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Eric Gill - Trouble In Paradise

Words:

Edd Norval
October 4, 2018

Is it possible to love the art but hate the artist? Eric Gill is a polarising figure, an artist that has contributed so much to various artistic fields, yet conducted his private life in ways many would find unforgivably detestable.

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Gill was born in Brighton, England in 1882. From the age of 18, he embarked on studying the two paths that would later come to define him - architecture and calligraphy. Under the tutelage of prominent architect William Douglas Caroe, Gill began learning about ecclesiastical architecture, that is the design and construction of churches. Although Gill was clearly capable, the work there didn't sate his drive sufficiently enough to stop him pursuing extra-curricular studies.


In the evenings he would attend stonemasonry classes at the Westminster Technical Institute alongside classes in calligraphy. The Arts and Craft movement was in full-flow, subscribing to the belief that craftsmanship was of the utmost importance for an artist. Gill's time studying calligraphy meant that he fell under the influence of 'the father of modern calligraphy' and London Underground typeface designer, Edward Johnston.


A few years later, Gill packed-in his architectural pursuit and focussed on monumental masonry and calligraphy. His earliest works show a profound understanding of the spirituality channeled by historical means of sculpture ranging from Egyptian, Greek and Indian all the way to medieval English works. His initial sculptures, created in his home that he shared with his wife, showed flashes of what was to come - betraying the inner workings of a mind with an intense grasp of religious imagery, supreme creative intuition and a propensity to follow all of his desires - wherever they may lead.

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His sculptures continued to be produced in the religious style that had defined his early learnings. His style was unique in that his works were often produced for churches, but engaged with styles from all around the world, rather than the more traditional Occidental reverence of old Grecian statues. Although the subjects were predominantly biblical characters or scenes, the finished products reflected a wide variety of styles. From the very start, his taboo-busting subjects and unique style was far-ahead of its time. Even today a lot of his early 20th century creations could be mistaken for contemporary works.


Having previously collaborated with Edward Johnson on the creation of a typeface for the London Underground, he began working on his own typefaces, now known and used worldwide (Gill Sans and Perpetua are the best known). Collaborations with stationary store W.H. Smith and his own body of writings about the relationship between religion and art, and then the role and place of erotic art, defined him as a noteworthy figure in the discourse of the time's contemporary arts. This voice was used in political matters, of which Gill was a well-known figure on the left and a leading English pacifist of the time.


Considering his devoutly religious background and his contributions to the canon of arts and crafts, it is easy to see how, intentionally or not, people were willing to overlook, or unwilling to believe, the shortcomings in his personal life. The thing is - are they remotely viable to be overlooked? His heinous behaviour made him a publicly revered, yet privately feared man. Yet, perhaps the most unique aspect of this all is that his behaviour only became public knowledge in 1989 after the publication of a biography. It was only through his self-incrimination that this came to be. His self-lacerating diary writings reveal a mind tormented. By what? We are not quite sure.

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His diaries were filled with graphic details of his sexual exploits that ranged from extramarital affairs, bestiality and all the way to incest with his sisters and teenage daughters. His relatively radical thoughts on the medium of sculpture seemed to bleed into his personal life. It can be surmised that his unwillingness to adhere to convention or tradition in his artistic work travelled into his private life. The creative part of his mind was something that dominated his moralistic and rational faculties. Does this then mean that we cannot appreciate his art? That question has firm cheerleaders on either side.


Gill favoured the 'direct carving' method in that he refused to allow the machine-made works of his contemporaries to interfere with his philosophy that producing art in this medium is a holistically spiritual process. The imperfections granted by his proximity to the raw materials was the thing that allowed him to regard himself as much as a craftsman as an artist. This explicit relationship, his channeling of deep inner thoughts, into his subjects, yet again didn't remain contained to one part of his life. It is this rare and unadulterated ability of sheer artistic expression that makes his, and so many others, art powerful. It is also this same means of expression that makes many believe him to be evil.


His return to a primitive state, by moving his studio into the English countryside, seems to have ignited a flame within him that scorched new planes of perspective on his artistic forms. Likewise, it seems that by embracing this so wholeheartedly he left behind more than the baggage of contemporary life, but also the rules and laws that guide behaviour. Gill embraced the return to his roots so deeply that he seemed to lose his own sense of perspective on the way - just as he set about broadening ours. Whether you can look past his private life or not is a personal choice. It can be seen to perversely enhance his artwork, or similarly diminish it. Regardless, he has raised more questions than he has answered. How we answer them is up to us.

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