John Gibson, (19 June 1790 – 27 January 1866 (aged 75)) was a Welsh sculptor.
He was born near Conwy, Wales, his father being a market gardener. To his mother, whom he described as ruling his father and all the family, he owed the energy and determination which carried him over every obstacle.
When he was nine years old the family were on the point of emigrating to America, but Mrs Gibson’s determination stopped this project on their arrival at Liverpool, and there John was sent to school. The windows of the print shops of Liverpool riveted his attention, and, having no means to purchase the commonest print, he acquired the habit of committing to memory the outline of one figure after another, drawing it on his return home. Thus early he formed the system of observing, remembering and noting, sometimes even a month later, scenes and momentary actions from nature. In this way he, by degrees, transferred from the shop window to his paper at home the chief figures from Jacques-Louis David’s picture of Napoleon crossing the Alps, which, by particular request, he copied in bright colours as a frontispiece to a little schoolfellow’s new prayer-book, for sixpence.
At fourteen years of age Gibson was apprenticed to a firm of cabinetmakers, portrait and miniature painters in Liverpool requiring a premium which his father could not give. This employment so disgusted him that after a year (being interesting and engaging then apparently as in after-life) he persuaded his masters to change his indentures, and bind him to the wood-carving with which their furniture was ornamented. This satisfied him for another year, when an introduction to the foreman of some marble works, and the sight of a small head of Bacchus, unsettled him again. He had here caught a glimpse of his true vocation, and in his leisure hours began to model with such success that his efforts found their way to the notice of Mr Francis, the proprietor of the marble works. The wood-carving now, in turn, became his aversion; and having in vain entreated his masters to set him free, he instituted a strike. He was every day duly at his post, but did no work. Threats, and even a blow, moved him not.
At length the offer of £70 from Francis for the rebellious apprentice was accepted, and Gibson found himself at last bound to a master for the art of sculpture. Francis paid the lad 6 shillings a week, and received good prices for his works, sundry early works by the youthful sculptor, which exist in Liverpool and the neighbourhood, going by the name of Francis to this day. It was while thus apprenticed that Gibson attracted the notice of William Roscoe, the historian. For him Gibson executed a basso rilievo in terracotta, now in the Liverpool museum. Roscoe opened to the sculptor the treasures of his library at Allerton, by which he became acquainted with the designs of the great Italian masters.
Academy, London and Rome
A cartoon (now also in the Liverpool museum) of The Fall of the Angels marked this period. We must pass over his studies in anatomy, pursued gratuitously by the kindness of a medical man, and his introductions to families of refinement and culture in Liverpool. Roscoe was an excellent guide to the young aspirant, pointing to the Greeks as the only examples for a sculptor. Gibson here found his true vocation. A basso rilievo of Psyche carried by the Zephyrs was the result. He sent it to the Royal Academy, where John Flaxman, recognizing its merits, gave it an excellent place. Again he became unsettled. The ardent young breast panted for the great university of Art, Rome; and the first step to the desired goal was to London. Here he stood between the opposite advice and influence of Flaxman and Francis Legatt Chantrey, the one urging him to Rome as the highest school of sculpture in the world, the other maintaining that London could do as much for him. It is not difficult to guess which was Gibson’s choice. He arrived in Rome in October 1817, at a comparatively late age for a first visit. There he immediately experienced the charm and goodness of the true Italian character in the person of Antonio Canova, to whom he had introductions,the Venetian putting not only his experience in art but his purse at the English student’s service. Up to this time, though his designs show a fire and power of imagination in which no teaching is missed, Gibson had had no instruction, and had studied at no Academy. In Rome he first became acquainted with rules and technicalities, in which the merest tyro was before him. Canova introduced him into the Academy supported by Austria, and, as is natural with a mind like Gibson’s, the first sense of his deficiencies in common matters of practice was depressing to him. He saw Italian youths already excelling, as they all do, in the drawing of the figure. But the tables were soon turned. His first work in marble, a Sleeping Shepherd modelled from a beautiful Italian boy, has qualities of the highest order.
Gibson was soon launched, and distinguished patrons, first sent by Canova, made their way to his studio in the Via Fontanella. His aim, from the first day that he felt the power of the antique, was purity of character and beauty of form. He very seldom declined into the prettiness of Canova, and if he did not often approach the masculine strength which redeems the faults of Bertel Thorvaldsen, he more than once surpassed him even in that quality. We allude specially to his Hunter and Dog, and to the grand promise of his Theseus and Robber, which take rank as the highest productions of modern sculpture. He was essentially classic in feeling and aim, but here the habit of observation we have mentioned enabled him to snatch a grace beyond the reach of a mere imitator. His subjects were gleaned from the free actions of the splendid Italian people noticed in his walks, and afterwards baptised with such mythological names as best fitted them. Thus a girl kissing a child, with a sudden wring of the figure, over her shoulder, became a Nymph and Cupid; a woman helping her child with his foot on her hand on to her lap, a Bacchante and Faun; his Amazon Thrown from her Horse, one of his most original productions, was taken from an accident he witnessed to a female rider in a circus; and the Hunter holding in his Dog was also the result of a street scene. The prominence he gave among his favorite subjects to the little god of soft tribulations was no less owing to his facilities for observing the all-but-naked Italian children, in the hot summers he spent in Rome.
Gibson was elected R.A. in 1836, and bequeathed all his property and the contents of his studio to the Royal Academy, where his marbles and casts are open to the public as of 2005[update]. He died at Rome on 7 January 1866.
In monumental and portrait statues for public places, necessarily represented in postures of dignity and repose, Gibson was very happy. His largest effort of this class was the group of if Queen Victoria Supported by Justice and Clemency, in the Houses of Parliament, his finest work in the round. Of noble character also in execution and expression of thought is the Statue of William Huskisson with the bared arm; and no less, in effect of aristocratic ease and refinement, the seated figure of Dudley North.
But great as he was in the round, Gibson’s chief excellence lay in basso rilievo, and in this less-disputed sphere he obtained his greatest triumphs. His thorough knowledge is the horse, and his constant study of the Elgin Marbles, casts of which are in Rome, resulted in the two matchless bassi rilievi, the size of life, which belonged to Lord Fitzwilliam: The Hours Leading the Horses of the Sun, and Phaethon driving the Chariot of the Sun. Most of his monumental works are also in basso rilievo. Some of these are of a truly refined and pathetic character, such as the monument to the Countess of Leicester, or that to his friend Mrs Huskisson in Chichester Cathedral, and that of the Bonomi children. Passion, either indulged or repressed, was the natural impulse of his art: repressed as in the Hours Leading the Horses of the Sun, and as in the Hunter and Dog; indulged as in the meeting of Hero and Leander, a drawing executed before he left England. Gibson was the first to introduce color on his statues, first as a mere border to the drapery of a portrait statue of the queen, and by degrees extended to the entire flesh, as in his so-called Tinted Venus, and in the Cupid tormenting the Soul, in the Holford Collection.
Gibson’s individuality was too strongly marked to be affected by any outward circumstances. In all worldly affairs and business if daily life he was simple and guileless in the extreme; but was resolute in matters of principle, determined to walk straight at any cost of personal advantage. Unlike most artists, he was neither nervous nor irritable in temperament. It was said of him that he made the heathen mythology his religion; and indeed in serenity of nature, feeling for the beautiful, and a certain philosophy of mind, he may be accepted as a type of what a pure-minded Greek pagan, in the zenith of Greek art, may have been.
The letters between Gibson and Mrs. Henry Sandbach, granddaughter of Mr. Roscoe, and a sketch of his life that lady induced him to write, furnish the chief materials for his biography. See his Life, edited by Lady Eastlake.