Christopher Gallard Gilbert, M.A., F.M.A.
Christopher Gilbert was born in Lancaster on 7 September 1936 and educated at St George’s School, Harpenden, and Keele University, where he read English and history, and was awarded an M.A. by Durham University for his dissertation on pre-Shakespearean comedy. Gilbert crossed the Pennines to Leeds in 1961 and remained there for the rest of his life, most of it spent at Temple Newsam House on the outskirts of the city. He rose by stages from assistant keeper in 1961 to principal keeper in 1974, a post he held until early retirement through ill health in 1995, whereupon he continued to work part-time as Emeritus Curator of Furniture for another two years. Gilbert also served as Director of Leeds City Art Galleries from 1983-95, supervising the extension of the City Art Gallery in 1985, but remaining based at his much loved Temple Newsam. Even after wartime neglect, the house contained much of antiquarian interest but it was the furniture that became his chief preoccupation, along with that in Lotherton Hall, an Edwardian country house museum at Aberford, also owned by Leeds City Council. Over more than a decade Gilbert recorded the makers, dates and provenance of all the woodwork objects and fittings in the two houses, from sconces and girondoles, swags and tea caddies to grand pianos and four-poster beds, some 700 items in all. His two-volume catalogue, Furniture at Temple Newsam House and Lotherton Hall, was published in 1978, jointly by the National Art-Collections Fund and the Leeds Art-Collections Fund to mark the seventy-fifth anniversary of the NACF, which had contributed handsomely to the purchase of some of the finest objects in the houses. In the same year, Gilbert published his two-volume, Life and Work of Thomas Chippendale, a distillation of social history, biography and documentary provenance for each item of furniture. His knowledge of his subject was encyclopaedic; since 1974 he had acted as honorary curator of the Chippendale Society, based at Otley in the West Riding, the cabinetmaker’s birthplace, but this was no nominal appointment. Over the years, Gilbert was instrumental in acquiring exceptional pieces for the society, and also archival material, all now deposited at Temple Newsam and available to scholars. He was an active member of the Furniture History Society, formed in1964 to promote the academic study of the subject. An early council member, he edited its journal, Furniture History, from 1975-83. Hitherto devoted to the fine art aspects of furniture, Gilbert used this outlet to advance his conviction of the importance of English vernacular furniture of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and the oak tradition of the seventeenth century in furniture research. He published papers by scholars working in this field, mounted exhibitions at Temple Newsam and published catalogues of Oak Furniture from Yorkshire Churches (1971), Town and Country Furniture (1972), Oak Furniture from the Lancashire Lakeland Region (1973) and in 1985 the Regional Furniture Society was born. Gilbert was its founding father, editor of its Journal from 1987-93 and vice-president from 1994-8. His cup was full when the Regional Furniture Museum Trust was established, with his help, at High Wycombe in 1996. The 1980s were a productive decade for Gilbert and for Temple Newsam. He restored the interior of the house, reinstating the rooms to their former splendour, as far as possible with furniture, pictures and hangings associated with the families who had lived there, often discovered through Gilbert’s strong personal contacts with auction houses and antique dealers, and acquired through his equally strong contacts with members of trusts, commissions, funds and foundations whom he persuaded to pay for them. In 1983 Gilbert inaugurated a series of major exhibitions at Temple Newsam devoted to neglected aspects of historic interiors, starting with paper hangings, followed by fireplaces in 1985, floors in 1987 and lighting in 1992 all supported by scrupulously prepared and richly illustrated catalogues. Together with smaller exhibitions of back-stairs furniture, school furniture, treen and wooden bygones, these give some indication of Gilbert’s all-embracing curiosity about furniture, and his pioneering work on regionalism. His seminal publication, English Vernacular Furniture, 1750-1900, was published in 1991 and The Dictionary of English Furniture Makers, 1660-1840, published in 1986 by the Furniture History Society remains the standard reference work. With co-editors Geoffrey Beard, Brian Austen, Arthur Bond and Angela Evans, and some 200 voluntary researchers up and down the country, Gilbert played a central role in compiling this first comprehensive sourcebook of furniture makers: a feat of organization as well as of scholarship. With Tessa Murdoch, he published John Channon and Brass-Inlaid Furniture 1730-60 in 1993 and A Pictorial Dictionary of Marked London Furniture, 1700-1840, in 1996. Volume III of Furniture at Temple Newsam House and Lotherton Hall came out in 1998, recording subsequent accessions made possible largely through the brilliant fundraising efforts of Gilbert and his colleagues which added more than £3.5 million to the city’s grant to its museums and art galleries, a ten-fold increase unheard of in the days before the Heritage Lottery Fund. Gilbert was an adviser on furniture to the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and led a successful campaign to save Burton Constable and its contents for the nation in1992. He was chairman of the Furniture History Society from 1991 until his death. Retirement from Temple Newsam in 1997 was marked by the dedication to him of volume xxxiii of Furniture History, a fitting tribute. On his death, members of the Furniture History Society subscribed, along with various eminent charitable trusts, private benefactors and antique dealers to buy, in Gilbert’s memory, a Chippendale secretaire made for Harewood House in 1773 and now displayed in the Chinese Drawing Room at Temple Newsam. He was similarly commemorated by members of the Chippendale Society, of which he was President from 1995-8. A few days before he went into hospital he had inspected `a neat mahogany musick desk’, probably one of two supplied by Chippendale to Sir Rowland Winn of Nostell Priory in 1767, and declared his intention of launching an appeal to buy it for the Society when he returned home. In fact, the £20,000 purchase price was raised by members of the Chippendale Society and by donations from the funds which invariably responded to Gilbert’s personal approaches.The music stand is now on view at Temple Newsam. Although Gilbert was always associated with elegant interiors, a love of books and the decorative arts, he had a strong emotional attachment to the Yorkshire moors and hills and treasured the time he was able to spend at the family’s cottage in the Dales. His enthusiastic birdwatching was part of a wider concern for nature and the environment and he often donated his lecture fees to the World Wide Fund for Nature. He died, aged 62, on 29 September 1998.