Alfred Gilbert's St George was designed as one of the twelve saints who surround the tomb of the Duke of Clarence in the Albert Memorial Chapel, Windsor Castle. This royal tomb was the most prestigious commission of Gilbert's career.
Following the death of Joseph Edgar Boehm in 1890, Gilbert had hoped to succeed his former master as sculptor to the Royal Family. The tragic death of Prince Albert Victor, Duke of Clarence and Avondale in 1892, provided the opportunity. Just three days after the funeral Gilbert was summoned to Sandringham to discuss plans for the memorial with the Prince and Princess of Wales. After the original sketch for the tomb was approved by Queen Victoria on 6th March 1892, the sculptor's plans developed, becoming ever more elaborate and ambitious. After a visit to the artist's studio the following year the Queen wrote: 'Mr Gilbert showed me ... a small wooden model of the grillage which is to go round the tomb, on which different figures of saints are introduced.' Five years later, in 1898, Queen Victoria herself placed the figure of St George in his niche on the tomb and the monument was opened to the public.
However, the tomb was still not complete with five of its saints missing. Gilbert was notoriously slow to finish a commission and it took him an epic thirty-six years to complete the tomb. It was not until 1928 that all the niches were finally filled. The protracted work, which took time away from more profitable commissions, may have contributed to the artist's bankruptcy in 1901. It also led him into controversy. In 1899, as his debts mounted, Gilbert approved a plan to cast four of the saints from the tomb as separate bronzes to be sold to the dealer Mr Dunthorne for £500. The agreement included figures which had not yet been delivered to the Prince of Wales himself. The resulting scandal caused the Prince to distance himself from the sculptor, and the commission, which Gilbert had once hoped would secure his position as court sculptor, actually almost lost him his reputation.
Despite the scandal, the saints themselves became some of the best-loved of Gilbert's works. St George in particular has become emblematic of Gilbert's entire oeuvre, featuring on the cover of the 1986 Royal Academy exhibition. In the artist's own life-time the central importance of St George was confirmed when the Prince and Princess of Wales chose this figure as a separate, private memorial for their home in Sandringham in 1895.
Clad in undulating shell and foliate armour and standing on the scaled hide of the felled dragon, Gilbert emphasised the fairy-tale quality of St George. The saint raises his right hand in blessing, holding in the other the sword set with a crucifix which symbolises his dual role as warrior and saint. The armour and sword display Gilbert's goldsmith's attention to detail. He is said to have taken his inspiration from the Edward Burne-Jone's costume designs for Henry Irving in the role of King Arthur. The detail of the armour is enhanced by the intricate casting – the mould for the St George was made in nineteen pieces. Gilbert boasted that, if made to scale, the armour could be worn. St George was one of the figures which Gilbert had cast by the Compagnie des Bronzes, much to the disapproval of his Royal patron. In his defence, the sculptor cast the model in very limited numbers and the present bronze is one of only eight versions known to exist.
R. Dorment, Alfred Gilbert: Sculptor and Goldsmith, ex. cat., Royal Academy, London, 1986, pp. 154-64 nos. 69-72; R. Dorment, Alfred Gilbert, New Haven and London, 1985, pp. 147-190; N. Penny, Catalogue of European Sculpture in the Ashmolean Museum, vol. III, Oxford, 1992, pp. 84-7
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