Eric Gill: a moral problem – Catholic Herald

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A hundred years ago the sculptor Eric Gill and friends set up the famous Catholic craftsmen’s association, the Guild of St Joseph and St Dominic, in the village of Ditchling, East Sussex. What was the guild – and who was its founder?

Eric Gill is a challenge – not just to thinking Catholics, but to anyone with a sense of morality, and to anyone who appreciates art. 

As well as creating many well-known typefaces, still in use today, Gill produced some of the most beautiful sculptures and engravings of the last century. His work is both deeply spiritual and deeply sensual – sometimes in the same piece.

His use of line is simple and firm; his studies of the human body (usually nude) are exquisite. The simplicity of work like Girl in Bath (1923), Eve (1926) or Female Nude (1937) is breathtaking. Gill found the human body, female and male, fascinating and beautiful, and an expression of God’s Creation. “If naked bodies can arouse a hell-hunger of lust, they can and do kindle a hunger for Heaven,” he wrote in 1940.

Gill was accepted into the Catholic Church in 1913 on his 31st birthday. Although he had been moving in that direction for some time, the trigger was his deep spiritual response to hearing Benedictine monks in Louvain singing plainchant the previous year. Within months he was commissioned to design and carve the Stations of the Cross for the new Westminster Cathedral.

He brought spirituality and sensuality together in his engravings for The Song of Songs (1925) which, unsurprisingly, are unashamedly erotic. In contrast, his engravings for The Four Gospels (1931) show a gaunt, very human Christ on the Cross. 

In 1907, before his conversion, Gill moved from Hammersmith in west London to Ditchling in East Sussex, with his family and his apprentice Joseph Cribb, to pursue his ideas of medieval art production. Over the next few years he was joined by friends, the calligraphy teacher Edward Johnston (who designed the sans serif typeface used on the London Underground) in 1912 and the poet and handpress-printer Douglas (later called Hilary) Pepler in 1915, and their families. Pepler converted from Quakerism to Catholicism in 1916, and set up the St Dominic’s Press to spread their ideas, to print Gill’s engravings and to print books “about crafts which machinery threatened with extinction”. A community of Catholic artists developed on Ditchling Common, two miles north of the village.

1940: British sculptor and engraver Eric Gill (1882 – 1940) at his home in Speen, Buckinghamshire. (Photo by Tunbridge-Sedgwick Pictorial Press/Getty Images)

Gill had had connections with the Benedictines and the Carthusians, but it was the Dominicans who drew him to them, through an influential friar, Fr Vincent McNabb OP. Gill, Pepler and another colleague, the poet and artist Desmond Chute, became Dominican Tertiaries; Joseph Cribb was to join them later.

Between them, in 1920 they conceived the idea of a guild of Catholic craftsmen who would put the worship of God before Mammon, and in 1921, based on medieval guilds, the Guild of St Joseph and St Dominic was announced. 

The motto of the Guild was “Men rich in virtue studying beautifulness living in peace in their houses”. Its members must be Dominican Tertiaries; they must own their own tools and workshops; handcraft was a condition of their work; and as they saw work as a form of divine worship, high standards must therefore be observed. St Joseph, traditionally a craftsman, was their patron saint.

By the early 1920s as many as 41 Catholics were part of the artistic community at Ditchling Common. They bought a farm and built a chapel, which had beautiful murals painted by Guild member David Jones.

Between them they had many cultural connections; among visitors to Ditchling were the writers GK Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc, whose Distributist ideas the Guild followed.

There were problems from the very start. Edward Johnston had never been part of the Guild, nor even a Catholic. He had joined the artistic community on Ditchling Common, but moved back into the village, and gradually became separated from the rest of them. Desmond Chute left Ditchling and the Guild almost immediately to train for the priesthood.

Most cataclysmic was the departure of Gill himself. He had become disillusioned with the community at Ditchling, and had fallen out badly with his former close friend Hilary Pepler; Gill also disapproved of his eldest daughter Betty wanting to marry Pepler’s son David. In 1924 he resigned from the Guild and moved with his family to a deserted monastery in the Black Mountains in Wales. Gill’s departure caused a deep rift between himself and the Guild, which was never healed.

The Guild kept going, though in 1928 it dropped the requirement for members to be Dominican Tertiaries. Pepler, the last founding member, was expelled in 1934 after partially mechanising St Dominic’s Press and employing a non-Catholic to help in his printshop. Over the years the second generation took over from their parents, and the first female members were allowed in 1970.

Part of the wider Arts and Crafts movement, which had been inspired by luminaries including Augustus Pugin, John Ruskin and William Morris, the Guild of St Joseph and St Dominic survived until 1989, when it was wound up. 

After leaving Ditchling, Eric Gill was in demand for major public works of art. In the early 1930s he was commissioned to sculpt Prospero and Ariel for the new BBC Broadcasting House in London, and later the Creation sculpture for the League of Nations building in Geneva.

But since the appearance of Fiona MacCarthy’s biography of him in 1989, Gill’s reputation has been mired in controversy. From Gill’s own diaries MacCarthy revealed that he was sexually voracious. He frequently had sex with, among others, two of his sisters and two of his teenage daughters, and even “experimented” with the family dog. Knowing this, how can we look at his work in the same way? Disgusted, some wanted Westminster Cathedral to remove its Stations of the Cross.

Gill is not alone, of course; many other artists had less than spotless sexual reputations. The 16th-century Italian sculptor Benvenuto Cellini took many of his models as mistresses, as did several of Britain’s Pre-Raphaelite artists. The writers and artists of fin de siècle France were infamous for their hedonism and decadence. The cabarets of Weimar Germany were renowned for their sexually transgressive behaviour, yet gave us the deeply powerful songs of Brecht and Weill.

L0074184 Eric Gill, Torso – Woman (1913) Bath Stone
Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images
Eric Gill (1882 -1940)
Torso – Woman, 1913
Bath Stone
The Lightbox, Woking
(c) The Estate of Eric Gill
1913 Studio shots of objects for First Time Out
Published: –
Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0

And it’s not just sex. The artist Caravaggio, whose work inspired the Baroque, was convicted of murder after a brawl in a Roman piazza. The Victorian artist Richard Dadd created most of his amazing paintings of fairies while incarcerated in Bedlam after killing his father. Wagner was loathsomely anti-Semitic. Do we keep that in mind as we listen to his music, or do we accept it but put it to one side? It’s part of who the man was, the creator of the work – but few people would boycott Wagner’s music for that reason.

A more recent example is Philip Pickett, who played in and directed early music consorts for decades. He was jailed for 11 years in 2015 for sexually assaulting pupils at the prestigious Guildhall School of Music and Drama. His music is still wonderful; should his behaviour stop us listening to it?

The Ditchling Museum of Art and Craft showcases the work of Gill, Pepler, Johnston and other members of the Guild of St Joseph and St Dominic. Four years ago, after consulting child sex abuse organisations, it held an exhibition, Eric Gill: The Body, specifically addressing Gill’s sexual behaviour in relation to his art, and asking if the knowledge of his biography affects how we view his work. Of course it does – but once a piece of art is created, it stands on its own, to be judged on its artistic merits, not on the morals of its creator. People, with all their faults, their sins, their immoral behaviour or legal crimes, are separate from the work they do. 

If we apply this principle to the music of Wagner and Pickett, to the art of Caravaggio and Cellini, we must apply it also to the classic typefaces and the beautiful engravings and sculptures of Eric Gill – including the Stations of the Cross in Westminster Cathedral.

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