Sir Alfred Gilbert
Signed A. Gilbert and stamped 92 on the base
Bronze with dark and lighter brown patina
Height: 14 1/4" (36 cm)
Conceived in 1881 and cast at a later date .
Merton Collection UK.
“I was born ambitious . . . I cannot remember one moment of my life from my earliest childhood, when some sort of aspiration did not inspire me.” - A.Gilbert, Confessions, 1907
Sir Alfred Gilbert was one of the most original and ambitious sculptors of the Victorian era and a key figure of the New Sculpture movement. Born in London in 1854, he was the eldest son of professional musicians, Charlotte Cole and Alfred Gilbert Sr. He was admitted into the Royal Academy Schools in 1873 and, in 1875, moved to Paris to study at the École des Beaux-Arts under the tutelage of sculptor, Pierre-Jules Cavelier.
Gilbert’s move abroad was fundamental in developing his artistic language. He travelled and worked in Italy, settling in Rome in 1878, where the Italian Renaissance had a lasting influence on his craft.
Gilbert's first publicly exhibited bronzes at the Royal Academy and Grosvenor Gallery were sent to London from Rome, causing great sensation among the British public. These included Perseus Arming (1882) and Icarus (1884), which cemented the young sculptor's reputation and contributed to the development of New Sculpture aesthetics.
Returning to London in 1885, at Frederic Leighton’s request, Gilbert was commissioned to design the Fawcett Memorial for Westminster Abbey. This was to be the first of many Royal commissions, including the design of the Queen Victoria Winchester jubilee memorial, exhibited in 1887 and now installed in the Great Hall at Winchester Castle.
In 1886, he began work on the Shaftesbury Memorial Fountain for Piccadilly Circus in London, a year later gaining the title of Associate of the Royal Academy. The iconic monument features a giant model of Anteros (now commonly known as Eros). This was the first-ever statue cast in aluminium in England.
Sir Alfred Gilbert, Anteros (Eros), Aluminium and Bronze, c.1885-1893, Piccadilly Circus, London
Gilbert contributed greatly to the development of casting techniques in the United Kingdom. The artist re-introduced the lost-wax process, which he had learnt during his time in Rome and which became one of the distinguishing features of his sculptures. His taste for polychrome and mixed-media work also led him to experiment with alternative metal alloys to cast in bronze.
In 1892, Gilbert started the most important of his Royal commissions: the Memorial to the Duke of Clarence, Prince Albert Victor, for St George’s Chapel in Windsor. The sculptor’s perfectionism, high studio costs and lack of business acumen led to increasing delays in the production of this and other commissions, severely crippling his monetary success. Gilbert declared bankruptcy in 1901, halting his work on the Windsor Memorial and exiling himself to Bruges for the next 25 years.
During his time in Belgium, Gilbert continued to produce and cast his most-famous statuettes, which were sought after by European and English collectors. His rift with the Royal family over the Windsor Memorial was finally resolved in 1926, and Gilbert was able to return to England to finish the work. In London, the artist also produced the Queen Alexandra Memorial (1932) on Marlborough Road – the last of his major public commissions. Gilbert incorporated the voluptuous swirling rhythms of the Art Nouveau style in this work and was knighted upon its completion in 1932. Gilbert was reinstated as a Royal Academician that same year and died two years later at the age of 80.
Commissioned in bronze by Sir Henry Doulton and first shown at the Grosvenor Gallery in 1882, Perseus Arming is one of Sir Alfred Gilbert’s most popular works. It was modelled in 1881 while Gilbert was living and studying in Rome, and received an honourable mention in 1883 at the Salon in Paris.
It’s evident that certain elements of Perseus Arming were influenced by Gilbert’s visit to Florence in 1879, when he encountered the works of the great Renaissance sculptors, Benvenuto Cellini and Donatello. This had a marked impact on Gilbert, inspiring him to adopt the classical subjects as well as the contrapposto (counterpoise) twist associated with the Italian Renaissance.
Benvenuto Cellini , Perseus with the Head of Medusa , ca.1545-1555, Bronze, Piazza della Signoria, Florence, Italy.
However, even at the young age of 25, Gilbert was more interested in the adaptation of sculpture rather than replication. He remarked at the time that although he was amazed by Cellini’s masterpiece, Perseus with the Head of Medusa, the work left him “somewhat cold”, as it failed to touch his “human sympathies”.
“At the time, my whole thoughts were of my artistic equipment for the future,” he wrote in 1903. “I conceived the idea that Perseus before becoming a hero was a mere mortal, and that he had to look to his equipment.” (Joseph Hatton, 1903, p.10)
With this mindset, Gilbert inserted himself into the sculpture, using the subject as a means of self-portrait. The piece is considered an analogy for Gilbert’s own burgeoning artistic career. We see Perseus looking over his shoulder to his winged sandals, checking his tools are fit for purpose. We can surmise that just as Perseus was a mere mortal before slaying Medusa, Gilbert believed that one day he too would master his tools and achieve greatness.
The Greek mythology of Perseus has been widely depicted among poets and artists for centuries. Perseus was a demigod, the illegitimate offspring of the god, Zeus, who seduced Perseus’ mortal mother, Danae. The mythology of Perseus is comprised of numerous heroic and thrilling tales, including the slaying of Medusa. Medusa’s gaze could petrify her victims, but Perseus’ polished shield protected him from petrification, enabling him to slay the Gorgon monster.
One of the many sons of the amorous Zeus, he also saved the beautiful Andromeda from a sea monster and won her hand in marriage. Gilbert modelled this Apollo-like youth influenced by Renaissance sculptors’ centuries before his time.
Gilbert created this work in three sizes. Each version was a separate sculpture, not a mechanical reduction, which was common during this period. Gilbert adjusted the proportions of the limbs and torso to suit each model and also made some subtle changes to the details. For instance, on the large version, the head of the handle of the sword is more elaborate than the middle-size version.
Detail of the large version
Detail of the middle size version
It is important to remember that the New School Sculptors made works in very small numbers and often for a specific client, so each work would be overseen in its creation by the sculptor. Gilbert was notorious for his embellishments and adjustments even in his smaller works. This present cast of Perseus Arming is an example of the popular middle size version measuring 14 ¼“ (36 cm).
Isabel McAllister, Alfred Gilbert (London: 1929),pp. 55-57, illus. p.24.
Jeremy Cooper, 19th Century Romantic Bronzes (London: 1975), pp.70-75.
Joseph Hatton, ‘The Life and Work of Alfred Gilbert, R.A., M.V.O., LL.D’ in The Art Journal (Princeton University: 1903)
M H Speilmann, British Sculpture and Sculptors of Today (London: 1901), pp, 75-85, illus. p 78.
Michael Forrest, Art Bronzes (Pennsylvania: 1988), p. 322
Susan Beattie, The New Sculpture (London: 1985) chapter 6 "The Search for a New Aesthetic", Perseus illus. plate 129
The Fine Art Society, British Sculpture 1850-1914, Exhibition 30 September-30 October (London: 1968) pp. 24-25, plates 57-81 and cover, Perseus illus. pl 58
The Fine Art Society, Gibson to Gilbert - British Sculpture 1840-1914, Exhibition, 2nd June -– 2nd July (London: 1992), pp 53-55, Perseus illus. plate 24