Alfred Gilbert was a sculptor, medallist, goldsmith and draughtsman. His parents, Charlotte Cole and Alfred Gilbert, were musicians who lived at 13 Berners Street, London, where Alfred was born. On 3 January 1876 he married his first cousin, Alice Jane Gilbert (1847-1916), with whom he had eloped to Paris. They had five children but finally separated in 1904. After Alice's death, he married Stéphanie Quagehebeur, the widow of a Bruges compositor, on 1 March 1918; she and six of her children had lived with him since 1907.
Gilbert was the most famous sculptor of the late nineteenth century, creating such iconic images as the famous figure of Eros atop the Shaftesbury Memorial (1885-93, London, Piccadilly Circus). He entered the Royal Academy schools in 1873, and was also apprenticed to various sculptors. The most important of these was Sir Joseph Boehm, between 1874-75, who recommended he studied at the École des Beaux-Arts.
After two years in Paris, Gilbert moved to Italy in 1878, which had a radical influence on his work: he shook off the French academic style for an interest in the Florentine Renaissance and Mannerism. He also developed the cire-perdue or lost wax method for large works. The success of Icarus at the Royal Academy in 1884 (Cardiff, National Museum of Wales) led to his return to Britain in the winter of 1884-85 and subsequent critical and popular acclaim.
He tempered the realism and careful modelling of the New Sculpture with a fantasy element, but although stylistically and technically adventurous, his large works were often more successful in their individual parts than in their total composition. In the 1890s he experimented with alloys and his casts took on the colour of Japanese bronzes. Other well-known works are: Jubilee Monument to Queen Victoria (1887–1912; Winchester, Great Hall), and the tomb of Prince Albert Victor, Duke of Clarence (1892-99, with additions 1926-28, Albert Memorial Chapel, Windsor).
Gilbert was a flamboyant character of the nineties, in his private life fond of socialising and extravagance, and a member of the Athenaeum and Garrick clubs. He was friends with Leighton, Watts and Burne-Jones and a consistent supporter of JW.
In 1896 he began to train Teddie Godwin, JW's step-son, who later became a sculptor. Gilbert attended the Criterion dinner in 1889 and supported the purchase of Arrangement in Black, No. 2: Portrait of Mrs Louis Huth (YMSM 125) by Glasgow Corporation in 1891. In 1898 Gilbert was Chairman of the committee which grew into the International Society of Sculptors, Painters and Gravers, of which JW was President. He later resigned due to personal disagreements, and only exhibited with the International Society once.
He exhibited at the RA from 1882, and also at the Grosvenor Gallery, New Gallery, Paris Salon and the Paris Exposition Universelle of 1889. Gilbert was made ARA in 1887, RA in 1892, was appointed to the Chair of Sculpture at the Royal Academy Schools in 1900. He also advised on the sculpture acquisitions at the South Kensington Museum.
Despite Royal patronage and huge popularity, after years of bad management of his finances and late commissions, Gilbert was declared bankrupt in August 1901. He lived for the next twenty-five years in rather unproductive, self-imposed exile in Belgium, during which he destroyed many works. An exposure in the sensationalist newspaper Truth by a disappointed client, led him to the unprecedented step of resigning from the Royal Academy in 1908. At the end of his life he returned to London, and finally completed the tomb of the Duke of Clarence. He was given a two roomed studio in Kensington Palace Gardens, which had originally been designed for Princess Louise in 1878 by E.W. Godwin. Gilbert was knighted in 1932, the day after the tomb was unveiled, and the work itself demonstrates the iconography of the Symbolist movement that had ended thirty years before.
Bénézit, E., Dictionnaire des Peintres, Sculpteurs, Dessinateurs et Graveurs, 8 vols, Paris, 1956-61; Dorment, R., Alfred Gilbert, New Haven and London, 1985; Dorment, R., et. al., Victorian High Renaissance, Minneapolis, 1978; Walkley, Giles, Artists' houses in London 1764-1914, Aldershot, 1994; The Grove Dictionary of Art Online, ed. L. Macy, http://www.groveart.com (accessed 2003).