Obituary: Gilbert Watt, sculptor

Gilbert Watt
Gilbert Watt
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Born: 19 September, 1919, in Aberdeen. Died: 12 February, 2013, in Aberdeen, aged 94

Posing with his most publicised work, Gilbert Watt looked every inch the bohemian artist – goatee beard, scruffy hair, an ill-fitting jacket crumpled and stained on the sleeve.

That he cared not one jot for material possessions was obvious. But his down-at-heel image was the diametric opposite to the glamorous object he had just created, a life-size, semi-nude model of the cinema goddess Brigitte Bardot.

Commissioned to promote her latest film, Love Is My Profession, it was unveiled at London’s Cameo Royal Theatre in September 1958, prompting worldwide publicity.

The Miami News reported it was so lifelike it was “good enough to eat”. Another paper claimed it sparked a riot.

The statue, complete with glass eyes, real hair, painted nails and clad only a bikini bottom, had been chained at the ankle for safe keeping. But that apparently failed to prevent its removal by a bunch of students who took it for a return trip around the London Underground.

Whether the young star actually sat for Watt was not recorded, but the artist, originally from Aberdeen, had an inherent ability to sculpt from memory, without need of a model.

However, he had not begun his working life as an artist. The sixth of seven children, he was born to an illiterate farrier, James Watt, and his wife Margaret, five days before an elder brother was killed in action in the closing stages of the First World War.

Educated at Sunnybank Primary and Kittybrewster School, on his way home from lessons he would stop at his father’s smiddy to read to him, sharing various books, stories and poetry.

He left school to become an apprentice cabinet maker but was called up to serve in the Cameron Highlanders as war brewed in Europe for the second time in a generation.

Always a sickly child, as a private he contracted pneumonia and was given a medical discharge from the army in the summer of 1940.

He then embarked on studies at Gray’s School of Art in Aberdeen, specialising in sculpting under the tutelage of TB Huxley-Jones.

He gained his diploma in 1946 and a further qualification the following year, before heading to London to study at the Royal Academy Schools under the figure sculptors Siegfried Charoux and Maurice Lambert. In 1948, he was awarded a Landseer prize of £10 and a bronze medal for one of his sculpture compositions. That same year, he married Irene, his landlady’s daughter, in London.

He left the Royal Academy Schools in 1952 and then, having won the Prix de Rome scholarship, he and his wife spent two years in Italy where he attended the British School in Rome.

Returning to London, where he had a studio, he worked on private and commercial commissions, including the Brigitte Bardot model of which he is reported to have made two copies, one for the French film company, the other for an American film stars’ Hall of Fame.

Over the years, his works ranged from a private garden sculpture to a crest for the Punjab Regiment, bronze shield for the Grandholm Mills in Aberdeen plus a stone carving for a Colorado Springs businessman and life figure for a bank official in Germany.

He also produced numerous heads and busts of notable figures, including the artists Sir Alfred Munnings and Glasgow-born and principal of Gray’s School of Art, Ian Fleming.

Although he possessed an enormous talent, he was not blessed with a head for business and, on occasion, failed to fulfil a commission, having moved on to something else.

However, he continued to exhibit, showing works across the country at the Royal Academy, the Royal Scottish Academy, Scone Palace, Swansea University and Shakespeare’s Birthplace Exhibition, among others.

By the 1960s he had moved back to Aberdeen, living in his mother’s home near the River Don estuary where he continued to work, undistracted by material things, often so absorbed in painting that he failed to notice the day had passed without food. He sculpted until a couple of years ago and painted until just two months before his death.

An intelligent, thoughtful and well-read man, he had an interest in philosophy, kept abreast of contemporary music and literature and took the Times and the New Statesman faithfully.

Undoubtedly an eccentric, who became somewhat reclusive in his later years, he developed an aversion to having his photograph taken.

Though he had spent his life creating portraits of others he preferred, even in his 90s, to pay for his bus fare rather than have his own image on a bus pass.

Widowed in 2002, he is survived by a nephew and two nieces.