Born in London in 1854, Alfred Gilbert was the son of professional musicians who encouraged his artistic instincts. Denied a scholarship to pursue a surgical career, he studied at Thomas J. Heatherley's School of Art in London from 1872 to 1873, and at the Royal Academy Schools from 1873 to 1875. He won the Academy prize for the best model after the antique, but grew dissatisfied with the available training in sculpture. To gain technical knowledge he apprenticed himself to private sculptors, including William Gibbs Rogers (1792-1875) and Matthew Noble (1817-1876). The highly successful Hungarian-born sculptor Sir Joseph Edgar Boehm (1834-1890) became his principal master and promoter. After three years, the older artist urged Gilbert to study at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. Early in 1876 Gilbert eloped with his cousin Alice Gilbert to Paris.
He became one of the first English sculptors trained at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, where his teachers were Pierre-Jules Cavelier (1814-1894) and Fremiet. However, it was not until he produced The Kiss of Victory (model 1878), inspired by a description of Gustave Doré's Gloire, that Cavelier encouraged Gilbert to go to Rome and execute the sculpture in marble. While he and his family lived in Italy, from 1878 to 1885, Gilbert eagerly studied Renaissance bronze sculpture in Florence, Venice, and Padua. He produced his major bronzes Perseus Arming (1882; examples in private collection and Cambridge, Fitzwilliam Museum) and Icarus (1884; Cardiff, National Museum of Wales), the latter commissioned by Frederic Leighton (1830-1896). Fascinated with bronze technique, he supervised the casting of Perseus Arming by Sabatino de Angelis of Naples. Later in his career Gilbert became an ardent advocate of lost-wax casting for major sculpture in England, where previously its use had largely been limited to jewelry and small art objects.
The warm reception for Perseus and Icarus, as well as the support of Boehm and Leighton, led Gilbert to return in 1885 to the success beckoning in England. Important commissions bolstered his reputation: the monument to Henry Fawcett in Westminster Abbey (1885-1887), introducing polychromy in its bronze statuettes of the Virtues; the imposing bronze statue of Queen Victoria enthroned for Windsor Castle (1887); and his best-known work, the memorial fountain to the philanthropist Earl of Shaftesbury, with its aluminum statue of Eros in Piccadilly Circus (1886-1893). The latter project dragged him increasingly into debt as he struggled to support a sick wife and five children.
Bronzes, portraits, commemorative statues, and goldsmith work filled his most productive years from 1885 to 1898. In 1892 came the commission for the tomb of the Duke of Clarence, son of the Prince and Princess of Wales, at Windsor. Its polychrome design called for bronze, brass with varicolored patinas, marble, ivory, and aluminum. Working in a rich ornamental style, Gilbert continually revised the complex, multi-figure project, deferring completion. Honors came, including the status of full Academician in 1892 and election as professor of sculpture at the Royal Academy in 1900, where he gave a series of spellbinding lectures on sculpture between 1901 and 1902. Living lavishly, Gilbert built a new house and studio at Maida Vale, north of London (completed in 1893), and continued to accept more commissions than he could finish. In 1899, deep in debt, he sold off the bronze and ivory saints produced for the Clarence tomb, replacing them with all-bronze casts. He declared bankruptcy in 1901 and moved his family to Bruges, smashing many of his plaster models before departure.
Funerary monuments commissioned in Bruges led to stormy relationships with two patrons and further decline of Gilbert's reputation. Mors Janua Vitae (1905-1909) was cast for Eliza Macloghlin only after Gilbert surrendered the plaster under duress (plaster and wood model in Liverpool, Walker Art Gallery). Mrs. Frankau, whose husband's memorial the artist did not finish, took the claims of various disappointed clients to the press in 1906. Impoverished and disgraced, Gilbert resigned from the Royal Academy in 1908. He remained in Bruges until 1926, with an interlude in Rome between 1924 and 1925, working fitfully on projects full of personal symbolism, which he often destroyed. One surviving work from this period is the Wilson Chimney Piece (1908-1913, Leeds City Art Galleries). Gilbert's wife Alice, from whom he separated in 1905, died in 1915; in 1919 he married his Belgian housekeeper, Stephanie Quaghbeur.
In 1926, after a campaign by Gilbert's biographer Isabel McAllister, George V called him back to England to finish the Clarence tomb, which he completed by 1928. A further royal commission was the memorial to the king's mother Queen Alexandra at Marlborough gate, London (1928-1932). With its installation came a knighthood and reinstatement in the Royal Academy. Gilbert died in London in 1934.
A consummate goldsmith sculptor, Gilbert was deeply involved with the technical aspects of his craft. His gift for naturalistic modeling served a feverishly imaginative fin-de-siècle style, with Symbolist psychological overtones. Polychromy, varied materials, and Art Nouveau ornamental motifs enriched his creation. Favored themes were the passage from childhood to adulthood, the exalting power of mature love, and the terrors of troubled dreams. A mood of uneasy meditation pervades much of his work. He exercised a strong influence on the English bronze, producing statuettes conceived as significant works of art for private collectors in the spirit of the Italian Renaissance, neither massive monuments nor tiny bibelots. He took a leading role in the New Sculpture movement in England. [This is an edited version of the artist's biography published in the NGA Systematic Catalogue]
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