Eric Gill, one of the great British artist-craftsmen of the 20th century, died 70 years ago today. Much revered in his lifetime and afterwards, his reputation took a dive in the late 1980s when Fiona MacCarthy published her biography, Eric Gill. In this, she established - largely because of access to his private diaries - that despite his religious devotion, he had lived a very perverse family and sexual life, one that would have seen him in prison in today’s society. The revelations sparked a controversy, which hasn’t yet abated, over whether an artist’s private life should affect the assessment of his/her art. MacCarthy herself believes the controversy has left Gill’s artistic reputation strengthened, but a hard-line Catholic website, which has made some of the diary quotes, used by MacCarthy, available online, calls Gill a ‘filthy creature’.
Gill was born in 1882 in Brighton, Sussex, and studied at Chichester Technical and Art School. In 1900, he moved to London to train as an architect but took evening classes in stone masonry and calligraphy, and eventually gave up his architectural training to become a calligrapher and monumental mason. In 1904, he married Ethel Hester Moore (later called Mary), and three years later they moved to the village of Ditchling a few miles north of Brighton. By 1909, he had turned to figure sculpting, and his first public success came in 1911 with a one-man exhibition of stone carvings in Chelsea. His work was admired by the critic Arthur Clutton-Brock, and was included by Roger Fry in his Second Post-Impressionist Exhibition.
In 1913, Gill and his wife converted to Catholicism, and moved two miles north to Ditchling Common where their property had outbuildings and farming land. Gill became intent on a more basic life, producing food, making clothes, and educating his daughters at home. Other Catholic craft workers were attracted to the place, which evolved into, according to one resident, ‘a fascinating sort of communal early Christianity’. In this period, Gill, together with Hilary Pepler, a writer and poet, founded the St Dominic’s Press, for which Gill not only contributed lettering and wood engravings but also wrote articles on religion and its relationship to the workman and to art.
From 1924, he contributed engravings to the Golden Cockerel Press, producing beautiful handmade limited editions of classic works, which brought him international fame. The same year, he moved his family and several followers to a former Benedictine monastery at Capel-y-ffin in Wales, and set up new workshops. The most influential of Gill’s commissions at Capel-y-ffin, says Fiona MacCarthy in her article for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (DNB), came from the Monotype Corporation. The typefaces designed by Gill for Monotype - Perpetua, Gill Sans-serif, and Solus - remain ‘his greatest achievement’, she says; and Gill Sans-serif can be considered ‘the first truly modern typeface’ which had a lasting impact on 20th century European type design.
Tired of Capel-y-ffin, Gill moved once again, in 1928, this time to Pigotts near High Wycombe in Buckinghamshire, where he set up new ventures including a printing press. In the years to follow he also worked on large-scale commissions, for the new London Electric Railway headquarters, for the BBC’s Broadcasting House in London, and the League of Nations building in Geneva. He also designed the background to the first George VI definitive stamp series for the Post Office.
Gill was made a Royal Designer for Industry, the highest British award for designers, by the Royal Society of Arts; and he was a founder-member of the newly established Faculty of Royal Designers for Industry. He died from lung cancer (he had been an inveterate smoker) on 17 November 1940. Further information can be found from Wikipedia, The Eric Gill Society or The National Archives.
Gill’s towering reputation as an artist - he has been called ‘perhaps the greatest English artist-craftsman of the twentieth century’ - took a blow in 1989, when Faber & Faber published Fiona MacCarthy’s biography, Eric Gill. What MacCarthy did, which no earlier biographer had done, was to take a closer look at Gill’s personal life without avoiding the difficult area of sex. She established - thanks to Gill’s unpublished diaries held at the University of California - that he had a voracious sexual appetite, and that despite being happily married most of the time to Mary, he had been a persistent adulterer, had committed incest with his underage daughters, and with his sister, and that he had even experimented sexually with animals.
Since these revelations, there has been an ongoing debate over the implications for the man as an artist, see a BBC article from 2007, entitled Can the art of a paedophile be celebrated? MacCarthy herself can often be found writing on the subject, but her conclusion (see Written in stone, The Guardian, 2006) is this: ‘What is striking is that once the immediate commotion over Gill’s sexual aberrations had died down, there was a new surge of interest in his work.’ And this is what she concludes in the DNB article: ‘After the initial shock, especially within the Roman Catholic community, as Gill’s history of adulteries, incest, and experimental connection with his dog became public knowledge in the late 1980s, the consequent reassessment of his life and art left his artistic reputation strengthened. Gill emerged as one of the twentieth century’s strangest and most original controversialists, a sometimes infuriating, always arresting spokesman for man’s continuing need of God in an increasingly materialistic civilization, and for intellectual vigour in an age of encroaching triviality.’
A very different view is taken by Tradition In Action, a hard-line Catholic website which says it works for ‘a restoration of Christian civilization, adapted to contemporary historical circumstances’. Patrick Odou has written on Gill for the website with academic precision. He has double-checked all MacCarthy’s diary quotes (and made them available online adding dates, in some cases, which do not appear in the printed biography) and concludes: ‘Now, after studying Eric Gill, I see that Catholics are also being advised to stomach the terrible morals of a pornographic and blasphemous author. It is incomprehensible that any Catholic would suggest lending an ear to such a filthy creature.’
Away from the controversy over Gill’s sex life, there is some more information about his diaries online at a website for St Wilfrid’s Church, Bognor Regis. A page is devoted to Gill and the stone carvings he did for another Bognor church, St John’s Church, demolished in the early 1970s. Peter Green and John Hawkins, authors of the article, explain how they confirmed Gill’s work on the church by laboriously trawling through the copies of his diaries kept at the Tate Gallery Archive in London.
In her biography, MacCarthy describes how Gill began keeping a diary, aged 15 just a few months after enrolling at art school, and how the first entries set a pattern for the rest of his life: ‘They are tight, straightforward, almost obsessively methodical records of events, details of expenditure, itemizations of work done and to be charged for. They are almost wholly factual. Few views, no flights of fancy.’ She draws on direct or indirect quotes from Gill’s diaries more than a score of times, but it is the references to his sexual activity that really stand out. MacCarthy notes, for example, how Gill’s own need for, or at least his enjoyment of, two women on the premises, sometimes both in the same day or night, ‘comes over graphically in his diary entries with their sexual sign language: one x for Mary, xx for May.’
Here are some of the entries quoted by MacCarthy in Eric Gill (though, a few of the dates have been sourced from the Tradition In Action website).
18 August 1922
‘Began drawing of fucking for Fr. J.O’C [Father John O’Connor, MacCarthy explains, was a parish priest, a mentor for Gill and Peplar, who was always a good confidant for Gill. He once said, she writes, ‘Gill saw things and persons in the nude, and it was a tendency he shared.]
23 August 1922
‘Finished fucking drawings and diagrams for Fr. O’C.’
30 November 1925
‘Bath after supper and dancing (nude). R & M fucked one another, after, M. holding me the while.’
22 June 1927
‘A man’s penis and balls are very beautiful things and the power to see this beauty is not confined to the opposite sex. The shape of the head of a man’s erect penis is very excellent in the mouth. There is no doubt about this. I have often wondered - now I know.’
1 November 1929
‘Bath and slept with Gladys [Gill’s sister].’
8 December 1929
‘Expt. with dog in eve’
13 December 1929
‘Bath. Continued experiment with dog after and discovered that a dog will join with a man.’