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Sir John Gilbert RA, Leaf from a sketchbook with a drawing of the interior of D. G. Rossetti's Dining Room

Leaf from a sketchbook with a drawing of the interior of D. G. Rossetti's Dining Room, 20th February 1867

Sir John Gilbert RA (1817 - 1897)

RA Collection: Art

A pencil drawing of the ornate fireplace in Dante Gabriel Rossetti's house at 16 Cheyne Walk, Chelsea, London, where he lived from 1862. According to John Gilbert's notes this shows the "Dining Room" and was drawn from memory. It is possible that he wrongly remembered the name of the room, however, as Henry Treffry Dunn's 'Rossetti's Dining Room at Cheyne Walk' (1882, private collection) shows a different fireplace. Alternatively, the fireplace may have been replaced between 1867 and 1882.

Rossetti became a member of the Garrick Club in 1865 and this is possible how he became acquainted with Gilbert who was also a member. Gilbert shared the Pre-Raphaelite's interest in historicism but disliked their obsession with detail, considering it a 'want of power'. However, he described Rossetti's paintings as 'very fine things' (see Ormond, p. 562). In turn, Rossetti is said to have admired John Gilbert's woodcut illustrations.

This drawing was reproduced in the catalogue for the 2011 exhibition on John Gilbert at the Guildhall Art Gallery. The introductory essay notes that Gilbert liked to visit other artist's studios out of 'curiosity rather than admiration...particularly the studios of the exponents of the newer developments in art, such as Pre-Raphaelitism and the Aesthetic Movement'.

Regarding Rossetti in particular they cite Gilbert's diary entry for his visit to Cheyne Walk in July 1865:

'Found Rossetti at home, who kindly recd. us, and showed us what he was painting. I saw two works of his now in hand which, with all their eccentricities were very fine things, others were too far gone in a kind of madness for me to understand...His house is a museum. His painting room is delightful...We went upstairs to his drawing-room, which extends the whole front of the house. 7 windows looking upon the old trees, the river and beyond Battersea Park. The furniture eccentric and interesting. A China closet full, walls hung with China silk, chairs bright scarlet. Japan dining-room crammed with curiosities. We spent abt. an hour there much interested and amused'.

Related works:

Henry Treffry Dunn, 'Rossetti's Dining Room at Cheyne Walk', watercolour, 1882, Private collection.

Further reading:

Sir John Gilbert. Art and Imagination in the Victorian Age, exhibition catalogue, Guildhall Art Gallery, London, 2011

Richard Ormond, 'Private life of a Victorian painter', Country Life, 140 (1966), 462-5

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 drawing of the interior of D. G. Rossetti's Dining Room
Sir John Gilbert RA (1817 - 1897)
20th February 1867
Object type
Pencil on wove paper

320 mm x 283 mm

Royal Academy of Arts
Object number
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