Stephen Gilbert

'Most French' of English sculptors and as a painter the only British member of the CoBrA group
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The Independent Online

Stephen Gilbert, artist: born Wormit, Fife 15 January 1910; married 1935 Jocelyn Chewett (died 1979; one son, one daughter); died Frome, Somerset 12 January 2007.

In both art and life, Stephen Gilbert resisted categorisation. Painter and sculptor, British in passport but French in sensibility, Gilbert created work that anticipated movements on both sides of the Channel. A French art critic's description of Gilbert as "le plus français des sculpteurs anglais et l'un des plus européens parmi les artistes" ("the most French of British sculptors and the most European of artists") identified his restless enquiry and creative development. Although the past half-century saw changes in theme and medium in his oeuvre, Gilbert's work remained wholly consistent in idea: the search for a formal abstraction that did not preclude sensibility.

It would be unjust to reduce this artist's work into his association with various movements. Gilbert pursued his individual vision by testing the boundaries of collective experience against his own private world. However, his resistance to classification means that his contribution remains to this day largely overlooked.

Born in Fife in 1910, Gilbert was associated with art long before his enrolment at the Slade School in London in 1929. His grandfather, the sculptor Alfred Gilbert, was a favourite of Queen Victoria: his best-known work is Eros, on Piccadilly Circus. But Stephen's widowed father, a naval commander, was anti-art and Stephen and his brother Cecil followed him from posting to posting.

Winning a scholarship in architecture to the Slade, Gilbert became the favourite of the Principal, Sir Henry Tonks, and his promise shone through when he won the Slade Scholarship at the end of his first year, in 1930. Although he felt stifled by the Slade's gruelling academic training, his time as a student introduced him to the painter Roger Hilton, with whom he enjoyed a rich friendship; and his future wife, the sculptor Jocelyn Chewett, whom he married in 1935.

After early success in London with a solo show at the Wertheim Gallery in 1938, he and Chewett made their artistic pilgrimage to Paris. However, the imminence of war forced their early return and when medical exemption kept Gilbert from active military service, he, Chewett, and their young son, Humphrey, spent the duration of the war in Ireland.

Isolated in the Dublin countryside, the family led a remarkably self-subsistent life. Gilbert's paintings of this period record its emotional turbulence, depicting fantastical devouring creatures rendered in heightened colours with gestural brushstrokes. He immersed himself in Jung and Nietzsche; many years later, he defined his work in terms provided by these thinkers as

the Dionysiac force in Nature, which was in the air all around, and for which, by inventing substitutes and symbols, I made a natural transcription on canvas.

Introduced to Dublin's intellectual and artistic circles by Evie Hone and Mainie Jellett - painters who had studied in Paris under Albert Gleizes in the 1920s - Gilbert and Chewett joined the "White Stag" group of refugee artists. With this support, Gilbert exhibited his new paintings in both mixed and solo shows.

Following the birth of their daughter, Frances, the Gilberts in 1946 returned to Paris, where they secured Spartan lodgings in La Schola Cantorum, an old monastery on rue St-Jacques. In 1948 at the Salon des Surindépendants, Gilbert's paintings caught the eye of the Danish painter and writer Asger Jorn. Jorn immediately recognised the stylistic affinities between Gilbert's work and that of the recently formed CoBrA movement.

Destined to be short-lived but highly influential, CoBrA was a loosely gathered group of artists including Pierre Alechinsky, Karel Appel, Constant (Constant Nieuwenhuys) and Corneille (Cornelis Van Beverloo). The identification of Gilbert, the sole British member, with CoBrA was more sympathetic than doctrinaire, since his collaboration simply affirmed the significance of what he had already achieved.

Nevertheless, he remained at the heart of the CoBrA movement and was included in the only two large official gatherings of the group. In 1949 he took his family to Denmark to an artists' retreat deep in the forest in Bregnerød where the artists spent a month painting the hostel in which they lived. At the second CoBrA exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, Gilbert met the Dutch artist Constant Nieuwenhuys, with whom he developed a sustaining friendship. In 1950 a small CoBrA publication was dedicated to Gilbert, a monograph written by the critic Edouard Jaguar.

Gilbert nurtured dialogues with continental artists circulating around the Salon des Réalités Nouvelles, where he exhibited his work between 1950 and 1956. This coterie was committed to the cause of pure abstract art - with an art not concerned with portraying objective reality, but one that sought to create "new realities".

A rare British presence in this vanguard, Gilbert relinquished the expressive figuration of CoBrA in favour of supple, gestural abstraction, sharing an affinity with the contemporaneous Tachiste movement. In 1950 he was invited to exhibit these works in an exhibition at the Galerie Colette Allendy and again at the Galerie Arnaud in the following year when the critic R.V. Gindertael, in a review for the socialist post-war newspaper Combat, described Gilbert as one of the most interesting artists in Paris.

By the mid-1950s Gilbert had given up painting in order to concentrate on fabricating metal constructions, which he called "space frames", attempts, in his own words, to "put colour into space". He exhibited regularly at the Salon de la Jeune Sculpture, became a member of the Groupe Espace from 1954 and co-founded the Néovision group. His orthogonal constructions articulated his interest in the possibilities of modernist architecture from 1953. When he collaborated with the experimental architect Peter Stead in 1955-56, Gilbert hoped to realise his proposals for dwellings, but his designs never came to fruition.

Gilbert's profile in England increased during the 1960s with solo shows in London and Sheffield. He was included in the Arts Council's British Constructivists group show "Construction: England 1950-1960" held at the Drian Gallery, London, and was the recipient of two large public commissions. His work was acquired by public collections and in 1965 he was awarded the Sculpture Prize at the Tokyo Biennale.

In 1971, Gilbert had an extensive exhibition in Denmark at the Court Gallery and, with the imminent revival of interest in CoBrA, this exhibition was the first of many to focus on Gilbert's role in the group, sadly overlooking his current work.

Following the death of his cherished wife and creative companion in 1979, Gilbert's sculpture underwent a further transformation. Open forms evolved into self-contained sculptures which no longer articulated space but rather occupied and displaced it.

After his inclusion in landmark exhibitions such as "Paris, Paris 1937-1957" at the Centre Georges Pompidou in 1981, "Aftermath" at the Barbican in 1982 and "CoBrA 1948-51" at the Musée d'Art Moderne, Paris, 1982, Gilbert had a survey exhibition of his sculptural oeuvre at the Galerie Nova Spectra, The Hague, in 1984 and a show of painting and sculpture at the Galerie 1900-2000, Paris, in 1987.

In 2006 Gilbert enjoyed the opportunity of showing his architectonic work of the 1950s in a joint exhibition with Jocelyn Chewett's sculpture of the period at the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds.

Hester R. Westley