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The fall from grace of Eric Gill

Eric Gill is considered the most important English craftsman of the 20th century. He was actually an award-winning member of the prestigious Royal Academy of Arts, lauded by arts institutions like Tate, and also had popular support for his kind character and free thinking about politics, economics, or Christian art. The Guardian′s publication of Fiona MacCarthy′s discoveries, fifty years after his death, describes the Catholic artist with that recognized professional excellence but also with his personal contradictions. The artist′s own personal diary, in fact, shows the darker side of him starring in and detailing among many other misadventures the continuous sexual relations he had with his sisters, his maids, his daughters and even his own pet.

Article by Pablo Fernández from Barcelona on Wednesday, December 22nd 2021 ·.·★ Reading takes 16 minutes or 3213 words.


Eric Gill would be in prison if he were alive today but his professional work still retains a strong cultural influence. The visibility that his work still has in Westminster Cathedral, the mother church of Catholics in England, could be taken for granted; but his work in the form of fonts, reliefs or sculptures are also key in institutions such as the London Underground, British Railways, or even the Church of England, the official church of England. In fact the variations of the typeface of him Gill Sans still dominate the texts that we read all over the world through the Internet. Art does not understand morals or ethics and its aesthetic character gives it that ambiguous protection. Of course, the sight of the elderly Prospero behind the small, young and naked Ariel at Broadcasting House, the central BBC building, now awakens a whole new range of emotions in passersby.

The background of a comet

You can′t say that Eric Gill′s is a unique case. Admiration for the work of the Catholic painter Michelangelo Caravaggio, for example, survives more than seventeen defamation, assault or murder offenses reported before he died in strange circumstances in 1610. Historically, having one religion or another was more a matter of common sense; after all, changing it could easily cost you your life. The Protestant aristocrat Theophilus Hastings, 7th Earl of Huntingdon knew this well. His simple friendship with James II of England, who converted to Catholicism while in France, got his entire family into trouble in 1698. It was a time when the streets were taken over by demonstrations and riots caused by fear of an invasion of the Catholicism.

The year 1700 brought new laws and relative freedom of worship to England but also new waves of iconoclastic fury, popular uprisings through which churches were raided and damaged especially works of art like many of those later created by Eric Gill . Theophilus Hastings, the aforementioned aristocrat, nevertheless gave his children an education that will help lay the foundation for many of the advances that will be seen shortly thereafter. It is not for nothing that his daughter Lady Elizabeth Hastings is considered the first feminist in England. Elisabeth and her little sister Selena generally went out of their way to support outreach and outreach activities akin to George Whitefield′s preaching.

Selina Hastings in particular spent everything she had received from her father on a new series of churches called Countess of Huntington′s Connexion. The then controversial Puritan teachings with a Calvinist emphasis, were taught there with relative freedom and visitors could attend anonymously, if they preferred, using what they called ′the nicodemite corner.′ Eric Gill′s grandparents came from this line of evangelicals who had taken the risk and left the official Church of England. Many of his relatives had therefore been missionaries and, when Eric was born on February 22, 1882, his own father, Reverend Arthur Tidman Gill, was the pastor of one of those churches founded by Selena.

The studies and influences of the master craftsman

Eric Gill left his architecture studies to focus on studies of crafts, design and decoration at the Central School of Art and Design in London, founded on the ideas of William Morris and John Ruskin. Ruskin was then an influential art critic who set the aesthetic standards of his time in England. When he painted he used a cyanometer to reproduce each color exactly the same as the original that he observed in nature; He believed that the more realistic the work was, the more pleasing the work would be to God. There was naturally a growing artistic line much more skeptical of realism that came especially from France.

Aubrey Beardsley, for example, had also been a student at the same school and his shadow should not have gone unnoticed by Eric Gill′s watchful eye. The Pre-Raphaelite artist Sir Edward Burne-Jones had recommended it to Oscar Wilde, when the writer needed to illustrate his work originally published in French under the title ′Salomé′ (1891). Oscar Wilde already had the reputation of a degenerate that has survived him and he purposely chooses a story from the Bible as a reference for a story about sex, spite and death. Aubrey Beardsley then automatically becomes part of the circle of artists of aestheticism, whose conviction is that beauty should be the priority over morality.

Aubrey Beardsley showed special interest in drawing explicit sex scenes, in a single ink, in an oriental style very similar to that which will later characterize the work of Eric Gill. Beardsley has gone down in history as the most controversial of the Art Nouveau illustrators and forged an image of eccentric even in the way he dresses as Eric Gill later does: “My goal is the grotesque. If I am not grotesque, I am nothing ”, said Beardsley before his conversion to Catholicism in March 1897. We already saw what happened to the transgressor Henri Matisse in the article on Guernica. Being a young standard of the avant-garde he inspired ′La Danse′ (1909) in a representation of the flood of the medieval ′Beato de Saint-Sever′ (1072), but he radically changed his life when he converted to Catholicism at the end of his life. Aubrey Beardsley, shortly before dying of tuberculosis, also took a radical turn and asked by letter to the editor and his best friend: ′Please destroy all copies of Lysistrata and bad drawings.′

Catholicism as a result of a search for the new religion

Human beings in general have an unshakable ability to deceive themselves and others with false leads since ancient times. The Kamasutra himself persuades the reader to avoid adultery but at the same time suggests up to fifteen reasons not to avoid it. Eric Gill undergoes his particular conversion to Catholicism in 1913 but instead of changing his life from then on what he does is seek justification. His wishes from then on would have the support of a cosmic category as they were also God′s wishes.

The artist William Morris and his British Arts and Crafts movement were the main influence throughout Europe. It reached the Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí and of course the institution where Eric Gill studied art. William Morris believed that machines were the origin of evil and his movement as an attempt to recover medieval values ​​is at the base of Eric′s conversion. Gill′s work as an artisan engraver of tomb inscriptions led him little by little to leave his active search for a new religion and to enter directly with his wife Mary in a community of Catholics in search of a better life, in a not so new religion. , medieval religion. After all, as he said then, the Catholic religion was objective and had already proven to be real.

The reality during the Middle Ages is that then less than 5% of the population could read, life expectancy was below 35 years and epidemics could kill 60% of the population. These young people, however, were sure that the quality of life then had been much better and they moved seeking to recover that model to the countryside, forming The Guild of St. Joseph and St. Dominic in the outskirts of Ditchling, Sussex. This guild had up to forty-four artisans in its prime and only men were admitted as members. There they gradually became accustomed to making their own food, clothing or toys, singing their hymns in two voices, and building a robust clientele among the then growing membership of the Catholic Church.

Strategies to create your own reality

Eric Gill moved in 1924 with his friend the poet David Jones to an Anglican monastery in Capel-y-finen, Wales, built next to the ruins of an Augustinian abbey from 1100. He writes there what will be the first of his many ′Christianity & Art′ essays (Francis Walterson, 1927). Eric Gill′s ideas were printed in the form of small essays for the rest of his life and followed by an army of apprentices, artisans many of them from three Catholic communities, who made it possible to sow all of Britain before the day of his death in 1940. Biographer Maise Ward, for example, claims that Eric Gill and novelist GK Chesterton were close friends and shared his emphasis on how the Christian should influence society - an emphasis both borrowed from Thomas Aquinas and Jacques Maritain, a French philosopher converted to Catholicism a few years before Eric did.

J.R.R. Tolien was finishing his translation of the medieval tale Beowulf when he came to the defense of Eric Gill. A scandal had arisen around the relief of him in the Great Hall of the University of Leeds. Tolkien was a fan of drawing since he was a child but being already famous he did not want to give clues about what his influences were. Wayne G. Hammond, Christina Scull and Ty Rosenthal have done his homework and linked his artwork to that of William Morris and his school of British Arts and Crafts. Many of Tolkien′s drawings are technically very similar to those made by Morris and his wife Jane Burden. Where the influence becomes especially interesting, however, is in the philosophy behind it. Concepts such as the exaltation of the rural life of the hobbits in contrast to the degradation of industrialization around the orcs clearly point to the same school.

Eric Gill attracted the attention of many others by criticizing the business created around the First World War, and he did so with a personal re-interpretation of the biblical episode in which Jesus drives the vendors out of the temple. What happens is that at the same time Eric Gill was taking advantage of the enormous increase of orders that he was fulfilling in the production of inscriptions for the graves of the soldiers who died. The production was also in large quantities, taking advantage of the war, with the difference that, of course, it was an artisan production.

What can lead us to want to deceive others? Aren′t they our own interests? No fewer than four biographies had already been published when Fiona MacCarthy, specializing in art from the same period for The Guardian, analyzed his monumental personal diary and exposed everything he and his friends had hidden. Fiona MacCarthy expressed it in her own words saying: ′He showed an unusual talent promoting the arguments that fit his purposes, to get the theory that gave him license to do what he really wanted to do in any case′.

The value of a solution is just the opposite of that of a problem and anyone who has worked as a team knows perfectly well that it is always easier to report bugs than to fix them. The drama of his father′s pilgrimage, a pastor changing from a Congregational church, to a Calvinist church and finally an Anglican church, described in great detail by Eric Gill in his own autobiography, partly explains the artist′s compulsive need to feel always a stranger in this world. Eric Gill doubted at the end of his life that he had found a single true Christian in the UK. Was he excluding himself? What he really meant is that he was the reference that his readers should use to understand what a true Christian is.

Sexuality in the work of Eric Gill

Eric Gill′s drawings are really good and they certainly show themselves free from the typical complexes of Christian artists despite how little legitimate his sources of inspiration were. It is not true that he was ahead of his time in drawing nudes. Precisely one of the characteristics of the Renaissance that ends the Middle Ages is the ability that painters began to have to draw nudes. Michelangelo′s open skies in 1512, for example, already show what might well appear to us today as a huge sauna.

Even older than the Renaissance is the Bible itself. Even in the Middle Ages the Bible contained enough sex that a reader accustomed to it might be surprised to see Eric Gill′s drawings. The Bible contains accounts of the most idyllic sex in Song of Canticles but also the most terrible sex in Genesis which, if justly illustrated by Eric Gill, would have upset even the audience he wanted so much on his side.

His sex scenes of him were ultimately deliberately designed to blush a part of the audience that was not interested in him and side with him to another audience in full decay of the Victorian era. His essays on politics, economics or Christian art thus acted like smoke bombs that he hoped would justify the secrets that, had they been made public, would have ruined the interest of all his clients much earlier.

Eric Gill died of lung cancer in the midst of an attack at five in the morning on Sunday, November 17, 1940. Montsignor Sutton assures, however, that in his forty-five years as a priest he had not seen a more beautiful death. Eric Gill had turned fifty-eight; he had assured that it was not a star but a comet. He generally took advantage of the general disenchantment of society to gain attention for himself but at the same time concealed his own inability to come up with a better proposition. Not surprisingly, his biographer Fiona MacCarthy adds that the artist had a special and sickly weakness for attracting the attention of those around him.

The memory of Eric Gill

Attracting the audience′s attention is always easier than keeping it. It makes sense that when he started to design his own headstone, Eric Gill wanted to take the opportunity to call for more attention with the phrase, ′REMEMBER ME.′ He strikes me that he changed it at the last minute for a less self-indulgent request, the phrase ′PRAY FOR ME.′ The phrase can still be read on his grave in the Speen Baptist Churchyard in Buckinghamshire. Is it possible that he understood part of his guilt at the end of his life? What was clear to Fiona MacCarthy, shortly before she died in 2020, is that her discovery, thirty years after it was published, had not changed people′s perception of him.

The first indicator of sin is not debauchery. The first thing Adam and Eve do is hide things and they even hide themselves! There is something about half-truths that is especially unpleasant to God. ′Is light brought to be put under the bed? Is it not to be put on the lampstand?′ Jesus asked his disciples. to come forth. ”God creates in the sight of all and in the sight of all also sends his son, born in Bethlehem, a city collapsed with people due to a historical census. Jesus preached by daylight in the areas more crowded, which is just the opposite of what they did against him: “As against a thief have you come out with swords and clubs?” Jesus asked them in the darkness of the night in that garden of Gethsemane. “Having been with you every day in the temple, you did not stretch out your hands against me, but this is your hour, and the power of darkness. ”.

The elites take great advantage of concealment. However, God appears in the Bible behaving in a very different way. Jesus is crucified naked on that mount of the Skull and left hanging high where everyone could see him for hours. When he dies the heavens darken and the people tremble with fear because they know in his heart that he has sinned. Not even death can contain his body, which is raised on the morning of the third day. Jesus does not mysteriously disappear nor is he raised to leave a path of redemption half hidden. Jesus dedicates his last hours to indicate where he is going to be and to encourage five hundred skeptics to announce throughout the world that whoever believes in him will not be lost but will have eternal life.

The known world was then more structured and communicated than ever thanks to the infrastructures created by the Roman Empire. The message in fact spread like wildfire to what is today northern China according to Arnobio de Sicca (225-327). The message of the risen Christ, thanks to the mercy of God, is also the one that reaches you today my dear reader through the Internet and demands a decision from you. Do you want to be his disciple? “If you remain in my word, you will truly be my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free ”, said Jesus himself.


This is an short translation of the original article published in Spanish by Entrelíneas: Revista de Arte as La caída en desgracia de Eric Gill


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