Alfred Gilbert

Richard Dorment

Publicaton Date
May 1986
Standard Number
Yale University Press
350 pages

Alfred Gilbert, the great nineteenth-century English sculptor, was one of the most flamboyant personalities in the history of English art. His story is tragic; after achieving unimagined fame in his early thirties as the foremost sculptor of his generation, he fell spectacularly into bankruptcy and scandal, and spent twenty-five years in self-imposed exile. 

This lively and sympathetic biography by Richard Dorment seeks to understand Gilbert and what happened to him by examining his personality, his world, and the people who played an important role in his life. Drawing upon Gilbert’s unpublished diaries and letters, Dorment vividly describes such colourful characters as Gilbert’s ambitious mother and driven father, his fragile, deranged wife, the mentors who gave him a taste for the dangerous world of high society, members of the royal family and their courtiers, and even George Bernard Shaw, who damned the pretensions of the romantic artist in a devastating personal attack on Gilbert her recounted for the first time. Dorment writes vividly of Gilbert’s triumphs and of the terrible waste and suffering of his later years. He disguises nothing of Gilbert’s egotism and yet never allows us to dislike or feel superior to him.

The productive years of Gilbert’s astonishing career – from 1881 to 1901 – are relatively short, but the works of art he created are among the milestones of British sculpture. Perseus Arming, Icarus, Eros atop the Shaftesbury Memorial, and the Tomb of the Duke of Clarence at Windsor Castle – all these, imbued as they are with a sense of extravagance and abandon, epitomize the era in which Gilbert flowered.

Dorment has combined biography, art criticism and social history to create the first comprehensive study of the life and work of a major artist. His beautifully illustrated book is compelling reading.