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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.

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