John Gibson: A British Sculptor in Rome

The Royal Academy is to be applauded for mounting this stimulating exhibition. It marks the 150th anniversary of the sculptor’s death in 1866 and his bequest to the RA of his fortune of over £30.000 (around a million pounds in today’s money) together with the contents of his studio. The display highlights the sterling work that the RA has been doing in recent years on the conservation of the Gibson Bequest material and in making it readily available, particularly online. Exhibitions should give pleasure and fresh insights and this one does both.

As the exhibition space is modest the plasters and marbles have been limited to seven and three respectively. As well as a late marble Wounded Warrior in the Library, three more plasters are readily available on the Sackler Landing. A wide range of marbles can be seen along the Gibson Trail organised by the Austrian Centre for the Digital Humanities in collaboration with the RA. More than twenty drawings, often related to the plasters and marbles, are on show together with material from the archive, including some account books.

1. John Gibson, Preparatory drawing for Monument to the Countess
of Leicester
, c. 1844, pen and ink with wash on wove paper
34.4×25.1cm.
 (photo: © Royal Academy of Arts)

The show confirms that Gibson was a perceptive student of the work of Canova and Thorvaldsen, and both a diligent visitor to the Vatican antique sculpture galleries and an observer of everyday Roman life. In a short piece in the catalogue on Canova’s influence on Gibson Anna Frasca-Rath rightly emphasises the Italian sculptor’s influence on his early Roman works notably Sleeping Shepherd Boy (plaster cat. no.5). Importantly Canova also pushed Gibson to look at Thorvaldsen’s work whose outlook Canova may have felt was nearer Gibson’s vision and skills. Later in life Gibson made much about being ‘Canova’s last pupil’ but perhaps this is more about how he wanted to position himself in the history of sculpture than a reflection of the truth.

2. John Gibson, Monument to the Countess of Leicester: Angel carrying infant and leading mother to heaven, c. 1844, plaster
181×126.5×18cm.
 (photo: © Royal Academy of Arts)


Anna Frasca-Rath also notes the influence of the Capitoline Museums’s antique relief of Sleeping Endymion on Gibson’sSleeping Shepherd Boy(plaster cat. no.5). Antique marbles remained a dominant source of inspiration, probably even more so on his late work. The final marbles of his monuments invariably are more strictly antique than the design drawing which presumably had been signed off by the commemorated ‘s family. A comparison between the drawing (cat. no.31) and plaster for the monument to the Countess of Leicester (cat. no.30) illustrates this rethinking: in the plaster the Countess and the Angel have their heads changed into strict profile and their clothes made more ‘Greek’. The Angel also receives a firmly classical hair styling

In her other catalogue contribution ‘Gibson between Rome and London’ Anna Frasca-Rath repeats Gibson’s account of seeing a boy sitting on the edge of a fountain under the wall of the French Academy and returning immediately to the studio to make ‘a small clay model of the action which I admired’. This sketch evolved into his RA Diploma marble Narcissus 1838 (cat. no.20). Unfortunately the sketch model is lost but a similar incident is recorded in a sketch on a torn sheet of A girl carrying a child after a scene witnessed by the artist in a Roman Street together with a more worked up design (RA 05/435 and cat. fig.26 RA 05/609). The thoroughly classicized final marble (Sandbach version, National Museum of Wales) preserves the simple expression of love through the carefree lift of the child that the sculptor had first observed in the street.

Potential patrons were offered three routes for the commissioning of a marble and the exhibition illustrates this well. A new work could be negotiated, obviously necessary for a memorial or bust. An order for a marble from one of full size plasters already in the studio could be placed. Some of these had already been executed in marble but others were waiting for a patron. Maria Callcott neatly documents the time lag between the plaster and first marble. She noted in her Journal for 8th January 1828 that she had just seen the plaster of Cupid disguised as a shepherd, perhaps Gibson’s most repeated work but no commission came until 1834 when the first marble was ordered by Sir Robert Peel. The very early Sleeping Shepherd Boy (plaster cat. no.5) had to wait a similar time before a patron placed an order for it – Lord George Cavendish.

A couple of decades appear to have passed before another early design Hero and Leander relief (plaster cat. no.17) was executed in marble for the Duke of Devonshire around 1842. There is no reason to doubt the accuracy of Gibson’s recall, as the RA catalogue does, that he first drew and modelled this around 1820. Certainly the rapturous embrace of the lovers is far from his more decorous depictions of Cupid and Psyche (plaster cat. no.7, marble cat. no.26) of the 1840s and 1850s, and was described by Canova as ‘full of passion’ according to Gibson. The pen and ink drawing of the blissfully happy lovers with its delicate white highlighting is one of the most beautiful drawings in the show, contrasting strikingly with the sketchier Hero grieving over the Body of Leander(cat. no.18) where the horizontal lines in the background seem to underline Hero’s grief. 

A design ready for working up into a marble could be selected by a patron from an album of designs kept by Gibson. Earl Fitzwilliam, aided by his daughters, chose The Hours leading the Horses of the Sun(cat. fig.25 not in exhibition) from the album and ordered a marble. A comparison of the drawing with the plaster for the marble (cat. fig.18 not in exhibition) shows a radical reworking of the initial idea. The scarcity of dated drawings or dated watermarks bedevils the establishment of a precise chronology. A proposal for Christ Blessing the Children(RA 03/6091 not in exhibition) has a watermark date of 1830 but Gibson says he did not start modelling the relief until the winter of 1861.

The drawings rather steal the show. The range of his techniques is nicely seen in the three drawings for Venus and Cupid (cat. nos 22,23 and 25) which go from a quickly drawn pen study (cat. no.22) to an exquisitely finished presentation drawing (cat. no.25). His study in Liverpool of William Roscoe’s collection of old master drawings and prints, particularly his chiaroscuro woodcuts, perhaps had a lasting influence.

His spell working in the yard of Messrs. Samuel and Thomas Franceys, the leading Liverpool monumental masons, gave Gibson excellent insight into the running of a business. Although the account books received by the RA are incomplete, surviving ones give a detailed insight into how the studio was run. It was dependent on an army of specialists who were brought in to do particular tasks such as casting the clay model into plaster, pointing, polishing and carving of architectural ornament. Everything seems to have been done on a piecework basis with few full-time staff. Gibson usually gives what he estimates to be his profit on the commissions. Although the mark up seems high Gibson’s fortune was only a fifth of the amount left by Francis Chantrey.

Annette Wickham, the RA’s Curator of works on paper, tactfully and sympathetically covers the history of The Gibson Gallery and the Gibson Bequest in her two catalogue contributions. As might be expected Sir Charles Eastlake, then PRA, who had known Gibson well in Rome in the 1820s was a key player in securing the bequest for the RA. Gibson with typical self-confidence in his art believed that his plasters, marbles and drawings could be ’employed….for the development and advancement of the study of drawing and modelling’ by RA students. Given what was happening in sculpture when the Gibson Gallery opened in 1877, it understandably never became a high priority for the RA. The speed of the decline of Gibson’s reputation after his death is perhaps reflected in the fact that the RA can trace no photograph or visual image of the gallery.

Next year will be the bicentenary of Gibson’s arrival in Rome in 1817 where except for the occasional visits to Great Britain he lived contentedly until his death. While he did not change his date of birthday (like Thorvaldsen) to the day he had first arrived in Rome, 1817 was for him the defining moment in his life. Perhaps the RA show could travel on to the National Museum and Galleries of Wales in Cardiff and to the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool to mark this. These institutions have significant holdings of Gibson marbles and he is an important figure in both Liverpool and Welsh culture.

Main image: John Gibson, John Gibson, The Meeting of Hero and Leander, c.1842, plaster 116×109×16cm., Bequeathed by John Gibson, 1866 (photo: © Royal Academy of Arts)

Exhibition catalogue

John Gibson: A British Sculptor in Rome, The Royal Academy of Arts, Burlington House, Piccadilly, London, 8 September – 18 December 2016.

Aurora Corio