This lithographic portrait of J. M. W. Turner was sketched by John Gilbert at the British Institution, London, in 1846, on varnishing day (when artists were given the opportunity to make final touches to their works, or add a layer of varnish). Gilbert was then a young man and one of his works had been hung directly opposite Turner’s ‘Queen Mab’s Cave’, a scene from Shakespeare’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ (although some have argued that Gilbert was mistaken about the year and it was in fact a different work). Turner was dressed ‘in his old swallow-tailed coat, with a great red handkerchief sticking out of the side-pocket’ and Gilbert later recalled the actions of the senior artist:
‘He was absorbed in his work, did not look about him, but kept on scumbling a lot of white into his picture – nearly all over it… ‘
Gilbert later transposed the sketch onto a wooden printing block and it was engraved by W. J. Linton and published as a woodcut engraving in 1852 and as an etching in 1875. The date of this lithographic version is unknown. The image was described in 1895 as ‘the portrait of Turner which is probably the most familiar to the general public’.
Sir John Gilbert was born in Blackheath, London; the son of a land and estate agent. He had some lessons from George Lance, but was largely self-taught. During his career he showed 20 works at the Society of Artists, 40 at the British Institution, 51 at the Royal Academy and 260 at the Old Watercolour Society, becoming a member of the latter in 1854 and President in 1871. He was knighted in 1872 and gained membership of the Royal Academy in 1876. Although he preferred history painting, he was primarily an illustrator. He illustrated works by English poets, as well as religious or literary works. He also designed 829 plates for an edition of Shakespeare (published 1860) and produced some 30,000 drawings for the ‘Illustrated London News’.
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