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Gibson at the Royal Academy

Thursday 22nd September, 2016

On September 8th, a free exhibition on the life and work of 19th century sculptor John Gibson opened at the Royal Academy of Arts. Spread across two rooms the display is focused, showcasing a selection of work in marble and plaster, alongside various drawings, letters and other ephemeral documents. The sculptor is framed in the context of his unprecedented success as a British practitioner of classical art, his desire to remain in Rome for the duration of his career and his connection to the better-known Italian sculptor Antonio Canova, with whom he trained from 1817 until Canova’s death in 1822.

Since early in his life, Gibson and the Academy have had a relationship. When writing his memoirs the sculptor claimed that the first to encourage his childhood passion for art was a Mr. Tourmeau, the proprietor of a stationary shop in Liverpool, where the artist’s family had recently moved from north Wales. In his youth Tourmeau himself had studied at the Academy. He lent Gibson a selection of chalk life drawings that he had completed in London, as well as several small plaster casts, urging the boy to draw, copy and improve. From this point onwards, the very words ‘Royal Academy’ had a mythical resonance in the mind of the young artist.

Gibson came from a pious, working class background. His family were not wealthy enough to secure him training under a painter, so he took up an apprenticeship with a cabinet making firm where he learned the craft of wood carving. It was during this time Gibson that fell in love with sculpture, marble and classical figures in particular, becoming depressed that his apprenticeship would not permit him to cultivate such unproductive interests. Eventually, after he quit his stint with the cabinet makers, a wealthy Liverpool businessman and classical aesthete recognized his efforts and took him under his wing. Soon he was well-versed in the antique, as well as with the works of Michelangelo, Raphael and other old masters. His practice now combined multiple media; like Correggio and Poussin before him he made small three-dimensional figurines to add convincing light and foreshortening to his designs.

In a few years time he submitted his first work to the Royal Academy’s summer exhibition, a relief sculpture of Psyche carried by Two Zephyrs. The subject of Psyche—a mortal girl who, after suffering for her unmatched beauty becomes the wife of Cupid and embodiment of the human soul—was to stay with Gibson throughout his life, repeated numerous times in various media. In 1827 he exhibited a free standing statue of the same subject titled Psyche Borne Aloft by the Zephyrs, now in the collection of the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool with another version at the Palazzo Corsini in Rome. The formal kinship between this particular statue and Canova’s famous Three Graces is evidence of the close bond between Gibson and the feted Canova. After Gibson permanently relocated to Italy in 1817, Canova mentored him from the start.

Fast forward to 1836 and Gibson had become the leading sculptor in Britain and one of the foremost in Europe. Having been made an Associate Member of the Academy three years earlier, he regularly sent back sculptures to the summer exhibitions. Yet certain members of the institution frowned upon Gibson’s continental lifestyle. Based in London, rival sculptor Francis Chantrey launched an active campaign to try and prevent Gibson from being elected an Academician because he did not live and work in Britain. Obviously in this he was unsuccessful as Gibson ended up receiving the honour, but in his will Chantrey arranged for his fortune to form a trust set up to purchase annually a single work by a British artist for the national collection, one that had to have lived and worked in Britain for the entirety of their career. Chantrey’s effort to marginalize Gibson on nationalist terms points to the haunting presence of the latter in setting out the narrow terms the former's gift to the nation. In any case, Gibson was still triumphant, his sculptures heralded as the closest approximation of ancient Greek purity by a living practitioner.

The Academy’s exhibition is made possible by another bequest—one by Gibson himself. Towards the end of his life Gibson chose to donate a sum of money, most of his studio effects and some correspondences to the institution that for so long had inflected his dream to become an artist. Gibson too had specifications for the terms of his gift: he wished that a special gallery be built to display the casts, drawings and marbles. In 1876, such a display opened at Burlington House, where the Academy had been based since 1869. Yet, for numerous reasons, the project did not stand the test of time, and it is only in recent years that public and scholarly interest in the artist has picked up again.

The new exhibition at the Academy, then, is based off the organization’s rich holdings of the sculptor’s works. It begins with an early life drawing in Rome, a work that defies the Papacy’s strict ban on naked female models. Gibson's plasters are painted a buttery brown, and the effect is strikingly different to the bleached-white of the casts in Canova’s Gipsoteca in Possagno. But the most compelling aspect of the display is the way that it manifests the modular nature of the artist’s practice: subjects, figures and poses continually re-appear in different guises and with different materials, each one retaining the fluid, simple energy of the initial drawings. Indeed Gibson’s brilliant draughtsmanship is the crux of the exhibition. Whether in pen and wash, pencil or highlighted with chalk, the drawings are the cement that holds everything together. They alone are worth the walk up Piccadilly and the bustle of the Hockney-hungry crowds.

John Gibson RA: a British Sculptor in Rome is on at the Royal Academy of Arts until December 18th