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Sir William Schwenck Gilbert

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Sir William Schwenck Gilbert

by Frank Holl
oil on canvas, 1886
39 1/2 in. x 49 1/2 in. (1003 mm x 1257 mm)
Bequeathed by Sir William Schwenck Gilbert, 1937
Primary Collection
NPG 2911

Sitterback to top

Artistback to top

This portraitback to top

The rather gloomy appearance of this gentleman, with his military moustache, high-necked collar and hunting crop belies the fact that he was one half of the immortal partnership of Gilbert and Sullivan, responsible for some of Britain's greatest comic operas. Gilbert qualified for the bar but abandoned it to write libretti for Sir Arthur Sullivan's music. Their work included HMS Pinafore (1878), Iolanthe (1882), The Mikado (1885), and The Yeomen of the Guard (1888). In this portrait Gilbert, who was obliged to ride for two hours everyday in order to alleviate his gout, wears hunting dress.

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  • Cooper, John, A Guide to the National Portrait Gallery, 2009, p. 44 Read entry

    Gilbert formed, with the composer Sir Arthur Sullivan, the most celebrated partnership of nineteenth-century musical theatre. Appearing more country squire than wordsmith, he rode two hours a day to alleviate his gout.

  • Funnell, Peter (introduction); Marsh, Jan, A Guide to Victorian and Edwardian Portraits, 2011, p. 31 Read entry

    One half of the immortal partnership of Gilbert and Sullivan, W. S. Gilbert (1836-1911) was responsible for some of Britain’s greatest comic operettas. Gilbert qualified as a lawyer, but abandoned the law to write libretti for Arthur Sullivan’s music. Their work included HMS Pinafore (1878), Iolanthe (1882), The Mikado (1885) and The Yeoman of the Guard (1888). The appearance of this gentleman, with his military moustache, corduroy jacket and hunting crop, is therefore somewhat unexpected. In this portrait Gilbert, who was obliged to ride for two hours every day in order to alleviate his gout, wears riding dress.

  • Saumarez Smith, Charles, The National Portrait Gallery: An Illustrated Guide, 2000, p. 157
  • Saumarez Smith, Charles, The National Portrait Gallery, 1997, pp. 156-7 Read entry

    It is hard to think of this rather gloomy looking gent, with his military moustache, high-necked collar and hunting crop, as one half of the immortal partnership of Gilbert and Sullivan, responsible for some of the greatest comic operas, H.M.S. Pinafore, Iolanthe, The Mikado, and The Yeoman of the Guard. The circumstances in which it was painted are unusually well recorded in correspondence in the Gallery's archive. On 2 November 1886, Gilbert wrote to Frank Holl, 'My wife insists that I shall have my portrait painted, & that being so, my thoughts naturally turn towards you. I hope your engagements will not interfere to prevent my having the pleasure of sitting to you.' On 22 November, he was worrying about what to wear: 'My usual writing dress would hardly do for exhibition - consisting as it does, of a nightshirt & dressing gown ... As I am obliged to ride for two hours every day (to drive away gout) I shall generally get to Fitzjohns Avenue on a horse. Would an easy-going riding dress do?' He was obviously as grumpy about the sittings as he looks. The portrait was completed by the end of the year and cost £525.

  • Saywell, David; Simon, Jacob, Complete Illustrated Catalogue, 2004, p. 247
  • Simon, Jacob, The Art of the Picture Frame: Artists, Patrons and the Framing of Portraits in Britain, 1997 (accompanying the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery from 8 November 1996 - 9 February 1997), p. 106, 177 Read entry

    Gilt pine, mitred and pinned with corner blocks, water gilt on a red bole, except for the oil gilt arabesque frieze and guilloche back edge in compo. 6 1⁄ 2 inches wide plus 1 inch slip.

    Frank Holl made his name in the 1870s with his dramatic social realist scenes. It was, however, his successful practice as a portrait painter which earned him enough money to build his own house in Hampstead to Norman Shaw's design. Holl often gave his larger portraits a substantial frame decorated with a flat frieze of renaissance-style arabesques set between a heavy reeded top edge and a roll moulding sight edge, as exemplified by the frame on this portrait of Gilbert (of Gilbert and Sullivan fame). There is an identical frame on the portrait of the judge, Sir J. W. Huddlestone, of 1888 (National Portrait Gallery, on loan to the Law Courts), and a similar frame on the portrait of the 3rd Lord de Tabley at Tabley House. Holl also used a distinctive Watts frame for some of his portraits.

  • Various contributors, National Portrait Gallery: A Portrait of Britain, 2014, p. 169 Read entry

    From the late 1850s, W. S. Gilbert established himself as a prolific author in periodicals, in particular Fun, the rival to Punch, and had written a number of pieces for the stage. But it was his collaboration with Arthur Sullivan and the ‘Savoy’ operas for which he wrote the librettos that were Gilbert’s greatest success, and he was at the height of his fame when he was painted by Frank Holl (1845–88). Holl and Gilbert were well-acquainted, the artist’s daughter recalling children’s parties at the Gilberts’ home in London’s South Kensington, so it was natural that Gilbert should turn to Holl when his wife wanted his portrait painted. Gilbert wrote to Holl on 22 November 1886 to arrange the first sittings and asked what he should wear. ‘My usual writing dress would hardly do for exhibition’, he wrote, ‘consisting, as it does of nightshirt and dressing gown’. Since he would usually ride to Holl’s studio, he continued, ‘would an easy-going riding dress do? Say broad cords – with a velveteen jacket?’ And so he is shown, holding a riding crop in his right hand.

Subjects & Themesback to top

Events of 1886back to top

Current affairs

The Liberals win the election after the Irish Nationalists, including John Dillon, side with them over Home Rule, and Gladstone resumes the seat of Prime Minister. The failure of the first Home Rule Bill divides the Liberal party; those opposed to Home Rule break away to form the Liberal Unionist Party, supporting the Conservatives. This results in a Liberal loss at an emergency election called, and the Marquess of Salisbury becomes Prime Minister for the second time.

Art and science

The Severn Tunnel is opened, freeing up the route between London and South Wales.
Pears' soap company buy the copyright to John Millais's painting Bubbles, using it in an iconic and enduringly recognisable advertisement. Millais, however, attracted strong criticism from the art community, who protested against the debasement and commercialisation of art.


The American poet Emily Dickinson dies, aged 54. Dickinson wrote over 1,700 poems, which first came to light in 1890, and is recognised as one of America's most important writers.
The Statue of Liberty, designed by Frederic Auguste Bartholdi, is erected on Bedloe's island. The huge copper statue, a gift from the French to the United States to commemorate the centennial of American independence, is an iconic figure of liberty, and America itself.

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