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Sir John Gilbert RA, Leaf from a sketchbook with a compositional sketch and drawings of posters on the hoardings of a new hotel at Blackheath

Leaf from a sketchbook with a compositional sketch and drawings of posters on the hoardings of a new hotel at Blackheath, c. 1871

Sir John Gilbert RA (1817 - 1897)

RA Collection: Art

At the top of the page is a pen and ink sketch of a group of cavalrymen viewed from the back in a landscape. Below, is a drawing of the posters on the hoardings of the New Green Man Hotel in Blackheath. One of the posters gives details of the 'revictualing of Paris'. This relates to the efforts to send food to Paris during and after the Franco-Prussian war in 1870-71 when the city was under siege.

Gilbert lived in the Blackheath area in South East London throughout his life and took a great interest in local issues and local history. During the mid to late 19th century this part of London saw rapid expansion with the building of the North Kent and Mid Kent railway lines and subsequently many new houses for commuters were also built. In this sketchbook, and in various other drawings in the RA group, Gilbert recorded new developments in the area.

These drawings were presented to the Royal Academy by the artist in 1889. He wrote that the volumes of "sketches and Studies in Watercolours, Pen and Pencil, [are] in many cases first thoughts and designs and material for pictures afterwards painted in Oil and Watercolours...A considerable portion of my life work is here and for these books and their contents I confess to hold a great regard and affection".

Gilbert compiled the drawings, also inscribing and dating them, though often retrospectively. They range in date from the early 1850s to the late 1880s and most of them relate to Gilbert's oil and watercolour paintings or to his work as an illustrator. Also represented here are his topographical sketches of landscapes and architecture, in particular of the area around Blackheath in south London where he lived for most of his life.

As Gilbert noted in his presentation letter to the Academy, the material in these albums and sketchbooks constitutes a record of his life's work. As such, the RA group was of some interest to the artist's early biographers and other commentators. R. Davies, for instance, in an article about Gilbert published in 1932, noted that these drawings were compiled by the artist, stating: 'It was evidently a labour of love rather than of duty to rescue these studies and scraps from the portfolio and enshrine them in volumes, and there seems to be very little method or order in their arrangement'. After studying the Royal Academy's collection of Gilbert drawings, Davies concluded that the artist's 'kinetic' graphic work was the element that justified his status as a 'real artist'.

Gilbert was born in Blackheath, London, beginning his career as an estate agent's clerk. He was largely self-taught as an artist but nevertheless quickly mastered a variety of techniques, producing many oil paintings and watercolours as well as illustrations. Gilbert's paintings of historical and literary scenes display a theatrical romanticism that appealed greatly to Victorian taste but led some critics to dismiss his work as 'showy' and superficial.

Gilbert was also one of the best-known and most prolific illustrators of the Victorian age and was famed for the speed at which he could draw any scene. Engravings from his designs enlivened many of the books, newspapers and periodicals of the day. He is said to have produced a phenomenal 30,000 drawings for the Illustrated London News alone. In later life, Gilbert received a cache of prestigious honours including the Presidency of the Old Watercolour Society (from 1871) and a knighthood in 1872. His election as a Royal Academician followed in 1876.

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Object details

Leaf from a sketchbook with a compositional sketch and drawings of posters on the hoardings of a new hotel at Blackheath
Sir John Gilbert RA (1817 - 1897)
c. 1871
Object type
Pen and ink over pencil on wove paper

335 mm x 245 mm

Royal Academy of Arts
Object number
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