Crossing Open Ground – David Gilbert: A Retrospective Search of iMuseum

Crossing Open Ground – David Gilbert: A Retrospective

‘Crossing Open Ground’ is being staged at the Manx Museum as part of a collaborative venture between Manx National Heritage and the Sayle Gallery, where a second exhibition of work by David Gilbert entitled ‘Another Story About How It Is’ is also being staged. The two exhibitions provide complementary explorations and displays of David Gilbert’s artwork and illustrate the wide variety of work that he created throughout his artistic career.



David Gilbert changed people’s lives…

However you knew him, whether you were one of the young people living at the Bishops Demesne Farm on the Island, were a fellow artist or a family friend…

knowing David Gilbert (and his wife Sheila) would mean you would never look at the world in the same way again.


So who was David Gilbert?

  • A self-taught sculptor and artist who worked mainly in wood
  • An Oxbridge English graduate
  • An artist who exhibited his work (but not that often)
  • A person who worked for years with young people, in particular those on the margins of society
  • A teacher, both at home and at the college
  • Someone who was a great fan of philosophy and literature
  • Someone who had their own smallholding and grew their own food
  • An important member of the local Manx art community and founder member of Arts in Mann in 1980s

But most importantly, David Gilbert was a person who inspired others to be creative.



Inspiration – Importance of the land & landscape to David’s work

At the beautiful but isolated farmstead of Bishop’s Demesne in the hills above Ballaugh, Dave and Sheila lived off the land.

This closeness to the Earth and its creatures are central to Dave’s being and work, for it is the clue to his respect for materials, his reverence for the handling of them, and the importance of the processes involved.

(Norman Sayle, former Head of Art at IoM College, 1989)


Sheila was the beating heart of the farm… she enabled Dave to immerse himself (in his art/ in his life) she was amazing….

Dave was amazing, he would get anyone/ everyone involved in art, didn’t matter who they were – children who didn’t fit into the school system – everyone would spend time in the workshop creating things

Everything was valued, didn’t matter what it was like… he gave them the skills to make the things they wanted to make (all handmade presents at Christmas)

(Debbie Sanderson, family friend, 2016)



The Ayres

The first piece “7 days on The Ayres”, arose from a week alone camping in the north of the Island, and it explored, though not entirely successfully, a variety of approaches to relief carving in the one work (7 days on The Ayres).

(David Gilbert, artist, 1989)


The Storm

I think of him, years ago, laughing about the time a storm-force wind blew his tiny tent away in the middle of the night on the Ayres! I would have cursed and felt hard done by; he celebrated!

(Norman Sayle, former Head of Art at IoM College, 1989)


Manx National Heritage Maquettes

David’s work can be seen all around the top (of the Manx Museum), clearly exampling the fusion of modern art with the Island’s ancient sculptural traditions.

I well remember… when we grappled for some time with the difficulty of combining the figurative style of a Celtic cross with the depiction of a miner, a fisherman and a T.T. motorbike.

He has in his typically quiet way, done much to convince others how the creativity and essentially Manx aspects of the Island’s modern art can be constructively absorbed into our streetscapes and public buildings.

(Stephen Harrison, Director of Manx Museum & National Trust, 1989)



The Hare

Why is the Hare important?

In mythology, the Hare is the most all-embracing, paradoxical of figures:

it is creator father and universal mother,

redeemer and the self that is redeemed,

both trickster and guide

but above all the symbol of life as transformation itself

(Nicholas Mosley, novelist, 1989)


In ‘Mountain Hares’ they (the figures) are distanced, not confronting one another, facing the same way.

Between them, connecting them, they are carrying what seems to be a microcosm of our world.

(Nicholas Mosley, novelist, 1989)



David Gilbert’s sculptures are about birth, love, death…

about the unmanageableness of human life but also its miracles…

about the effort to confront pain in order to know what to do about it.

(Nicholas Mosley, novelist, 1989)


In 1971 the Gilbert family moved to the Isle of Man and lived on a small holding near Bishopscourt on the west coast. Here David Gilbert set up another workshop…

In the atmosphere of untapped energy that seems characteristic of the Isle of Man there flourished a remarkable conjunction of artwork, therapy, the earning of money, and the hard demands of a smallholding farm.

It seemed that the practice of art was not only to produce healing symbols, but itself (art) was that which healed.

(Nicholas Mosley, novelist, 1989)



So why was David Gilbert and his work so important?

You would think that running a small holding, making sculptures, teaching art students, caring for needy youngsters, and running the Travelling Gallery would be enough…

more than any other person in the Island he has found the time and will to campaign on behalf of the arts…

(Norman Sayle, former Head of Art at IoM College, 1989)


The Importance of Creativity

There could be an authentic creative satisfaction in the extraordinarily sophisticated task of enabling a 14 year old

who has so far smashed his way through life

destroying almost everything and everyone within reach,

to begin, to continue and to complete the making of a three-legged stool.

(David Gilbert, artist, 1989)



Bishops Demesne drawings

Most of the Bishops Demesne series were done in 1984, when I resolved to try and document the life on our farm on the west coast of the Isle of Man, by making a drawing every week of the year of some aspect or activity. I didn’t quite manage to keep this up, but about 40 drawings got completed, and others, done before and after, were added to the series.

(David Gilbert, artist, 1989)


Falkland Cow

Many of the pieces (relief sculptures), for example “The Falkland Cow” were very closely allied to series of drawings that had been worked previously.

This series arose from the birth of a calf by one of our cows coinciding with the deaths in the South Atlantic conflict, and the pictures in the newspapers of the sinking of a warship, and of the victims of Exocet missile attacks. I think I was particularly affected by that war because of my own national service in the Royal Navy.

(David Gilbert, artist, 1989)


Designing the maquettes for the new Manx Museum extension

Dave was modestly pessimistic at first but, of course, the result is a great success…with his re-interpretation of the original Viking designs on our front door, provides a marvellous stimulus to come inside and discover more.

(Stephen Harrison, Director of Manx Museum & National Trust, 1989)


Why was the Hare important to David Gilbert?

This piece grew out of watching and drawing hares from a bedroom window, and walking up the hill – Slieu Curn – in the winter to look at the mountain hares – wonderful creatures alert with dignity and self-containment in their lone lives on the moors.

(David Gilbert, artist, 1989)



Ball & Balancing Man

David Gilbert had continued to carve… large wooden balls, symbols of order that might perhaps be recognised as such anywhere in a fragmenting world.

In the 1970s… he was producing the balancing-man sculptures, the arrangements of small figures distanced yet connected.

(Nicholas Mosley, novelist, 1989)


The Balancing Man Sculptures

Another approach to making a single finite image of the human situation. More than a dozen were made altogether but only 2 or 3 are the least bit successful. They were I think too simplified and idealised an image, although there is always inherent a certain fragility – the possible loss of balance, the long fall. I got stuck with them for a time trying to make the definitive Balanced Man.

(David Gilbert, artist, 1989)


“The Tree Heads” (1980-1982)

The desire to carve over life-size heads originated in a moment of experiencing the extraordinary presence of Picasso’s beautiful and monumental “Head for Apollinaire” in the churchyard of St Germain des Prés in Paris.

(David Gilbert, artist, 1989)


The Composite Pieces: “In The Presence of…” (Winter)

In the late 1970s and early 80s I began to assemble and group together in different contexts some of the smaller carvings that had been around for a time… culminating in the large group “In The Presence of…” (Mountain Hares).

(David Gilbert, artist, 1989)


The Composite Pieces: “In The Presence of…” (Head)

In the late 1970s and early 80s I began to assemble and group together in different contexts some of the smaller carvings that had been around for a time.

The single form free-standing figurative sculpture that could contain complex meanings, which had absorbed me since “March 10th” in 1964, seemed a less and less possible, or relevant, way to work. Slowly the pieces called “In The Presence Of…” were carved and assembled and many times, reassembled…

(David Gilbert, artist, 1989)



The Bishop’s Ball (1973)

The Bishop’s Ball was carved from a felled tree from Bishopscourt, the official residence of the Bishop of Sodor and Man until 1979.

The genesis of making wooden balls, the first in 1967, was a depression lasting several weeks when it wasn’t possible to carve anything because there seemed to be nothing worth carving. What was worthwhile carving?…

The sphere seemed to me to be the ultimate 3-dimensional form, and that whatever in the world it was it would be “understood” and would “mean” the same thing, because it was so old in the human psyche.

(David Gilbert, artist, 1989)


Discover more about David Gilbert’s artwork and the different ways in which his work was inspired by the Manx landscape at the ‘Crossing Open Ground’ exhibition, which is on display at the Manx Museum, Douglas, until 5 May 2018. Admission is free.