Eric Gill was a great artist. He was also a sexual abuser. Ahead of a new exhibition of his work, PETER FROST asks whether that can be ignored when evaluating his legacy.
I first discovered the typefaces of Eric Gill when I was designing publications for the Young Communist League and the Communist Party in the early 1960s.
His “No messing about” typefaces were just what I wanted to put over what I saw as a “No messing about” message.
Interest in his typefaces — used not just by me but by the BBC, Penguin books, WH Smith and British Railways among many others — led to a wider interest in the artist’s work.
I discovered his amazing carvings on Broadcasting House and other buildings. I studied his often erotic drawings prints and sculptures and even his only completed building, the spectacular arts and crafts Catholic church at Gorleston in Norfolk.
My appreciation of his work grew and when I started to learn of his politics that admiration blossomed. I learnt that, as a young man, Gill was a member of the Fabian Society and that in the 1930s he briefly flirted with the social credit movement but then returned to the arts-and-crafts socialism of William Morris.
Gill hated fascism and was one of the few Catholics in Britain to openly support the Spanish republicans, defying the preaching of his church.
In 1934, Gill joined with other socialist and communist artists in the left-wing Artists’ International Association exhibition in support of the Spanish Republican cause. The Catholic Herald declared the exhibition anti-Christian.
After becoming a pacifist, he helped set up the Catholic peace organisation Pax and later joined the Peace Pledge Union.
His socialist politics were often directly reflected in his works, with his Leeds University war memorial showing Jesus driving the money-changers from the temple. He held capitalists responsible for war.
All in all, Gill was an artist and a man that I could admire. But then in 1989 Fiona MacCarthy produced her earth-shattering biography of Gill.
The book examined the artist’s diaries and revealed that Gill had seduced domestic servants, his friends and often their partners, both men and women. It described incest with his sister Gladys and even sexual experiments with his dog.
Worst of all, his diary described his frequent rapes of his young teenage daughters Petra and Betty.
I was horrified. Yet others’ reactions to these exposures were not exactly what I expected. Public interest in Gill increased massively. The British public, it seems, always enjoys reading about the sexual deviance of the famous.
In fact, once the immediate commotion over Gill’s sexual aberrations had died down there was a new surge of interest in his work. A retrospective exhibition at the Barbican in 1992 attracted huge crowds and vast media interest.
Many in the art establishment expressed the view that we should judge Gill — indeed all artists — by their works rather than how they lived their lives. As a Marxist, I just can’t go along with that.
So often, Gill’s art is closely related to his own dubious sex life. Take his famous almost life-size sculpture of a couple copulating that he entitled Fucking. It is now in the Tate, more discreetly catalogued under the title Ecstasy (below).
The subject of the carving is Gill’s younger sister Gladys and her husband Ernest Laughton. At the time he carved the work he was in a incestuous relationship with Gladys that would continue for most of their adult life.
After the revelations, the Catholic Mothers’ Union demanded that Gill’s 1914 Stations of the Cross in Westminster Cathedral should be taken down. He had converted to Catholicism in 1913.
Margaret Kennedy, a campaigner for survivors of sexual abuse by clergy, also called for the removal: “The very hands that carved the Stations were the hands that abused,” she stated.
The Vatican and British cardinals thought otherwise and London Catholics still pray at Gill’s Stations of the Cross today.
When the Jimmy Savile scandal hit the broadcaster, many sexual abuse survivors’ organisations urged the BBC to remove the Gill statue in front of Broadcasting House. The highly erotic 1932 carving shows a clothed adult Prospero embracing a young naked Ariel.
At the time, chief executive of The Survivors’ Trust Fay Maxted, which supports survivors of rape and childhood sexual abuse, said: “It’s an insult to allow a work like this to remain in such a public place. It is almost mocking survivors, it is intolerable.”
The work still dominates the entrance to the imposing building.
Gill and his young family moved to Ditchling Common, East Sussex in 1913 to set up a community of like-minded artists and craftspeople, and to develop experiments with self-sufficiency.
They lived there for many years and today the Ditchling’s Museum of Arts and Crafts is dedicated to Gill and his school. It has featured many works by Gill as well as many temporary exhibitions of his work.
Until now it has never mentioned the sexual abuse which, if it had happened in recent years, would undoubtedly have seen the artist sent to prison.
Now, new museum director Nathaniel Hepburn has organised an exhibition of Gill’s work that also confronts his sexual abuse of his own daughters. It is undoubtedly a brave, if contentious, move.
Eric Gill: The Body will feature 80 works on loan from public and private collections. It will include works featuring his daughter Petra made at the time of his abuse of her.
The exhibition has taken over two years to put together and the museum worked with child sex abuse survivor organisations both on its potential impact and the language it uses.
Museum staff have received training from an abused children’s charity in how survivors of abuse might deal with what’s on show.
Museum director Hepburn told us: “When looking at any Gill depiction, when you know the biography, visitors ask the question: ‘Am I looking at a striking drawing or am I looking at the actions of a man I find reprehensible?’ There are people at both ends of that spectrum.
“The exhibition is framed as a question, inviting visitors to think and consider their own responses.” It certainly made me carefully examine my attitude to Gill, the artist and the paedophile.
I have decided that I won’t be going to see the exhibition nor will I review it for this paper. No doubt some will agree with me, some will even picket the gallery and some will ask what all the fuss is about.
You must make up your own mind.
This article first appeared in the Arts pages of the Morning Star 27 April 2017.