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Charles Marsh Web (Nash) Gilbert (1867–1925)

by G. Sturgeon

This article was published:

Charles Marsh Web (Nash) Gilbert (1867-1925), sculptor, was born on 18 March 1867 at Cockatoo, near Maryborough, Victoria, third child of William Gilbert, engine driver from Cornwall, and his wife Nasaretha, née Jackson, of Sydney. Two months after Gilbert's birth his father died, leaving the family in financial difficulty. At 9 the boy was apprenticed to T. F. Gunsler, proprietor of the Vienna Café, Melbourne. He was taught to model icing-sugar cake decorations and, presumably to improve this skill, he attended drawing lessons given by Mr Sayer in South Yarra. After four years he graduated, eventually becoming chef at Parer's restaurant, where he remained until 1914. His marriage on 17 March 1887 to Alice Rose Eugenia Daniell ended in divorce in 1911; they had no children.

Meanwhile Gilbert had developed an interest in sculpture that grew to be all absorbing. From 1888 to 1891 he attended part time as a drawing student at the National Gallery school under G. F. Folingsby, Bernard Hall and F. McCubbin. At that time there was no instruction in sculpture at the school and Gilbert had to teach himself. At life classes at the Victorian Artists' Society he met the sculptor C. D. Richardson who gave him advice and sympathetic encouragement. In 1898 he was an original member of the Yarra Sculptors' Society and showed work at its first exhibition, held that year.

Gilbert slowly learned the technique of marble carving and was able to translate his first large work, 'The Vintage Offering' (1897), from plaster into this more permanent medium. He also established a studio off Collins Street, in which he conducted art classes.

About 1905 the liveliness and sense of immediacy obtainable through direct casting in bronze encouraged him to set about mastering the complexities of bronze founding. In a new studio at 59 Gore Street, Fitzroy, he built his own foundry and by trial and error made himself proficient in all aspects of the craft. He regularly exhibited with the Victorian Artists' and Yarra Sculptors' societies, arranging his work as a chef so that more time could be given to his art.

Aided by the patronage of Hugo Meyer, in 1914 Gilbert went to Europe, arriving in London in May. Stranded in England when war broke out, too old for military service or to enrol at any London art school, he resumed making sculpture. He was encouraged by his meeting with eminent sculptors Alfred Drury and Gilbert Bayes and in 1915 sent two works to the Royal Academy exhibition. He exhibited again next year and in 1917 his marble bust, 'The Critic', was purchased for the Tate Gallery under the terms of the Chantrey Bequest. 'The Sun and the Earth' (National Gallery of Victoria) was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1918; this is perhaps his finest work in marble and most clearly proclaims his debt to Rodin and to late nineteenth-century English sculpture. On 7 May 1917 at Chelsea registry office he had married Mabel Annette Woodstock.

Late in 1917 Gilbert joined the Australian Imperial Force as a sculptor in the War Records Section, and after the war travelled throughout France gathering information to make accurate models of the battlegrounds, now in the Australian War Memorial, Canberra. In 1920 he returned with his family to Melbourne where he reoccupied his studio and began work on the memorial to the A.I.F. 2nd Division for Mont St Quentin, France. His work for the rest of his life was predominantly commemorative.

In 1923 Gilbert won the commission for the Anzac memorial to be erected at Port Said, Egypt. Concurrently he worked on the large memorial to Matthew Flinders, for Melbourne. Cast in France, it was unveiled in November 1925 after the sculptor's death of cardiovascular disease at Fitzroy on 3 October. Gilbert was survived by his wife, twin sons and a daughter and was buried in Coburg cemetery. His Anzac memorial, which had proceeded only as far as the full-scale model, was completed by Paul Montford and Sir Bertram Mackennal.

In addition to many portrait busts in marble or bronze, work by Gilbert includes 'The Wheel of Life' (University of Melbourne), 'Grief', a tomb for Sir Samuel Gillott, Melbourne; World War I memorials for the Chamber of Manufactures, Melbourne, the Malvern Town Hall, the British (Australian) Medical Association, Parkville, Shepparton, and Burnside, Adelaide, and the huge 'Australian Soldier', Broken Hill, New South Wales. A portrait drawing of Gilbert by Will Dyson is in Art in Australia, No.14, 1925.

Poorly educated and largely self-taught, Gilbert achieved remarkable work. Unfortunately the time-consuming nature of his occupation, the interruptions of war, and later the almost exclusive demand for memorials served both to dissipate his energies and to divert him from more creatively profitable areas.

Select Bibliography

  • W. Moore, A Jubilee Volume
  • Studio Sketches (Melb, 1906)
  • Ballarat Fine Art Gallery, Early Australian Sculpture, catalogue (Ballarat, 1976)
  • G. Sturgeon, The Development of Australian Sculpture, 1788-1975 (Lond, 1978)
  • K. Scarlett, Australian Sculptors (Melb, 1980)
  • Lone Hand, Oct 1908, Apr 1910
  • Studio (London), 67 (Feb 1916)
  • Argus (Melbourne), 14 July 1909
  • Herald (Melbourne), 3 Jan 1920, 15 Aug 1924, 15 Oct 1925
  • O. Cohn, Me in the making (manuscript, State Library of Victoria).

Citation details

G. Sturgeon, 'Gilbert, Charles Marsh Web (Nash) (1867–1925)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 17 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (Melbourne University Press), 1983

View the front pages for Volume 9

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