoming many tourists to his studio in Rome where visitors could consult albums of drawings and chose scenes to commission [3].

Gibson was best known for his idealised sculptures of Classical themes, like Narcissus [4] his RA Diploma work. This work relates to a tale in Ovid's Metamorphoses in which Narcissus fell fatally in love with his own reflection. The poet describes the young man as being so transfixed by his own reflection that he appeared to be made of stone. Gibson was also inspired by catching sight of a boy in a similar attitude while out walking on the Pincian Hill in Rome.

Gibson was also in demand for portrait statues and his sensitively composed memorial reliefs, like this one for the Countess of Leicester [5], were particularly popular with British patrons. When he died in 1866, Gibson bequeathed most of the contents of his studio to the Royal Academy and a large selection of his works - including marble sculptures and reliefs as well as plaster casts of both - were on display in a specially built 'Gibson Gallery' (now the Library) from 1876 up to the 1950s. At that point, however, many of the casts were found to be in bad repair and the gallery was closed. Most have since been conserved and a selection can usually be seen on the Sackler Landing at the Royal Academy and on long-term loan to Bodelwyddan Castle in Wales.

An exhibition of Gibson's work is currently open in the Tennant Gallery at Burlington House. The display showcases a selection of over 30 artworks - including marble sculptures, reliefs, plaster casts, drawings and archival material - exploring how and why Gibson became one of Britain's best-known sculptors despite spending most of his life abroad and putting his work in context with that of his mentor Canova and other contemporaries.

John Gibson: A British Sculptor in Rome

8 September - 18 December 2017
Tennant Gallery and Council Room

Opening hours: Sat-Sun 10am - 6pm, Tuesday-Friday 10am - 4pm,
Closed Mondays.

Free entry with a valid Royal Academy exhibition ticket, £3 General Admission ticket. Friends of the RA and under 16s go free.