Who Do You Think You Are?
John Gilbert 1817–1897
This prolific and versatile artist made a vital contribution to 19th-century newspapers
Before the technology was invented to include photographs in newspapers, editors relied on drawings produced from wood engravings. One of the most prolific newspaper artists was John Gilbert, born in Blackheath, Surrey, in 1817. Gilbert’s first job as an estate agent did not suit him at all. He spent every spare minute drawing and painting in watercolours and oils, chiefly copying prints from books. His skills were such that by 1836 he was exhibiting at the Society of British Artists, followed by the Royal Academy a couple of years later. Gilbert subsequently developed a talent for wood engraving which resulted in commissions from Punch, but he produced far more illustrations for the press after newsagent and printer Herbert Ingram commissioned woodcut images on the subject of a royal masquerade ball to be held on 12 May 1842. Working from written descriptions of the historical costumes that the guests were expected to wear, Gilbert speedily drew the illustrations directly onto woodblocks. The first edition of the Illustrated London News was launched that very weekend with Gilbert’s pictures ensuring it found an avid and interested readership. A long career as a news illustrator with that paper and the London Journal followed.
Outside the world of newspapers, Gilbert produced illustrations for published editions of English poets in addition to almost 750 images for an anthology of Shakespeare’s plays. He was also the first president of St Martin’s School of Art (founded in 1854), president of the Royal Watercolour Society (1871) and knighted in 1872. He died unmarried in 1897.