Born in London, Alfred Gilbert was the eldest son of a professional musician. He studied in London, Paris and Rome and on his return to England he became instantly popular as a sculptor receiving public, private and Royal commissions.
He was one of the leading figures of a dramatic revolution with took place in British sculpture in the closing decades of the nineteenth century. Richly sensuous in it’s casting, deeply allusive and often Symbolist in its subject matter, this new movement was dubbed ‘The New Sculpture’.
Rather than rehashing prototypes from Classical Antiquity this group instead created new allegorical figure subjects that presented intangible ideas and sensations directly, concerning love, death or the eternal, and the struggle of the human spirit.
The origins of the New Sculptors’ interest in communicating abstract emotion were a direct inheritance from Aestheticism, translating into three dimensions a suppression of narrative or absence of moral directive in favour of mood or atmosphere found in paintings by Whistler, Leighton and Albert Moore.
A profound stillness and sense of introspective self-absorption is a recurrent leitmotif in a great deal of his work. There is little movement or drama, but instead a pervasive modern melancholy, acknowledging the psychological dimensions of the self that will dictate fate or future action. Gilbert consciously encoded his own innermost character and emotions into his early sculpture, later revealing his series of early male nudes such as Perseus and Icarus.
Gilbert was essentially projecting and instilling his own character into the subject of his sculpture, and connecting it with his personal history and narrative – and with this it became immediately potent and truthful rather than detached and academic. While some works characterised himself on the brink of heroic success, others, such as Icarus, Gilbert acknowledged prophetically the fatal rashness that was also a part of his character and which later would bring financial ruin – ‘I was very ambitious’, he wrote, ‘why not “Icarus” with his desire for flight?’ Just two years after, Gilbert’s brilliance was recognised with the most prestigious commission of his career, to construct the memorial to Lord Shaftsbury at Piccadilly Circus that is universally now known simply as Eros – probably the most famous sculpture in Britain.
The Fine Art Society was Alfred Gilbert’s agent from 1904 until his death in 1934, and held a one-man exhibition of his work in June 1932, and his Memorial Exhibition in March-April 1935. In our 1968 British Sculpture 1850–1914 exhibition there were several casts exhibited that had been unsold at The Fine Art Society since Gilbert’s death, an indication of how unfashionable sculpture of that period had become in the intervening years.