(b London, 12 Aug. 1854; d London, 4 Nov. 1934). British sculptor and metalworker. He studied at the Royal Academy Schools and the École des Beaux-Arts, Paris (1875–8), after which he spent six years in Rome. He returned to England in 1884 and was soon given major public commissions, the best known of which is his Shaftesbury Memorial Fountain in Piccadilly Circus (1887–93). The celebrated figure of Eros that surmounts the fountain is cast in aluminium, one of the earliest examples of the use of this metal in sculpture.
Its light weight allowed Gilbert to achieve a much more delicately poised pose than if he had been restricted to the traditional medium of bronze. Initially the fountain was heavily criticized (in 1893 it was described in The Times as a ‘dripping, sickening mess’), but by the end of the First World War it had become a much-loved symbol of London. Although Gilbert was hardworking, respected, and sought-after, he was unworldly and a hopeless businessman; his refusal to delegate work or compromise his standards meant that he took on more work than he could handle and he sometimes lost money on commissions. In 1901 he became bankrupt, and in 1909 he moved into self-imposed exile in Bruges, where he did little work. In 1926, however, he returned to London, and in 1926–8 he completed his masterpiece, the tomb of the Duke of Clarence in St George's Chapel, Windsor Castle, which he had begun in 1892. The sinuous and labyrinthine detailing, crafted with consummate skill, reveals Gilbert as one of the major practitioners of Art Nouveau, although he was disparaging about the style. Characteristically the tomb is in a variety of materials: marble, bronze, aluminium, brass, and ivory. His final major work was the bronze memorial to Queen Alexandra at Marlborough Gate, London (1926–32); on its completion he was knighted. His reputation sank after his death because he was so clearly outside the mainstream of 20th-century art (stylistically the Alexandra memorial looks more like a work of the 1890s than the 1930s), but he is now regarded as the greatest British sculptor of his generation. See also New Sculpture.
Text Source: The Oxford Dictionary of Art and Artists (Oxford University Press)