Biography of John Gibson

John Gibson, Sculptor.

In most cases, the working man who raises himself to wealth and position, does so by means of trade, which is usually the natural outgrowth of his own special handicraft or calling. If he attains, not only to riches, but to distinction as well, it is in general by mechanical talent, the direction of the mind being naturally biased by the course of one’s own ordinary occupations. England has been exceptionally rich in great engineers and inventive geniuses of such humble origin–working men who have introduced great improvements in manufactures or communications; and our modern English civilization has been immensely influenced by the lives of these able and successful mechanical toilers. From Brindley, the constructor of the earliest great canal, to Joseph Gillott, the inventor of the very steel pen with which this book is written; from Arkwright the barber who fashioned the first spinning-machine, to Crompton the weaver, whose mule gave rise to the mighty Manchester cotton trade; from Newcomen, who made the first rough attempt at a steam-engine, to Stephenson, who sent the iron horse from end to end of the land,–the chief mechanical improvements in the country have almost all been due to the energy, intelligence, and skill of our labouring population. The English mind is intensely practical, and the English working man, for the last two centuries at least, has been mainly distinguished for his great mechanical aptitude, bursting out, here and there, in exceptional persons, under the form of exceedingly high inventive genius.

At our very doors, however, there is a small nation of largely different blood and of wholly different speech from our own; a nation forming a part of our own kingdom, even more closely than the Scotch or the Irish, and yet in some respects further from us in mind and habit of life than either; a nation marked rather by the poetical and artistic, than by the mechanical and practical temperament–the ancient and noble Welsh people. It would hardly be reasonable to expect from the Welsh exactly the same kind of success in life which we often find in English workmen; the aims and ideals of the two races are so distinct, and it must be frankly confessed the advantage is not always on the side of the Englishman. The Welsh peasants, living among their own romantic hills and valleys, speaking their own soft and exquisite language, treasuring their own plaintive and melodious poetry, have grown up with an intense love for beauty and the beautiful closely intwined into the very warp and woof of their inmost natures. They have almost always a natural refinement of manner and delicacy of speech which is unfortunately too often wanting amongst our rougher English labouring classes, especially in large towns. They are intensely musical, producing a very large proportion of the best English singers and composers. They are fond of literature, for which they have generally some natural capacity, and in which they exercise themselves to an extent unknown, probably, among people of their class in any other country. At the local meetings of bards (as they call themselves) in Wales, it is not at all uncommon to hear that the first prize for Welsh poetry has been carried off by a shepherd, and the first prize for Welsh prose composition by a domestic servant. In short, the susceptibilities of the race run rather toward art and imagination, than toward mere money-making and practical ingenuity.

John Gibson, sculptor, of Rome, as he loved to call himself, was a remarkable embodiment, in many ways, of this self-respecting, artistic, ideal Welsh peasant temperament. In a little village near Conway, in North Wales, there lived at the end of the last century a petty labouring market gardener of the name of Gibson, who knew and spoke no other tongue than his native Welsh. In 1790, his wife gave birth to a son whom they christened John, and who grew up, a workman’s child, under the shadow of the great castle, and among the exquisite scenery of the placid land-locked Conway river. John Gibson’s parents, like the mass of labouring Welsh people, were honest, God-fearing folk, with a great earnestness of principle, a profound love of truth, and a hatred of all mean or dirty actions. They brought up the boy in these respects in the way he should go; and when he was old he indeed did not depart from them. Throughout his life, John Gibson was remarkable for his calm, earnest, straightforward simplicity, a simplicity which seemed almost childish to those who could not understand so grand and uncommon and noble a nature as his.

From his babyhood, almost, the love of art was innate in the boy; and when he was only seven years old, he began to draw upon a slate a scene that particularly pleased him–a line of geese sailing upon the smooth glassy surface of a neighbouring pond. He drew them as an ordinary child almost always does draw–one goose after another, in profile, as though they were in procession, without any attempt at grouping or perspective in any way. His mother praised the first attempt, saying to him in Welsh, “Indeed, Jack, this is very like the geese;” and Jack, encouraged by her praise, decided immediately to try again. But not being an ordinary child, he determined this time to do better; he drew the geese one behind the other as one generally sees them in actual nature. His mother then asked him to draw a horse; and “after gazing long and often upon one,” he says, “I at last ventured to commit him to the slate.” When he had done so, the good mother was even more delighted. So, to try his childish art, she asked him to put a rider on the horse’s back. Jack went out once more, “carefully watched men on horseback,” and then returning, made his sketch accordingly. In this childish reminiscence one can see already the first workings of that spirit which made Gibson afterwards into the greatest sculptor of all Europe. He didn’t try even then to draw horse or man by mere guess-work; he went out and studied the subject at first hand. There are in that single trait two great elements of success in no matter what line of life–supreme carefulness, and perfect honesty of workmanship.

When Jack was nine years old, his father determined to emigrate to America, and for that purpose went to Liverpool to embark for the United States. But when he had got as far as the docks, Mrs. Gibson, good soul, frightened at the bigness of the ships (a queer cause of alarm), refused plumply ever to put her foot on one of them. So her husband, a dutiful man with a full sense of his wife’s government upon him, consented unwillingly to stop in Liverpool, where he settled down to work again as a gardener. Hitherto, Jack and his brothers had spoken nothing but Welsh; but at Liverpool he was put to school, and soon learned to express himself correctly and easily in English. Liverpool was a very different place for young Jack Gibson from Conway: there were no hills and valleys there, to be sure, but there were shops–such shops! all full of the most beautiful and highly coloured prints and caricatures, after the fashion of the days when George IV. was still Prince Regent. All his spare time he now gave up to diligently copying the drawings which he saw spread out in tempting array before him in the shop-windows. Flattening his little nose against the glass panes, he used to look long and patiently at a single figure, till he had got every detail of its execution fixed firmly on his mind’s eye; and then he would go home hastily and sketch it out at once while the picture was still quite fresh in his vivid memory. Afterwards he would return to the shop-window, and correct his copy by the original till it was completely finished. No doubt the boy did all this purely for his own amusement; but at the same time he was quite unconsciously teaching himself to draw under a very careful and accurate master–himself. Already, however, he found his paintings had patrons, for he sold them when finished to the other boys; and once he got as much as sixpence for a coloured picture of Napoleon crossing the Alps–“the largest sum,” he says brightly in his memoirs long after, “I had yet received for a work of art.”

Opportunities always arise for those who know how to use them. Little Jack Gibson used to buy his paper and colours at a stationer’s in Liverpool, who one day said to him kindly, “My lad, you’re a constant customer here: I suppose you’re a painter.” “Yes, sir,” Jack answered, with childish self-complacency, “I do paint.” The stationer, who had himself studied at the Royal Academy, asked him to bring his pictures on view; and when Jack did so, his new friend, Mr. Tourmeau, was so much pleased with them that he lent the boy drawings to copy, and showed him how to draw for himself from plaster casts. These first amateur lessons must have given the direction to all Gibson’s later life: for when the time came for him to choose a trade, he was not set to till the ground like his father, but was employed at once on comparatively artistic and intelligent handicraft.

Jack was fourteen when his father apprenticed him to a firm of cabinet-makers. For the first year, he worked away contentedly at legs and mouldings; but as soon as he had learnt the rudiments of the trade he persuaded his masters to change his indentures, and let him take the more suitable employment of carving woodwork for ornamental furniture. He must have been a good workman and a promising boy, one may be sure, or his masters would never have countenanced such a revolutionary proceeding on the part of a raw apprentice. Young Gibson was delighted with his new occupation, and pursued it so eagerly that he carved even during his leisure hours from plaster casts. But after another year, as ill-luck or good fortune would have it, he happened to come across a London marble-cutter, who had come down to Liverpool to carve flowers in marble for a local firm. The boy was enchanted with his freer and more artistic work; when the marble-cutter took him over a big yard, and showed him the process of modelling and cutting, he began to feel a deep contempt for his own stiff and lifeless occupation of wood-carving. Inspired with the desire to learn this higher craft, he bought some clay, took it home, and moulded it for himself after all the casts he could lay his hands on. Mr. Francis, the proprietor of the marble works, had a German workman in his employ of the name of Luge, who used to model small figures, chiefly, no doubt, for monumental purposes. Young Gibson borrowed a head of Bacchus that Luge had composed, and made a copy of it himself in clay. Mr. Francis was well pleased with this early attempt, and also with a clever head of Mercury in marble, which Gibson carved in his spare moments.

The more the lad saw of clay and marble, the greater grew his distaste for mere woodwork. At last, he determined to ask Mr. Francis to buy out his indentures from the cabinet-makers, and let him finish his apprenticeship as a sculptor. But unfortunately the cabinet-makers found Gibson too useful a person to be got rid of so easily: they said he was the most industrious lad they had ever had; and so his very virtues seemed as it were to turn against him. Not so, really: Mr. Francis thought so well of the boy that he offered the masters L70 to be quit of their bargain; and in the end, Gibson himself having made a very firm stand in the matter, he was released from his indentures and handed over finally to Mr. Francis and a sculptor’s life.

And now the eager boy was at last “truly happy.” He had to model all day long, and he worked away at it with a will. Shortly after he went to Mr. Francis’s yard, a visitor came upon business, a magnificent-looking old man, with snowy hair and Roman features. It was William Roscoe, the great Liverpool banker, himself a poor boy who had risen, and who had found time not only to build up for himself an enormous fortune, but also to become thoroughly well acquainted with literature and art by the way. Mr. Roscoe had written biographies of Lorenzo de Medici, the great Florentine, and of Leo X., the art-loving pope; and throughout his whole life he was always deeply interested in painting and sculpture and everything that related to them. He was a philanthropist, too, who had borne his part bravely in the great struggle for the abolition of the slave trade; and to befriend a struggling lad of genius like John Gibson was the very thing that was nearest and dearest to his benevolent heart. Mr. Francis showed Roscoe the boy’s drawings and models; and Roscoe’s appreciative eye saw in them at once the visible promise of great things to be. He had come to order a chimney-piece for his library at Allerton, where his important historical works were all composed; and he determined that the clever boy should have a chief hand in its production. A few days later he returned again with a valuable old Italian print. “I want you to make a bas-relief in baked clay,” he said to Gibson, “from this print for the centre of my mantelpiece.” Gibson was overjoyed. The print was taken from a fresco of Raphael’s in the Vatican at Rome, and Gibson’s work was to reproduce it in clay in low relief, as a sculpture picture. He did so entirely to his new patron’s satisfaction, and this his first serious work is now duly preserved in the Liverpool Institution which Mr. Roscoe had been mainly instrumental in founding.

Roscoe had a splendid collection of prints and drawings at Allerton; and he invited the clever Welsh lad over there frequently, and allowed him to study them all to his heart’s content. To a lad like John Gibson, such an opportunity of becoming acquainted with the works of Raphael and Michael Angelo was a great and pure delight. Before he was nineteen, he began to think of a big picture which he hoped to paint some day; and he carried it out as well as he was able in his own self-taught fashion. For as yet, it must be remembered, Gibson had had no regular artistic instruction: there was none such, indeed, to be had at all in Liverpool in his day; and there was no real art going on in the town in any way. Mr. Francis, his master, was no artist; nor was there anybody at the works who could teach him: for as soon as Mr. Francis found out the full measure of Gibson’s abilities, he dismissed his German artist Luge, and put the clever boy entirely in his place. At this time, Gibson was only receiving six shillings a week as wages; but Mr. Francis got good prices for many of his works, and was not ashamed even to put his own name upon the promising lad’s artistic performances.

Mr. Roscoe did not merely encourage the young sculptor; he set him also on the right road for ultimate success. He urged Gibson to study anatomy, without which no sculpture worthy of the name is possible. Gibson gladly complied, for he knew that Michael Angelo had been a great anatomist, and Michael was just at that moment the budding sculptor’s idol and ideal. But how could he learn? A certain Dr. Vose was then giving lectures on anatomy to young surgeons at Liverpool, and on Roscoe’s recommendation he kindly admitted the eager student gratis to his dissecting-room. Gibson dissected there with a will in all his spare moments, and as he put his mind into the work he soon became well versed in the construction of the human body.

From the day that Gibson arrived at man’s estate, the great dream of his life was to go to Rome. For Rome is to art what London is to industry–the metropolis in its own way of the entire earth. But travelling in 1810 cost a vast deal of money; and the poor Liverpool marble-cutter (for as yet he was really nothing more) could hardly hope to earn the immense sum that such an expedition would necessarily cost him. So for six years more he went on working at Liverpool in his own native untaught fashion, doing his best to perfect himself, but feeling sadly the lack of training and competition. One of the last works he executed while still in Mr. Francis’s service was a chimney-piece for Sir John Gladstone, father of the future premier. Sir John was so pleased with the execution, that he gave the young workman ten pounds as a present. But in spite of occasional encouragement like this, Gibson felt himself at Liverpool, as he says, “chained down by the leg, and panting for liberation.”

In 1817, when he was just twenty-seven, he determined to set off to London. He took with him good introductions from Mr. Roscoe to Mr. Brougham (afterwards Lord Chancellor), to Christie, the big picture-dealer, and to several other influential people. Later on, Roscoe recommended him to still more important leaders in the world of art–Flaxman the great sculptor, Benjamin West, the Quaker painter and President of the Royal Academy, and others of like magnitude. Mr. Watson Taylor, a wealthy art patron, gave Gibson employment, and was anxious that he should stop in London. But Gibson wanted more than employment; he wanted to learn, to perfect himself, to become great in his art. He could do that nowhere but at Rome, and to Rome therefore he was determined to go. Mr. Taylor still begged him to wait a little. “Go to Rome I will,” Gibson answered boldly, “even if I have to go there on foot.”

He was not quite reduced to this heroic measure, however, for his Liverpool friends made up a purse of L150 for him (we may be sure it was repaid later on); and with that comparatively large sum in his pocket the young stone-cutter started off gaily on his continental tour, from which he was not to return for twenty-seven years. He drove from Paris to Rome, sharing a carriage with a Scotch gentleman; and when he arrived in the Pope’s city (as it then was) he knew absolutely not a single word of Italian, or of any other language on earth save Welsh and English. In those days, Canova, the great Venetian sculptor, was the head of artistic society in Rome; and as all society in Rome is more or less artistic, he might almost be said to have led the whole life of the great and lively city. Indeed, the position of such a man in Italy resembles far more that of a duke in England than of an artist as we here are accustomed to think of him. Gibson had letters of introduction to this prince of sculptors from his London friends; and when he went to present them, he found Canova in his studio, surrounded by his numerous scholars and admirers. The Liverpool stone-cutter had brought a few of his drawings with him, and Canova examined them with great attention. Instinctively he recognized the touch of genius. When he had looked at them keenly for a few minutes, he turned kindly to the trembling young man, and said at once, “Come to me alone next week, for I want to have a talk with you.”

On the appointed day, Gibson, quivering with excitement, presented himself once more at the great master’s studio. Canova was surrounded as before by artists and visitors; but in a short time he took Gibson into a room by himself, and began to speak with him in his very broken English. Many artists came to Rome, he said, with very small means, and that perhaps might be Gibson’s case. “Let me have the gratification, then,” he went on, “of assisting you to prosecute your studies. I am rich. I am anxious to be of use to you. Let me forward you in your art as long as you stay in Rome.”

Gibson replied, with many stammerings, that he hoped his slender means would suffice for his personal needs, but that if Canova would only condescend to give him instruction, to make him his pupil, to let him model in his studio, he would be eternally grateful. Canova was one of the most noble and lovable of men. He acceded at once to Gibson’s request, and Gibson never forgot his kind and fatherly assistance. “Dear generous master,” the Welsh sculptor wrote many years after, when Canova had long passed away, “I see you before me now. I hear your soft Venetian dialect, and your kindly words inspiring my efforts and gently correcting my defects. My heart still swells with grateful recollection of you.”

Canova told his new pupil to devote a few days first to seeing the sights of Rome; but Gibson was impatient to begin at once. “I shall be at your studio to-morrow morning,” the ardent Welshman said; and he kept his word. Canova, pleased with so much earnestness and promptitude, set him to work forthwith upon a clay model from his own statue of the Pugilist. Gibson went to the task with a will, moulding the clay as best he could into shape; but he still knew so little of the technical ways of regular sculptors that he tried to model this work from the clay alone, though its pose was such that it could not possibly hold together without an iron framework. Canova saw his error and smiled, but let him go on so that he might learn his business by experience. In a day or two the whole thing, of course, collapsed by its own weight; and then Canova called in a blacksmith and showed the eager beginner how the mechanical skeleton was formed with iron bars, and interlacing crosses of wood and wire. This was quite a new idea to Gibson, who had modelled hitherto only in his own self-taught fashion with moist clay, letting it support its own weight as best it might. Another pupil then fleshed out the iron skeleton with clay, and roughly shaped it to the required figure, so that it stood as firm as a rock for Gibson to work upon. The new hand turned to vigorously once more; and, in spite of his seeming rawness, finished the copy so well that Canova admitted him at once to the Academy to model from life. At this Academy Canova himself, who loved art far more than money, used to attend twice a week to give instruction to students without receiving any remuneration whatsoever. It is of such noble men as this that the world of art is largely made up–that world which we too-practical English have always undervalued or even despised.

Gibson’s student period at Rome under Canova was a very happy episode in a uniformly happy and beautiful life. His only trouble was that he had not been able to come there earlier. Singularly free from every taint of envy (like all the great sculptors of his time), he could not help regretting when he saw other men turning out work of such great excellence while he was still only a learner. “When I observed the power and experience of youths much younger than myself,” he says in his generous appreciative fashion, “their masterly manner of sketching in the figure, and their excellent imitation of nature, my spirits fell many degrees, and I felt humbled and unhappy.” He need not have done so, for the man who thus distrusts his own work is always the truest workman; it is only fools or poor creatures who are pleased and self-satisfied with their own first bungling efforts. But the great enjoyment of Rome to Gibson consisted in the free artistic society which he found there. At Liverpool, he had felt almost isolated; there was hardly anybody with whom he could talk on an equality about his artistic interests; nobody but himself cared about the things that pleased and engrossed his earnest soul the most. But at Rome, there was a great society of artists; every man’s studio was open to his friends and fellow-workers; and a lively running fire of criticism went on everywhere about all new works completed or in progress. He was fortunate, too, in the exact moment of his residence: Rome then contained at once, besides himself, the two truest sculptors of the present century, Canova the Venetian, and Thorwaldsen the Dane. Both these great masters were singularly free from jealousy, rivalry, or vanity. In their perfect disinterestedness and simplicity of character they closely resembled Gibson himself. The ardent and pure-minded young Welshman, who kept himself so unspotted from the world in his utter devotion to his chosen art, could not fail to derive an elevated happiness from his daily intercourse with these two noble and sympathetic souls.

After Gibson had been for some time in Canova’s studio, his illustrious master told him that the sooner he took to modelling a life-size figure of his own invention, the better. So Gibson hired a studio (with what means he does not tell us in his short sketch of his own life) close to Canova’s, so that the great Venetian was able to drop in from time to time and assist him with his criticism and judgment. How delightful is the friendly communion of work implied in all this graceful artistic Roman life! How different from the keen competition and jealous rivalry which too often distinguishes our busy money-getting English existence! In 1819, two years after Gibson’s arrival at Rome, he began to model his Mars and Cupid, a more than life-size group, on which he worked patiently and lovingly for many months. When it was nearly finished, one day a knock came at the studio door. After the knock, a handsome young man entered, and announced himself brusquely as the Duke of Devonshire. “Canova sent me,” he said, “to see what you were doing.” Gibson wasn’t much accustomed to dukes in those days–he grew more familiar with them later on–and we may be sure the poor young artist’s heart beat a little more fiercely than usual when the stranger asked him the price of his Mars and Cupid in marble. The sculptor had never yet sold a statue, and didn’t know how much he ought to ask; but after a few minutes’ consideration he said, “Five hundred pounds. But, perhaps,” he added timidly, “I have said too much.” “Oh no,” the duke answered, “not at all too much;” and he forthwith ordered (or, as sculptors prefer to say, commissioned) the statue to be executed for him in marble. Gibson was delighted, and ran over at once to tell Canova, thinking he had done a splendid stroke of business. Canova shared his pleasure, till the young man came to the price; then the older sculptor’s face fell ominously. “Five hundred pounds!” he cried in dismay; “why, it won’t cover the cost of marble and workmanship.” And so indeed it turned out; for when the work was finished, it had stood Gibson in L520 for marble and expenses, and left him twenty pounds out of pocket in the end. So he got less than nothing after all for his many months of thought and labour over clay and marble alike.

Discouraging as this beginning must have proved, it was nevertheless in reality the first important step in a splendid and successful career. It is something to have sold your first statue, even if you sell it at a disadvantage. In 1821 Gibson modelled a group of Pysche and the Zephyrs. That winter Sir George Beaumont, himself a distinguished amateur artist, and a great patron of art, came to Rome; and Canova sent him to see the young Welshman’s new composition. Sir George asked the price, and Gibson, this time more cautious, asked for time to prepare an estimate, and finally named L700. To his joy, Sir George immediately ordered it, and also introduced many wealthy connoisseurs to the rising sculptor’s studio. That same winter, also, the Duke of Devonshire came again, and commissioned a bas-relief in marble (which is now at Chatsworth House, with many other of Gibson’s works), at a paying price, too, which was a great point for the young man’s scanty exchequer.

Unfortunately, Gibson has not left us any notice of how he managed to make both ends meet during this long adult student period at Rome. Information on that point would indeed be very interesting; but so absorbed was the eager Welshman always in his art, that he seldom tells us anything at all about such mere practical every-day matters as bread and butter. To say the truth, he cared but little about them. Probably he had lived in a very simple penurious style during his whole studenthood, taking his meals at a caffe or eating-house, and centering all his affection and ideas upon his beloved studio. But now wealth and fame began to crowd in upon him, almost without the seeking. Visitors to Rome began to frequent the Welshman’s rooms, and the death of “the great and good Canova,” which occurred in 1822, while depriving Gibson of a dearly loved friend, left him, as it were, that great master’s successor. Towards him and Thorwaldsen, indeed, Gibson always cherished a most filial regard. “May I not be proud,” he writes long after, “to have known such men, to have conversed with them, watched all their proceedings, heard all their great sentiments on art? Is it not a pleasure to be so deeply in their debt for instruction?” And now the flood of visitors who used to flock to Canova’s studio began to transfer their interest to Gibson’s. Commission after commission was offered him, and he began to make money faster than he could use it. His life had always been simple and frugal–the life of a working man with high aims and grand ideals: he hardly knew now how to alter it. People who did not understand Gibson used to say in his later days that he loved money, because he made much and spent little. Those who knew him better say rather that he worked much for the love of art, and couldn’t find much to do with his money when he had earned it. He was singularly indifferent to gain; he cared not what he eat or drank; he spent little on clothes, and nothing on entertainments; but he paid his workmen liberally or even lavishly; he allowed one of his brothers more than he ever spent upon himself, and he treated the other with uniform kindness and generosity. The fact is, Gibson didn’t understand money, and when it poured in upon him in large sums, he simply left it in the hands of friends, who paid him a very small percentage on it, and whom he always regarded as being very kind to take care of the troublesome stuff on his account. In matters of art, Gibson was a great master; in matters of business, he was hardly more than a simple-minded child.

Sometimes queer incidents occurred at Gibson’s studio from the curious ignorance of our countrymen generally on the subject of art. One day, a distinguished and wealthy Welsh gentleman called on the sculptor, and said that, as a fellow Welshman, he was anxious to give him a commission. As he spoke, he cast an admiring eye on Gibson’s group of Psyche borne by the Winds. Gibson was pleased with his admiration, but rather taken aback when the old gentleman said blandly, “If you were to take away the Psyche and put a dial in the place, it’d make a capital design for a clock.” Much later, the first Duke of Wellington called upon him at Rome and ordered a statue of Pandora, in an attitude which he described. Gibson at once saw that the Duke’s idea was a bad one, and told him so. By-and-by, on a visit to England, Gibson waited on the duke, and submitted photographs of the work he had modelled. “But, Mr. Gibson,” said the old soldier, looking at them curiously, “you haven’t followed my idea.” “No,” answered the sculptor, “I have followed my own.” “You are very stubborn,” said Wellington. “Duke,” answered the sturdy sculptor, “I am a Welshman, and all the world knows that we are a stubborn race.” The Iron Duke ought to have been delighted to find another man as unbending as himself, but he wasn’t; and in the end he refused the figure, which Gibson sold instead to Lady Marian Alford.

For twenty-seven years Gibson remained at Rome, working assiduously at his art, and rising gradually but surely to the very first place among then living sculptors. His studio now became the great centre of all fashionable visitors to Rome. Still, he made no effort to get rich, though he got rich without wishing it; he worked on merely for art’s sake, not for money. He would not do as many sculptors do, keep several copies in marble of his more popular statues for sale; he preferred to devote all his time to new works. “Gibson was always absorbed in one subject,” says Lady Eastlake, “and that was the particular work or part of a work–were it but the turn of a corner of drapery–which was then under his modelling hands. Time was nothing to him; he was long and fastidious.” His favourite pupil, Miss Hosmer, once expressed regret to him that she had been so long about a piece of work on which she was engaged. “Always try to do the best you can,” Gibson answered. “Never mind how long you are upon a work–no. No one will ask how long you have been, except fools. You don’t care what fools think.”

During his long life at Rome, he was much cheered by the presence and assistance of his younger
brother, Mr. Ben, as he always called him, who was also a sculptor, though of far less merit than John Gibson himself. Mr. Ben came to Rome younger than John, and he learned to be a great classical scholar, and to read those Greek and Latin books which John only knew at second hand, but from whose beautiful fanciful stories of gods and heroes he derived all the subjects for his works of statuary. His other brother, Solomon, a strange, wild, odd man, in whom the family genius had degenerated into mere eccentricity, never did anything for his own livelihood, but lived always upon John Gibson’s generous bounty. In John’s wealthy days, he and Mr. Ben used to escape every summer from the heat and dust of Rome–which is unendurable in July and August–to the delightfully cool air and magnificent mountain scenery of the Tyrol. “I cannot tell you how well I am,” he writes on one of these charming visits, “and so is Mr. Ben. Every morning we take our walks in the woods here. I feel as if I were new modelled.” Another passage in one of these summer tourist letters well deserves to be copied here, as it shows the artist’s point of view of labours like Telford’s and Stephenson’s. “From Bormio,” he says, “the famous road begins which passes over the Stelvio into the Tyrol; the highest carriage-road in the world. We began the ascent early in the morning. It is magnificent and wonderful. Man shows his talents, his power over great difficulties, in the construction of these roads. Behold the cunning little workman–he comes, he explores, and he says, ‘Yes, I will send a carriage and horses over these mighty mountains;’ and, by Jove, you are drawn up among the eternal snows. I am a great admirer of these roads.”

In 1844 Gibson paid his first visit to England, a very different England indeed to the one he had left twenty-seven years earlier. His Liverpool friends, now thoroughly proud of their stone-cutter, insisted upon giving him a public banquet. Glasgow followed the same example; and the simple-minded sculptor, unaccustomed to such honours, hardly knew how to bear his blushes decorously upon him. During this visit, he received a command to execute a statue of the queen. Gibson was at first quite disconcerted at such an awful summons. “I don’t know how to behave to queens,” he said. “Treat her like a lady,” said a friend; and Gibson, following the advice, found it sufficiently answered all the necessities of the situation. But when he went to arrange with the Prince Consort about the statue, he was rather puzzled what he should do about measuring the face, which he always did for portrait sculpture with a pair of compasses. All these difficulties were at last smoothed over; and Gibson was also permitted to drape the queen’s statue in Greek costume, for in his artistic conscientiousness he absolutely refused to degrade sculpture by representing women in the fashionable gown of the day, or men in swallow-tail coats and high collars.

Another work which Gibson designed during this visit possesses for us a singular and exceptional interest. It was a statue of George Stephenson, to be erected at Liverpool. Thus, by a curious coincidence, the Liverpool stone-cutter was set to immortalize the features and figure of the Killingworth engine-man. Did those two great men, as they sat together in one room, sculptor and sitter, know one another’s early history and strange struggles, we wonder? Perhaps not; but if they did, it must surely have made a bond of union between them. At any rate, Gibson greatly admired Stephenson, just as he had admired the Stelvio road. “I will endeavour to give him a look capable of action and energy,” he said; “but he must be contemplative, grave, simple. He is a good subject. I wish to make him look like an Archimedes.”

If Gibson admired Stephenson, however, he did not wholly admire Stephenson’s railways. The England he had left was the England of mail-coaches. In Italy, he had learnt to travel by carriage, after the fashion of the country; but these new whizzing locomotives, with their time-tables, and their precision, and their inscrutable mysteries of shunts and junctions, were quite too much for his simple, childish, old-world habits. He had a knack of getting out too soon or too late, which often led him into great confusion. Once, when he wanted to go to Chichester, he found himself landed at Portsmouth, and only discovered his mistake when, on asking the way to the cathedral, he was told there was no cathedral in the town at all. Another story of how he tried to reach Wentworth, Lord Fitzwilliam’s place, is best told in his own words. “The train soon stopped at a small station, and, seeing some people get out, I also descended; when, in a moment, the train moved on –faster and faster–and left me standing on the platform. I walked a few paces backward and forward in disagreeable meditation. ‘I wish to Heaven,’ thought I to myself, ‘that I was on my way back to Rome with a postboy.’ Then I observed a policeman darting his eyes upon me, as if he would look me through. Said I to the fellow, ‘Where is that cursed train gone to? It’s off with my luggage and here am I.’ The man asked me the name of the place where I took my ticket. ‘I don’t remember,’ said I. ‘How should I know the name of any of these places?–it’s as long as my arm. I’ve got it written down somewhere.’ ‘Pray, sir,’ said the man, after a little pause, ‘are you a foreigner?’ ‘No,’ I replied, ‘I am not a foreigner; I’m a sculptor.'”

The consequence of this almost childish carelessness was that Gibson had always to be accompanied on his long journeys either by a friend or a courier. While Mr. Ben lived, he usually took his brother in charge to some extent; and the relation between them was mutual, for while John Gibson found the sculpture, Mr. Ben found the learning, so that Gibson used often to call him “my classical dictionary.” In 1847, however, Mr. Ben was taken ill. He got a bad cold, and would have no doctor, take no medicine. “I consider Mr. Ben,” his brother writes, “as one of the most amiable of human beings–too good for this world–but he will take no care against colds, and when ill he is a stubborn animal.” That summer Gibson went again to England, and when he came back found Mr. Ben no better. For four years the younger brother lingered on, and in 1851 died suddenly from the effects of a fall in walking. Gibson was thus left quite alone, but for his pupil Miss Hosmer, who became to him more than a daughter.

During his later years Gibson took largely to tinting his statues–colouring them faintly with flesh-tones and other hues like nature; and this practice he advocated with all the strength of his single-minded nature. All visitors to the great Exhibition of 1862 will remember his beautiful tinted Venus, which occupied the place of honour in a light temple erected for the purpose by another distinguished artistic Welshman, Mr. Owen Jones, who did much towards raising the standard of taste in the English people.

In January, 1866, John Gibson had a stroke of paralysis, from which he never recovered. He died within the month, and was buried in the English cemetery at Rome. Both his brothers had died before him; and he left the whole of his considerable fortune to the Royal Academy in England. An immense number of his works are in the possession of the Academy, and are on view there throughout the year.

John Gibson’s life is very different in many respects from that of most other great working men whose story is told in this volume. Undoubtedly, he was deficient in several of those rugged and stern qualities to which English working men have oftenest owed their final success. But there was in him a simple grandeur of character, a purity of soul, and an earnestness of aim which raised him at once far above the heads of most among those who would have been the readiest to laugh at and ridicule him. Besides his exquisite taste, his severe love of beauty, and his marvellous power of expressing the highest ideals of pure form, he had one thing which linked him to all the other great men whose lives we have here recounted–his steadfast and unconquerable personal energy. In one sense it may be said that he was not a practical man; and yet in another and higher sense, what could possibly be more practical than this accomplished resolve of the poor Liverpool stone-cutter to overcome all obstacles, to go to Rome, and to make himself into a great sculptor? It is indeed a pity that in writing for Englishmen of the present day such a life should even seem for a moment to stand in need of a practical apology. For purity, for guilelessness, for exquisite appreciation of the true purpose of sculpture as the highest embodiment of beauty of form, John Gibson’s art stands unsurpassed in all the annals of modern statuary.



MLA Source Citation:

AccessGenealogy.com. Web. 2 October 2014. http://www.accessgenealogy.com/genealogy/biography-of-john-gibson.htm - Last updated on Oct 4th, 2012


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