Sawrey Gilpin was born on 30 October 1733 at Scaleby, the seventh child in a family bursting with artistic talent. His father, Captain John Bernard Gilpin, was a landscape painter and his elder brother, William, was known as “one of the best amateur artistic painters of the time” (Andrews). Recognizing his son’s natural talent, Gilpin’s father sent him to study with marine painter Samuel Scott in 1749. Gilpin remained with Scott for a total of nine years, serving as an apprentice for seven and Scott’s assistant for two. It appears Gilpin did not produce any marine work himself but reportedly helped Scott in several of his commissions throughout the 1750s. Although the majority of Gilpin’s artistic training involved marine painting, the young man’s interests lay elsewhere. He was drawn toward the markets, carts, and horses of Convent Garden and used these subjects to produce his first works. It was these drawings that supposedly captured the attention of William Augustus, duke of Cumberland, which secured him his first official royal job in 1759 when he was commissioned to paint the duke’s stud at Newmarket and Windsor. In 1759 he also completed a set of etchings of horses’ heads that would be used to illustrate a manuscript entitled, “On the character of horses,” written by his brother William. Forty years later, William published Remarks on Forest Scenery, and other Woodland Views and included several of his brother’s etchings. Historian Stephen Deuchar remarks that these etchings prove that Gilpin’s “grasp of the problems of the visual representation of the emotions of animals was as sophisticated as that of Stubbs [his contemporary], but he never exploited it fully” (Deuchar).
|"The Duke of Cumberland visiting his stud" (1764)|
Gilpin began a career as a sporting and animal painter in the 1760s but could not fully support himself as an artist so he began teaching drawing at the Cheam School in Surrey (William was the headmaster). In eighteenth- century England, sports painters were not as revered as portrait or landscape artists. Ellis Waterhouse comments, “After portraits of himself, his wife, and his children the English patron of the eighteenth century liked best to have a portrait of his horse… But patrons were often less fastidious over the artistic quality of horse pictures than of human portraits” (Waterhouse, 297). Gilpin was thought to have remarkable artistic talent and some believed it was lamentable that his talent was “drawn aside to the meaner employment of horse painting” (Pilkington, 406). Nevertheless, Gilpin would remain a horse painter throughout his life. For the majority of his artistic career, Gilpin found himself competing with another popular horse painter, George Stubbs. Although generally considered rivals, both men sought to use their work as a way to elevate animal painting to a level of higher respect and seriousness. In order to achieve this goal, Stubbs published work utilizing lions and horses that attempted to portray “the range of passion which horses are capable of expressing” (Cust). Gilpin took this idea a step further between 1768 and 1772 when he published three “animal-history” pieces, which depicted scene’s from Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. The only other historic piece he produced was The Election of Darius. Despite the efforts of Stubbs and Gilpin, sports painting would remain low of the artistic scale.
|"The Election of Darius"|
|"Gulliver Addressing the Houyhnhnms"|
On 6 June 1759 Gilpin married Elizabeth Broom, with whom he would have six children. His son William Sawrey would continue to artistic family tradition as a watercolorist and landscape gardener. From 1762 to 1783, Gilpin's work was displayed in the Society of Artists and Gilpin would become director of the Society in 1773 and president in 1774. In 1768 Gilpin went on a tour of the Scottish Highlands with Colonel Thorton of York and George Garrard, who had married one of Gilpin’s daughters and was a fellow painter and sculptor. Gilpin had begun working with Colonel Thorton and produced Death of the Fox for the colonel to add to his sporting collection in 1793. This work was created in the Frans Snyders style, which gives the scene a “naturalistic liveliness” (Waterhouse, 305). In 1786 Gilpin and his family lived in Knightbridge, London and his work began to be exhibited at the Royal Academy the same year. Gilpin was elected A.R.A in 1795 and R.A. in 1797. His “Diploma Work” he dedicated to the Royal Academy upon his election in 1797 was “Horses in a Thunderstorm.”
|"Horses in a Thunderstorm"|
Gilpin retired from painting after his wife’s death in 1802 and he moved to Southill, Bedforshire to stay with his friend, Samuel Whitbread, for a period. He returned to London in 1805 where he lived with his daughters at 16 Brompton Crescent until his death on 8 March 1807.
Andrews, Malcolm. “Gilpin, William (1724–1804).” Malcolm Andrews In Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, online ed., edited by Lawrence Goldman. Oxford: OUP, 2004. http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/10762 (accessed June 15, 2015).
"Gilpin." Grove Art Online. Oxford Art Online. Oxford University Press, accessed June 15, 2015, http://www.oxfordartonline.com/subscriber/article/grove/art/T032303pg2.et al.
Cust, L. H. “Gilpin, Sawrey (1733–1807).” Rev. Peter Tomory. In Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, edited by H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison. Oxford: OUP, 2004. Online ed., edited by Lawrence Goldman, 2004. http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/10761 (accessed June 15, 2015).
Eaton, Fred. A. and J.E. Hodgson. The Royal Academy and Its Members 1768-1830. New York: Scribner’s, 1905. https://archive.org/details/royalacademyitsm00hodgrich.
Pilkington, Matthew. A general dictionary of painters. London: Tegg, 1829. http://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/008633248.
Waterhouse, Ellis Kirkham. Painting in Britain, 1530 -1790. Yale University Press, 1994. https://books.google.com/books?id=cd8A1z2U9DMC&vq=gilpin&source=gbs_navlinks_s.