John Gibson RA (1790 - 1866)

RA Collection: People and Organisations

Known by his contemporaries as “Gibson of Rome”, John Gibson was a hugely successful Victorian sculptor who spent the majority of his life in Italy.

John Gibson was born near Conwy, North Wales, but moved with his family to Liverpool aged nine. As a teenager he was apprenticed to a cabinet-maker, then a stonemason, but remained determined to pursue a career as a sculptor. In 1816 he had two works exhibited in the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition and the following year local patrons funded his travel to Rome, setting him up with an introduction to the Europe’s most famous sculptor Antonio Canova.

Studying under Canova, Gibson’s talent quickly developed and he completed his first marble sculpture, Sleeping Shepherd Boy, in 1824. He had intended to stay for only two years, but found himself captivated by the city and soon set up his own studio. Gibson continued to send works back to Britain for exhibitions, cultivating an international reputation as a neoclassical sculptor.

In 1833 Gibson was made an Associate of the Royal Academy, despite not meeting the criterion of being resident in Britain. On his election as a full Royal Academician three years later, he submitted a statue of Narcissus as his Diploma Work. Like many of Gibson’s sculptures, the subject is one from classical mythology but the figure was initially inspired by a scene Gibson observed in Rome. While out walking on the Pincian Hill, the artist caught sight of a boy looking at his reflection in water, reminding him of the story of Narcissus.

After 27 years in Rome, Gibson visited Britain in 1844. He was introduced to Queen Victoria and Prince Albert and enjoyed their patronage for the rest of his life. Gibson produced several portraits of Queen Victoria, including a bust and a full-length statue. He also made a marble relief of Cupid and Psyche that The Queen gave to her husband as a Christmas present.

In the 1850s, Gibson began experimenting with polychrome, or coloured, sculpture as his research indicated that many Ancient Greek statues were originally painted. His Tinted Venus caused a sensation at the 1862 Great Exhibition, provoking fierce debate about the use of colour in sculpture. Gibson himself was devoted to the work and resisted handing it over to its buyer for four years after the purchase was made.

On his death in 1866, Gibson bequeathed the contents of his studio, a large selection of his works and a large sum of money to the Royal Academy. His plaster cast of Phaeton Driving the Chariot of the Sun from the bequest can currently be seen in Richard Deacon Selects on the Sackler Landing. Other sculptures by Gibson can be seen at various locations across the country including Tate Britain, Westminster Abbey, the Houses of Parliament and Chatsworth House.

RA Collections Decolonial Research Project - Extended Biography

John Gibson was born near Conwy in Wales but spent his formative years in Liverpool which, by the mid-18th century, had emerged as the ‘slave-trading capital’ of the UK.

Early in his career, Gibson was supported by wealthy art collectors from the city. One of his most important early patrons was the collector, lawyer and banker William Roscoe (1753-1831) who was a prominent abolitionist.

Gibson was also a friend of Roscoe’s granddaughter, the writer Margaret Sandbach (née Roscoe) and her husband Henry Robert Sandbach. His wealth derived from his father, Samuel Sandbach, Mayor of Liverpool and a merchant who relied on the labour of enslaved people (see Notes, 1 and 2).

Gibson was also commissioned to produce two memorial statues of William Huskisson MP (1770-1830). When he was MP for Liverpool, Huskisson vocally defended slavery, despite having voted in favour of abolition in 1807. A bronze version of one of Gibson’s statues of Huskisson was toppled in Liverpool in 1982 in the wake of the Toxteth Riots and it was eventually moved to another location in the city (it had been moved from the Customs Hall to Toxteth in the 1950s). An audio work has been created by Harold Offeh retracing this event with youth worker Stephen Nze, who witnessed the event as a 17-year-old.

There is another version of Gibson’s statue of Huskisson in Westminster, London.

Notes 1. 2.

Relevant ODNB entries Greenwood, Martin. “Gibson, John (1790–1866), sculptor.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. 23 Sep. 2004; Accessed 2 Mar. 2022.

Macnaughton, Donald A. “Roscoe, William (1753–1831), historian and patron of the arts.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. 23 Sep. 2004; Accessed 2 Mar. 2022.

Howe, A. C. “Huskisson, William (1770–1830), politician.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. 23 Sep. 2004; Accessed 2 Mar. 2022.


Royal Academician

Born: 1790 in Gyffin, near Conway, Wales, United Kingdom

Died: 27 January 1866

Nationality: British

Elected ARA: 4 November 1833

Elected RA: 10 February 1836

Gender: Male

Preferred media: Sculpture

Works by John Gibson in the RA Collection

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Works after John Gibson in the RA Collection

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Works associated with John Gibson in the RA Collection

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Associated books

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Associated archives

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