Gill, Eric - by Laurel Gasque
Eric Gill: A Centenary Remembrance
by Laurel Gasque
Eric Gill (1882-1940) was an artist and a Christian. As a designer of letter forms he invented some of the purist script of this century and thereby contributed to raising standards of inscriptional lettering. He also created some notable typefaces, like Perpetua and Gill sans-serif. In addition, Gill was a graphic designer and sculptor of exceptional skill. The books he designed and illustrated for Count Kessler's Cranach Presse, St. Dominic's Press, Ditchling, and Golden Cockerel Press are today acclaimed collector's items. Both his engraved work and low-relief sculpture are represented in major British collections and many places abroad. Further, Gill won a reputation as an essayist who incisively criticized modern culture.
During the '20s and '30s, Gill was a well-known figure in British art and intellectual circles. After the publication of his Autobiography in 1941, recounting among other things his conversion to Roman Catholicism, he became known in North America. His original audience on this side of the Atlantic, however, was limited mainly to Catholic intellectuals who were more - aware, perhaps, of his thought than his art. Interest in Gill's work continues quietly and steadily, both in Great Britain and in North America, coming chiefly from those who appreciate his contributions to fine lettering and book design. In this centenary year of Eric Gill's birth, it is time that a broader Christian public recognize him.
Arthur Eric Rowton Gill was born February 22, 1882, at Brighton on the south coast of England. His father, an earnest and upright man, was a minister in the Countess of Huntingdon's Connexion, a small sect that was a Calvinistic offshoot of Methodism. His mother was an able and spirited woman who faithfully supported her husband and his calling. Eric was the second of 13 children. By all accounts, their home was a happy 'one. No doubt Eric Gill had his own family in mind when he wrote: "The children of large families, especially when parents are poor, do not complain with bitterness because they go short of clothes, firing or food. Unless their minds are poisoned by jealousy or covetousness, they regard all such hardships as being part of the game of life, and, as is well known, no people are happier than the children of large families of poor parents when those parents are engaged in humane occupations, even under hard conditions, provided that the parents are examples of justice and charity" (The Necessity of Belief, 1935, p, 222).
A clergyman supporting a large family inevitably had a poor household - indeed, very poor. As far as poverty's having an embittering effect on Gill, however, the opposite was probably true, Eric was never overly attached to worldly wealth-or reputation, for that matter. He found a certain dignity in decent poverty and reasoned: "When we have accepted poverty there will be peace among men, Only when we make peace shall we become the children of God, Only when we love God shall we love our fellow men. Only when we love our fellow men shall we have peace. When we have peace we shall have poverty, and when we have poverty we shall have the kingdom of God" (Donald Attwater in Eric Gill: Workman, 1943, p. 88).
The bounty of Eric Gill's youth was cultural and religious. Both parents were cultured persons. The Reverend Mr. Gill had some talent as a painter, and Mrs. Gill could sing quite well. Both shared an interest in literature, reflected in some of the names they chose for their children: Carlyle, Maurice, and MacDonald. Above all, however, was their credible Christian commitment.
In his Autobiography Gill wrote: "Religion, in the world of our childhood, was the fundamental basis of life." We took religion for granted just as we took the roof over our heads, the clothes on our bodies and the certainty of food at meal times - sometimes more, sometimes less, but always some. But taking things for granted doesn't mean that you aren't very interested in them or that, on occasion, you won't be very interested indeed" (pp. 52-53). "We were brought up on virtuous principles and." these principles were put before us in such a way as to win our assent to them-assent both notional and affective" (p. 50).
Although Gill did rebel against some of his upbringing, he never fundamentally repudiated his origins or heritage. In fact, it is quite clear that his family background was more than conventionally formational for his whole character and career.
Eric's formal art training began in Chichester, where the family moved after his father's conversion to Anglicanism and reception as a curate into the Church of England. Although he did not live there long before moving to an apprenticeship in an architectural office in London, the city inspired a deep response from young Gill. He saw that the Brighton he had come from was a jumbled mass of slums and suburbs compared to Chichester with its market and cathedral and its orderly, underlying Roman plan. He felt Chichester to be "the product of reason and love … No dead product of mathematical calculation, no merely sanitary and convenient arrangement. Here was something as human as home and as lovely as Heaven" (p. 77).
The chord that Chichester struck in him was near to the one that impelled him to be fascinated with letters. Both were "fair and fit," beautiful and useful-a combination or an aesthetic that Gill sought to manifest in almost all his work. Soon after arriving in London, he eagerly joined an evening class in calligraphy given by Edward Johnston at the Central School of Arts and Crafts. Johnston was reviving fine calligraphy and through him Gill's mature understanding of lettering was developed.
Gill's concern for letters began as a boy, when his interest in railway engines motivated him to observe and draw the lettering on the sides of locomotives. His fascination with letters continued at the Technical Art School in Chichester, and by the time he became an architectural apprentice in London he was, as he himself put it, "mad on lettering."
Johnston was the teacher and leader Gill was looking for. He taught that the poverty of modern type was chiefly due to a loss of its relatedness to writing, which was its origin and first principle. Each stroke of a letter must be firm and free. Gill was so captivated by watching letters flow from Johnston's hand that he compared the experience to the "thrill and tremble of heart" he experienced when he first touched a woman's body. For him it was "as though a secret of heaven were being revealed" (pp. 118-119).
During that period Gill took up letter carving in stone, preferring to be a worker at his bench rather than a designer at his desk. By applying calligraphic techniques to stone-cutting, he was able to do for calligraphy. The next logical step was to transpose his letter-carving style into typeface. It was some years, however, be fore that happened, perhaps due to Gill's natural antipathy toward mechanically based mass production. Eventually, through the persistence of Stanley Morison, typographical advisor to the Monotype Corporation, Gill was persuaded to design typeface. The outcome of the two men's discussions was some of the best known type of the century - Perpetua, a distinctive but unobtrusive booktype; followed by Felicity, an italic type for use with Perpetua; Gill sans-serif; Solus; Golden Cockerel; and Joanna.
Gill's years in London, 1899-1907, established him professionally, they also took a toll on him personally. During that time he drifted from his religious moorings into a vague kind of agnosticism. He first reacted against a complacent, comfortable religion.
"Nothing in the outward show of that Christianity could possibly hold me – the frightful church, the frightful music, the apparently empty conventionality of the congregation. And nothing that the parson ever said seemed to imply any realization that the Church of England was in any way responsible for the intellectual and moral and physical state of London" (p. 107).
Next Gill reacted to social and political sham and tried to find his way as a socialist. The great stabilizing force in his life during those turbulent years of disillusionment and revolt was his marriage in stone inscriptions what Johnston did for 1904 to Ethel Mary Moore of Chichester. Even that firm relationship was tried in [907 by a brief impetuous affair he had with a young woman he had met at the Fabian Society.
During this time Eric Gill was warmly received by the fashionable art world. His carving ability brought him to the attention of Roger Fry, the introducer and ardent champion of modern art in Britain. It also brought him a patron, Count Kessler of Weimar, who provided commissions for drawing titles and headings for various continental publishing enterprises. Jacob Epstein, Augustus John, and William Rothenstein - all eminent artists of the period - were among his friends. Gill was not fundamentally interested in being someone in the art world, however. He was more excited about his own "little revolution," as he called it. "I was reuniting what should never have been separated: the artist as man of imagination and the artist as workman ... They thought I was putting up a stunt-being archaic on purpose. Whereas the real and complete truth was that I was completely ignorant of all their art stuff and was childishly doing my utmost to copy accurately in stone what I saw in my head" (p. 166).
Another passage from his autobiography clearly reveals his position at this point: "I was so very much not the artist as they were artists, and though I was an agnostic in those days I was so very much not the sceptic as they were sceptics ... They most certainly believed in something called Art and I most certainly did not, and I came more and more to detest the whole art world. I believed in religion and was desperately trying to find it, and they seemed to regard religion as being essentially nonsense but valuable as a spur to aesthetic experience and activity ...
"I say I did not believe in Art or the art world. But of course I believed very much in the arts-with a small a and an s - whether it be the art of cooking or that of painting portraits or church pictures. But that's a very different matter and puts the 'artist' under the obligation of knowing what he is making and why. It ranks him with the world of workmen doing useful jobs. And as for the art world, well, that is even more sickening, especially when all the snobbery of intellectual distinction comes in ... Everybody was extremely kind and refined and distinguished, but 'I'd rather be a heathen suckled in a creed outworn ... '
"On the other hand, in vet another sense, I believed in art very much indeed. The artist as prophet and seer, the artist as priest - art as ritual - these things I believed in very earnestly. But here again I was generally at variance with my high-art friends. Their views were both more simple and more mysterious than mine. They were essentially aesthetes: that was the awful truth. They played about with religion and philosophy and labour politics, but that was all very superficial; what they really believed in and worked for was aesthetic emotion as understood by the art critics. But art as the ritual expression of religion I did indeed believe in and they did not ... So I gradually escaped from the high-art world which for a time seemed to be closing round me. "Doubtless I never was a serious artist as serious art was understood bv that world. I was the son of a nonconformist parson, the grandson of a missionary. Life was more than art" (pp. 177-179).
So it was that in the autumn of 1907 the Gills, now including two young daughters, Elizabeth and Petra, moved to Ditchling in the Sussex countryside in order to find a more satisfying way of life. Gill was also searching spiritually. At first the move was more of a refreshing change than clean break with their former urban life. Eric frequently made trips to London to work. In this way they maintained many links of friendship there. Gradually, however, the true hub of their world became Ditchling.
In 1909, prior to the birth of Joanna, their third daughter, Gill began carving the human figure from stone. A common practice at the time was for sculptors to model in clay. Afterward, the finished piece was worked up by assistants, who cast the model in bronze or transferred it to stone by means of a "pointing machine." This procedure was one that Gill had little sympathy with, even though he greatly admired the French sculptor, Maillol, who worked that way, and Gill himself once cast a small Mother and Child in brass.
The fact is, Gill was thoroughly interested in carving directly from stone because he believed that the sculptor, as well as the engraver, should carry the whole course of work through from start to finish. It is virtually impossible to correct mistakes made in stone, and such work demands the utmost discipline. The very hardness and strength of the substance he worked with was symbolic for him of the nature of the truth' he was after. Therefore, he always emphasized the integrity of the material he used. Both medium and method were part of the content of Gill's work, born out of the struggle to find a spiritual home. Finally, after much questioning, he was able to accept the authority of the Roman Catholic church and on his birthday in 1913 he and Ethel were received into the church.
At last he felt he had the right basis for countering, if not curing, the sickness of modern life. In a letter to William Rothenstein, he wrote: "I can quite understand people neither liking nor feeling the need of the church but if I am right in thinking that all the ills of modern 'industrialism' are the result of the loss of religion and the powerlessness of religious organizations then I think we are in duty bound to join the church if anyways possible and we are in a bad way if it's not possible" (Letters of Eric Gill, Walter Shewring, ed., 1948, p. 44). Prior to Gill's conversion, he knew very few Catholics. In fact, when he first began his inquiry, he knew of only two he could question, Wilfred and Everard Meynell. Gradually, however, Gill met and made friendships with many leading Catholics, including G. K. Chesterton, whom he began "to revere and love ... , as a writer and a holy man, beyond all his contemporaries" (Autobiography, p. 197). Finally Gill himself became a Third Order or lay Dominican and helped form at Ditchling a craft guild which was primarily a religious fraternity for those who made things with their hands.
The first major commission Gill received after becoming a Catholic was for the design and execution in low-relief sculpture of the Stations of the Cross in Westminster Cathedral in London. For most of the war years he was engaged principally with the carving of the 14 panels that comprise that set. The work is of high quality and is today perhaps the chief reason one should wander into this 19th-century English cathedral and look around. As it turned out, the Stations of the Cross was the only large commission the church ever gave him. Surprisingly, Georges Rouault, Gill's Catholic contemporary and a great religious painter, also was seldom patronized by the church.
During the '20s and '30s Gill's life took on an ever quickening pace. He, as much work as, and maybe more than, he could possibly do. Those were years when in association with the St. Dominic's Press and later with the Golden Cockerel Press, he produced some of the best book illustrations of the century. Above all, he provided the major impetus for the private press movement of the '20s which in turn became a main source of patronage for wood-engravers. There were also commissions for large-scale sculptural monuments, such as the Leeds University War Memorial (1923), Ariel and Prospero for Broadcasting House (1930), and the Recreation of Man panel for the League of Nations at Geneva (1938).
Gill's work was not without controversy. In the case of the Leeds University War Memorial, there was an outcry from the local community because it seemed to be indicting them as much as the Germans. And so it was. Its theme was Christ driving the money-changers from the temple. Clearly Gill intended the money-changers to be recognized as familiar pawnbroker, politician, and financial types. He had chosen the subject because it represented the only time Christ is recorded to have used physical violence. He reasoned that the most just war was the war against cupidity, a war waged by Christ himself. Only the tireless diplomacy and patience of Sir Michael Sadler in appeasing all the parties concerned brought the memorial to its day of dedication. War was not a casual subject for Gill. By the late '30s he was a pacifist who would take every opportunity he could to speak out publicly against war. A speech he gave on Armistice Day, November 11, 1936, at Kingsway Hall, London, has a disconcertingly contemporary ring to it:
“Today the causes of war are almost entirely business causes - that is to say, money causes. The whole world is scrambling and grabbing for money-for markets and oil fields, and coal fields, and 'spheres of influence' and 'concessions.' But the spirit of money-making begins at home-in England as much as in Germany or France or Italy or Russia. And it begins in small businesses as much as in the big ones. For the little shopkeeper wants to be a big shopkeeper and the little business envies big business. We do not see this thing called war in proper perspective ... We are blind to the fact that, in a world ruled by financiers, the only object of war is financial advantage. And we are blind to the fact that those who reap the advantage never do the fighting. We do not see that it is more courageous to die as a 'pacifist' than to win as a poisoner. We do not see that you cannot gather figs off thistles. We do not see that you cannot have just wars in a world in which justice does not rule at home" ("And Who Wants Peace?" in It All Goes Together: Selected Essays by Eric Gill, 1944, pp. 181,185).
About the time the controversy over the War Memorial calmed down, Gill was finding himself entangled in financial misunderstandings within the guild community at Ditchling. This, compounded by a lack of privacy, finally forced the Gills (by then there was another child, Gordian, adopted in 1917) to move to a remote valley in Wales. There, at Capel-y-ffin, in an old monastery, they set up housekeeping with some friends. In time, however, the isolation and intensity of the physical labor that their wilderness home imposed on them drove the Gills to find a place closer to London, where Eric's work increasingly centered. In 1928 the family moved to "Pigotts," in Speen, near High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire. They remained there until Gill's death in 1940. For most of his adult life, Eric Gill and his family lived in community, with friends, co-workers, and apprentices. It was a way of life, at once eccentric and exotic for outsiders, and filled with faith, struggle, and genuine well-being for the insiders.
Gill's unconventional lifestyle, such as living communally and wearing unusual but comfortable clothing has detracted attention from his art and thought. (For example, it was more natural for women to wear trousers and for men to wear tunics because of fundamental anatomical differences.) But Gill was never controversial for the sake of being controversial. Although he had undeniable defects, especially in his autocratic and romanticized attitude toward women, he provided a wealth of wisdom and delight through his art and thought. What Eric Gill had to say is not only for artists but for anyone who has ever been helped by the work of G. K. Chesterton, C. S. Lewis, or other creative persons like them.
Gill was both more conservative and more radical than most of his 20th-century contemporaries. His views on art unite us all in our humanity rather than separate artist and public as has been the actual tendency throughout the modern period. Now that the problem of alienation is being treated by contemporary artists and critics, Gill's thoughts on the subject seem more relevant than ever.
Gill rejected Art with a capital A. For him it was a perversion of the normalcy of art in everyday human affairs. He wrote: "I have no use for 'Art' as commonly understood today ... I would abolish the fine arts altogether. Music-let us sing in church and at work and at harvest-festivals and wedding parties and all such places. But let us abolish the concert-hall. Painting and sculpture-let us paint and carve our houses and churches and town-halls and places of business. But let us abolish art-galleries and royal academies and picture-dealers. Architecture - let us employ builders and engineers, and let them be imbued with human enthusiasms and not be moved merely by the desire for money or by merely utilitarian standards. Poetry - let those who can, write our hymns and songs and prayers. Let them write dirges for funerals and songs for weddings, and let them go about and sing to us or read to us in our houses. But let us abolish all this high nonsense about poets who are 'not as other men.' And let us abolish all the art-schools and museums and picture-galleries" (Work and Property), 1937, p. 87).
Further, he said, "I am not claiming a special loftiness for a small class of special persons for, in a normal society, one, that is to say, composed of responsible persons, responsible for what they do and for what they make, 'the artist is not a special kind of man, but every man is a special kind of artist.' Art as a virtue of the practical intelligence is the well-making of what is needed - whether it be drain-pipes or paintings and sculptures and musical symphonies of the highest religious import" ("Art," in It All Goes Together, 1944, pp. 117-118). That is good news for any of us who have been inhibited in our creative impulses because we did not feel "arty" enough!
Linked closely to Gill's view of art was his view of work and criticism of modern industrial society. He observed that artists by being responsible for their own work occupied a unique and even privileged position in society. That dignity had been denied to many workers because of the nature of mass' production-impersonalized and dull labor. In the "well-making of what is needed" by responsible individuals, alone or collectively, art and work, as well as work and pleasure, were reunited.
"Work itself becomes a game, and the curse of Adam - 'in the sweat of thy brow thou shalt eat bread' - is turned to blessing, for man has found joy in his labour and that is his portion. Thus, while the necessity remains and use is neither denied nor condemned, all things made become works of love, all deeds become things in themselves, all means become ends. This is the basis, the concrete and untrembling foundation of human art. This is man's response to his responsibility - that he freely wills what is necessary, he makes what must be into a thing he has chosen.
"These are the things which the materialism of our time denies and derides. By its separation of work from pleasure, its divorce of use from beauty and of beauty from meaning, it has produced a real disintegration of humanity, and on the basis of its materialism there is no remedy for its sufferings but a more efficient organization of material" (The Necessity if Belief, 1935, pp. 330-331).
Donald Attwater, a friend of Gill's and one of his biographers, has said of Eric that "his own most outstanding characteristic was integrality and completeness: he was a whole man, and every aspect of himself, his work and his beliefs, was integrated and interdependent, fused into one shining personality" (Attwater, Eric Gill: Workman, 1943, p. 60). If Attwater was correct in his judgment, it appears that Gill's own goal in life was fulfilled. He wrote in his Autobiography that he chiefly tried "to make a cell of good living in the chaos of our world. Lettering, type-designing, engraving, stone-carving, drawing-these things are all very well, they are means to the service of God and of our fellows and therefore to the earning of a living, and I have earned my living by them. But what I hope above all things is that I have done something towards reintegrating bed and board, the small I and the workshop, the home and the school, earth and heaven" (p. 299).
"The thing about Christianity, the thing about the Cross, about Calvary, is that it is true to man," wrote Gill (ibid.). He also kept firmly in mind that "truth is a 'who' and not a 'what'!" (Art Nonsense, 1929, p. 123). Knowing that did not make Eric Gill a pompous, religious person, but rather a passionately down-to-earth and creative human being. For that we are grateful.
Published in Radix 13, 5, 1982