Henry Gibbs 1631–1713
Aeneas and his Family Fleeing Burning Troy
Oil on canvas
1548 x 1610 mm
Inscribed ‘Hnry Gibbs fecit / 1654’ on base of column
Purchased (Grant-in-Aid) 1994
…; thought to have been purchased in Britain before World War II by Samuel Hartveld, from whom said to have been bought by Rene van den Broeck; by whom sold to Armex Shipping Co., Antwerp; from whom acquired by Jan de Maere, Brussels; from whom purchased by Tate 1994.
Tate Report 1992–94, London 1994, p.46, reproduced; Karen Hearn, ‘Acquisitions of Seventeenth-Century Painting at the Tate Gallery’, Apollo, December 1996, p.21, reproduced fig.2; Karen Hearn, ‘Rewriting History on the Walls’, Country Life, May 1997, p.53, p.55, fig.7, reproduced in colour; Karen Hearn, ‘An English Gentleman Painter, Henry Gibbs’, Burlington Magazine, February 1998, pp.99–101, reproduced fig.31.
The acquisition by Tate of this mid-seventeenth-century history painting marked the discovery of a previously unrecorded English painter. The canvas is signed ‘Hnry [sic] Gibbs fecit / 1654’ on the base of the central column. Although there were various seventeenth-century references to artists surnamed Gibbs connected with the county of Kent, this name had been unknown to art historians.
Civic records for Canterbury revealed the existence of a gentry-born painter named Henry Gibbs who was both an alderman and mayor of the city. He signed his own pedigree at the Heralds’ Visitation of Kent, made in 1663, and a comparison of that signature with the one on the Tate painting indicates that they are by the same hand. Both show an unusual trick of eliding the ‘H’ and the ‘e’ in ‘Henry’ so that the ‘e’ disappears. Comparable examples of Henry Gibbs’s signature are also found in the Burmote Minutes and Accounts for the City of Canterbury.
No other paintings signed by Gibbs have so far appeared, but a large painting in Canterbury, formerly in the Court Hall (also known as the Guildhall), and now in The Royal Museum and Art Gallery in that city, was traditionally said to have been presented by him in the late 1680s. It is a copy of Boetius Adams Bolswert’s print after Sir Peter Paul Rubens’s Judgement of Solomon. Although the Canterbury painting is presumed to date from the late 1680s, its handling is fully consistent with that of Aeneas and his Family Fleeing Burning Troy, dated 1654.
Surviving British narrative paintings from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries are rare. Aeneas and his Family Fleeing Burning Troy, taken from Virgil’s Aeneid (2, 671–729), seems, however, to have been a comparatively popular subject, either on its own account, or as part of a decorative cycle. Its iconography went back to classical times, and it was the recognised emblem of filial piety, for example as Alciato’s ‘Pietas filiorum in parentes’. In 1654 it would have been an especially topical theme, with the publication of John Ogilby’s English edition of Virgil’s Works, with engraved illustrations mainly after Francis Cleyn. During a period of Civil War in Britain, its themes of destruction, flight and exile would have been particularly pertinent and, as nothing is known of Gibbs’s movements during this decade, it is not impossible that he executed the painting while abroad. It might have had some special and personal significance either to the artist or to an unknown patron, or to both. The unusual, almost square shape of the picture suggests that it may have formed part of a decorative scheme, perhaps (like the Judgement of Solomon) above a chimneypiece.
Unlike the Judgement of Solomon, which was painted at a time when Gibbs’s civic career was probably at its most challenging and left little time or energy for creative thought, no single prototype for the Aeneas has been found. Rather, Gibbs seems to have constructed the composition from elements found in a number of imported Netherlandish engravings. Perhaps as a result of this, the component figures differ from one another slightly in scale.
The narrative scheme is as follows: as Troy is sacked by the Greeks, Aeneas flees the burning city with his young son Ascanius at his side. On his shoulders he carries his father Anchises who clutches figures of household gods. His wife Creusa, who in Virgil’s text merely falls behind and is lost, is here being captured by a Greek soldier. This last detail is rare if not unique in representations of the scene, and indicates how Gibbs was seeking an intelligent solution to the problem of how to depict the loss of Creusa. He found it by taking her figure, and the head and arm of the soldier, from the engraving Wickedness and Violence on Earth by Johannes Sadeler I (1550–1600) after Maarten de Vos (1532–1603), in itself a significantly relevant subject in Britain in 1654. The figure of Ascanius comes from a group of the same three figures in an engraving of Piety, attributed to M.-H. Wierix or Adriaen Collaert, probably also after de Vos.
In constructing the composition, Gibbs may also have relied on other prints, such as Agostino Carracci’s engraving after Federico Barocci’s Aeneas Fleeing Troy 1586–9.
If one looks for comparable material within Britain, Gibbs’s work most nearly resembles that of Francis Cleyn (c.1582–1658), the Baltic-born artist who worked in Denmark and Italy before settling in England in 1625. A decorative painter, Cleyn was manager and designer at the Mortlake tapestry works, as well as the illustrator of the 1654 edition of Virgil. Both the portraitist William Dobson (1611–1646) and the miniaturist Richard Gibson (1615–1690) trained with Cleyn, and it is possible that Henry Gibbs may also have done so, although no direct connection between Gibbs and Cleyn has yet been found. Gibbs’s composition might indeed have been suitable for the central field of a tapestry.
Henry Gibbs was baptised on 20 March 1630/31 at St Andrew Undershaft, London. Apart from the date 1654 on the Tate Gallery painting, there is no documentary reference to him until his marriage near Canterbury in December 1661. This might indicate that he was abroad prior to the Restoration in 1660. On 8 February 1664, ‘Mr Henry Gibbs, limbner’ paid £1 for admittance into the Carpenters’ Company of Canterbury (which also covered painters), and on 24 April 1673 ‘Henry Gibbs, Gent’ became a freeman of the City of Canterbury by gift, presenting a painting of Charles II’s arms to the Guildhall. On 9 March 1677 he took an apprentice, William Blogg. Gibbs served as an alderman of Canterbury during the 1680s, until 25 May 1688 when he was among a group of aldermen removed from office on the orders of King James II. At the end of November in the same year, however – the year of the ‘Glorious Revolution’ – the mayor was ejected and Gibbs was elected in his place. In 1688/9 Gibbs was paid £10 for a painting carried out at the Guildhall, including the ‘chimney piece’ traditionally identified with the Judgement of Solomon. In 1706 he was once more Mayor of Canterbury. On 19 October 1713 he signed his will, leaving all his chattels to his wife, and was buried at St George’s, Canterbury, on 17 November of the same year.