|These drawings were presented to the Royal Academy by the artist in 1889. He wrote that the volumes of "sketches and Studies in Watercolours, Pen and Pencil, [are] in many cases first thoughts and designs and material for pictures afterwards painted in Oil and Watercolours...A considerable portion of my life work is here and for these books and their contents I confess to hold a great regard and affection".|
Gilbert compiled the drawings, also inscribing and dating them, though often retrospectively. They range in date from the early 1850s to the late 1880s and most of them relate to Gilbert's oil and watercolour paintings or to his work as an illustrator. Also represented here are his topographical sketches of landscapes and architecture, in particular of the area around Blackheath in south London where he lived for most of his life.
As Gilbert noted in his presentation letter to the Academy, the material in these albums and sketchbooks constitutes a record of his life's work. As such, the RA group was of some interest to the artist's early biographers and other commentators. R. Davies, for instance, in an article about Gilbert published in 1932, noted that these drawings were compiled by the artist, stating: 'It was evidently a labour of love rather than of duty to rescue these studies and scraps from the portfolio and enshrine them in volumes, and there seems to be very little method or order in their arrangement'. After studying the Royal Academy's collection of Gilbert drawings, Davies concluded that the artist's 'kinetic' graphic work was the element that justified his status as a 'real artist'.
Gilbert was born in Blackheath, London, beginning his career as an estate agent's clerk. He was largely self-taught as an artist but nevertheless quickly mastered a variety of techniques, producing many oil paintings and watercolours as well as illustrations. Gilbert's paintings of historical and literary scenes display a theatrical romanticism that appealed greatly to Victorian taste but led some critics to dismiss his work as 'showy' and superficial.
Gilbert was also one of the best-known and most prolific illustrators of the Victorian age and was famed for the speed at which he could draw any scene. Engravings from his designs enlivened many of the books, newspapers and periodicals of the day. He is said to have produced a phenomenal 30,000 drawings for the Illustrated London News alone. In later life, Gilbert received a cache of prestigious honours including the Presidency of the Old Watercolour Society (from 1871) and a knighthood in 1872. His election as a Royal Academician followed in 1876.