No scene of the wild, rocky coasts of the westernmost counties of Devon and Cornwall escaped the attention of artist William Gibbons. His passion was to depict the turbulent tides and their relationship with the land. Nature's eternal attrition was captured by his brush and he made a successful name for himself on the west country art scene.
Gibbons’ career was reached via a great struggle from the unfortunate circumstances of his childhood. Newspapers reported that these were ‘fatal to that artistic talent undoubtedly born with him.’ Gibbons apparently lacked a proper education, artistic or otherwise. Indeed, the city in which he grew up, Exeter, was struggling during the 19th century. Cholera was rife and it remained, for the most part, untouched by the developments of the industrial revolution which were bringing wealth to other areas.
Perhaps this is why Gibbons moved, in the early years of adulthood, to the much more stable and prosperous Plymouth. Here, he worked as a photographic artist to ensure a stable income. It seems, at this time, that within the west-country there was not the pool of patrons and buyers that an artist might find in London or more central areas of England. However, the ephemeral, mystical, constantly changing landscapes of the west-country were appealing to audiences, and with developments in the railways, tourism was growing into a booming trade. As well as this, local pride in the landscape should also be considered a drive for artists to sell the scenes of the sea they captured. There was a market for works, even if it was not as big as the heaving trade of bigger, centralised cities.
Gibbons began to pursue his passion for art and developed a respectable reputation. He found fascination in capturing the many moods of the tide.
In gentle washes of blues and foamy whites, Gibbons depicts it gently swilling in the ports of Plymouth and other harbour towns such as Polperro or Boscastle. Then, in vivid streaks, the tide is caught in play, dramatically rolling and tumbling over rocks, threatening the lighthouses which stand strong and steady.
These studies of the sea he always coupled with dramatic skies set about with just as much drama. Clouds roll and ripple, breaking to allow the piercing clarity of the azure sky to break through. Gibbons paints, at times, with a blend of realism and romanticism which allows a dramatic tone to touch his work. The effect this has is to highlight the theatrical spectacle of the changing scenery of the west-country coastline.
He was also particularly fond of capturing shipwrecks, demonstrating his fascination for the relationship between the land and sea. ‘There was not a wreck within reach that he did not visit and sketch,’ newspapers reported. It seems, then, that Gibbons undertook many trips across his native west-country, perhaps at a moment’s notice eagerly heading off for the latest wreck to reach his ears. Capturing such dramatic scenes would have surely appealed to locals and tourists alike. Indeed, these scenes are painted with more realism than others, giving the impression these were as much documents of the event as they were pieces of art.
All of this work earned Gibbons the respect of his local art industry. He was part of the Art Club in Plymouth, founded to celebrate local artists, and was ‘a constant exhibitor at all Western picture exhibitions.’ Upon his death, local newspapers petitioned for his work to be represented in the collection of the Plymouth Athenaeum, a society dedicated to the celebration of the arts. ‘No collection of pictures professing to represent Westcountry artists of this century can be regarded as complete without an example of the late Mr Gibbons,’ they stated.
A number of his works are now held in Plymouth’s foremost museum and art gallery, The Box.
Born in Exeter.
Married Elizabeth Lewis.
Became a member of Plymouth Arts Club.
Died in Plymouth.