Sir John Gilbert & Shakespeare

Thank you Grassroots books for always having just what I want, even when I don't know it.
Thank you Grassroots books for always having just what I want, even when I don’t know it.

Sir John Gilbert (1817-1897) the famous English painter and illustrator, is now remembered for his woodcut illustrations for the works of Shakespeare though in his lifetime he preferred his medieval chivalric subjects.

Gilbert’s first career was not painting; his father’s neighbor secured a clerk’s job for the young man in his hometown on Blackheath. Gilbert lasted just two short years at the law firm before convincing his parents to let him follow his dream of artistry . The law office must have felt relief at his departure as the young man spent most of his time sketching on office paper the daily life of the streets of Blackheath.

Gilbert left the law office in 1835 and spent the next year teaching himself practically every art technique imaginable: oil, fresco, modeling, water-colors, drawing on paper and wood, etching, and engraving. So good was Gilbert’s natural talent that he had little trouble securing steady work as a book illustrator without the aid of ever being an apprentice.

In 1852 Gilbert joined the Old Water-Colour Society and became its president in 1871, shortly afterwards he  was knighted because of contributions to the art world. Gilbert is thought of as the father of book illustrations.

Gilbert’s list of book illustrations is too long to mention here. More on his life and art can be found here.  A quick list includes works by Milton, Cervantes, and of course Shakespeare. Between 1859 and 1863, Gilbert illustrated many of works of Shakespeare and his sonnets. This is why I bring him up.

I’ve mentioned Gilbert’s paintings depicting scenes from Shakespeare in a past blog post but did not fully comprehend his skills as an illustrator until last Friday when I picked up The Globe Illustrated Shakespeare.

The thing that struck me while I studied the illustrations was how, like Shakespeare, Gilbert brought characters to life with a few strokes of the pen. The human emotions found in Gilbert’s faces compliment the words and actions of Shakespeare. I thought it would fun to share a few here.

From the Tempest
From the Tempest
Poor mad Ophelia
Poor mad Ophelia
Lear and his "fools"
Lear and his “fools”
A colorized version of Gilbert's Falstaff
A colorized version of Gilbert’s Falstaff


Works referenced

“Sir John Gilbert”. Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online.

“Sir John Gilbert” A


Author: sarij

I'm a writer, lifelong bibliophile ,and researcher. I hold a Bachelors in Humanities & History and a Master's in Humanities. When I'm not reading or talking about Shakespeare or history, you can usually find me in the garden discussing science or politics with my cat.

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