Men I Have Painted/Alfred Gilbert
ALFRED GILBERT is the modern Cellini and the greatest of all English sculptors. He has more originality than Alfred Stevens, and surpasses him beyond measure in knowledge and technical skill—in this last he is unrivalled. Cellini has given us the Perseus and a number of small pieces; Gilbert has enriched the field of English sculpture with many noble monuments and a series of decorative pieces that surpass in design and execution the best of Cellini's table ornaments.
When Gilbert was working upon the Lord Mayor's chain, I asked him if he did not fear that the jeweller's art, that then seemed to fascinate him, would interfere with his hand and eye, and tend to diminish the loftiness of his conception of great monuments. His reply was that the study of small things would enlarge his vision and improve his technical ability to deal with big work.
He was at this time engaged upon the construction of the fountain that now stands in Piccadilly Circus. As I looked at this work, looming large in the confined space of the studio, I felt instinctively that when erected in the open it would so diminish in appearance as to be dwarfed by the surrounding buildings. He did not agree with me, and explained that it was sometimes moved out into the street, behind the studio, in order that its scale might be accurately gauged. The street was smaller than the studio, making the test useless. His attention was being expended upon the helmeted boy holding the gurnet. The details of the head and fins of the fish were to him some of Nature's jewellery, and on these he devoted his love of subtle mimicry. Fishes and fins, fresh and stale, wet and dry, littered the tables and stands around him. Cherubs in helmets, holding real and plaster gurnets in every conceivable position, were poised upon the fountain. On this his genius was not thrown away, for the helmeted boy and his fish, repeated at every corner of the base of what is sometimes ironically called the "pulpit," form the masterpiece of the fountain. My anticipation that the mass of the fountain would be on too small a scale for its situation was realized. A work that would have graced a terrace in a nobleman's garden is out of place in Piccadilly.
The tomb of King George's brother, the Duke of Clarence, in Windsor Chapel, is, perhaps, a justification of Gilbert's contention that the study of detail in precious ornamentation may be an aid to the sculptor; for in this superb work the master has lavished all his affection upon the figures in armour that stand as guardians to the dead Prince within the catafalque. Here the scale is proportioned to the site.
In the memorial to Queen Victoria, Gilbert's sense of decoration, as well as of proportion, enabled him to disguise, by a masterly arrangement of the draperies of the royal robes, the short and corpulent figure of the sovereign, and to present Her Majesty in a manner fitting the dignity of the wearer of the crown of the Empire. Here realism is not outraged or disregarded, it is merely embellished by things as real as the Queen herself, and which add to the beauty of the monument.
No one but Rodin could have presented a naked Victor Hugo without shocking us; but genius will accomplish miracles of audacity where talent does not dare to go beyond a conventional formula.
One of Gilbert's early works, The Sleeper, I am told, is destroyed. Those who remember the figure of the young girl, relaxed in slumber, and almost sinking into the great arm-chair under the spell of the bird that broods over her unconscious form, will be glad to have been privileged to see one of the glories of English art before it disappeared for ever.
Gilbert is a stoutly built, powerful man with a strong, square head and masterful jaw. There is in type a striking resemblance to Beethoven; and this resemblance finds justification in the musical ability of the sculptor, inherited from his musician father.
It is enough now to touch lightly upon the artist's work; to treat of the man would be beyond the knowledge and power of any one writer. Those who knew him intimately are dead. Like Cellini, he alone is capable of revealing the vicissitudes of a career that would have surpassed the Italian master's amazing life, had the modern English genius lived in the sixteenth century.