|Sir John Gilbert was one of the best-known and most prolific illustrators of the Victorian age. Engravings from his designs enlivened many of the books, newspapers and periodicals of the day. He produced a phenomenal 30,000 drawings for the Illustrated London News alone and was famed for the speed at which he could draw any scene requested by the editor. |
Gilbert was born in Blackheath, London, and lived in this area throughout his life. Beginning his career as an estate agent's clerk, he was largely self-taught as an artist. Nevertheless, he 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. In later life, however, Gilbert received a cache of prestigious honours including the Presidency of the Old Watercolour Society (from 1871) and a knighthood in 1872.
Gilbert's election as a Royal Academician followed in 1876 and the richly coloured painting above is the Diploma work that he presented to the institution. Although a keen observer of modern life, Gilbert clearly revelled in the elaborate costume and pageantry of historical scenes. Here, Gilbert exploited the visual potential of the colourful, sumptuously decorated vestments worn by the assembled cardinals, bishops and clergy, to create a dramatic contrast with the dark habit of the monk who addresses the convocation
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