A new biography re-evaluates the craft and the life of Eric Gill (right). Peter Stanford examines its conclusions and talks to author Fiona MacCarthy IN September 1938 Eric Gill, the sculptor, wood-engraver and typographer was invited to write in the Catholic Herald on the theme "can any good come out of war'?" His response was typical both of his pacifist sentiments of later years, and in a more general sense of his view of man and his or her control over their destiny. "No good can come out of war — and this is more obviously true today; for war has, like work, been reduced to sub-human terms. Mechanised war, like mechanised work, has deprived the masses of those engaged in it of the two essential marks of personality — the use of reason and the use of free will. Thus in both spheres men are turned into fools and beasts — ie imbeciles and brutes,"
That the then editor declined to publish these thoughts citing "instruction from a quarter which a Catholic paper cannot disregard" demonstrates something of the isolation of Eric Gill in the years immediately before his death in 1940. The internationally acclaimed craftsman who had sculpted the Stations of the Cross in Westminster Cathedral at the commission of Cardinal Bourne, who between 1913 and 1924 had been the focus of a pioneering Catholic community at Ditchling Common in Sussex that many churchmen had hoped would provide a model for re-evangelisation nationwide, was in his last days out of sorts with the Church authorities, and with himself.
For individual Catholics at this time though Gill remained a "kind of guru" according to his biographer, Fiona MacCarthy, a distinguished design journalist whose very personal account of Gill's extraordinary life is published this week. But those who sought him out at Pigotts in Buckinghamshire, site of his final attempt at community living, dealt only with the "official" Eric Gill, the man "who thought he had all the answers" Fiona MacCarthy considers. "He enjoyed that acclaim, but it was also selfdestructive for he knew by that stage that he did not have those answers." That doubt and dualism was his unofficial side.
His breakdown in the summer of 1930 was a turning point for Gill in Ms MacCarthy's thesis. Although at the height of his public acclaim with his sculpting of Prospero and Ariel at the BBC's new Broadcasting House causing headlines in the Daily Express, Gill had reached the point where his attempt to "fuse art, religion and sex" had become unsustainable. A central feature of that work was Gill's intellectual struggle to reconcile his physical appetites principally an insatiable sex drive — with the teachings of the Church he adopted in 1912 at the age of 30. "lit his work, in his correspondence, particularly with church figures who supported him, Gill was very much telling them to be honest, to be truthful. Yet the awful thing for Gill Was that he himself finally had to admit in 1930 that he wasn't being truthful, that he couldn't reconcile belief with his life."
And in her biography Fiona MacCarthy shows the extent of what can only be described as Gill's depravity. He committed incest with his two eldest daughters, Mary and Petra, on numerous occasions violated a dog, and was regularly unfaithful to his wife Mary with housemaids, models, and indeed the sister of the then editor of the Catholic Herald.
"That was the unpleasant side of Gill," Fiona MacCarthy admits, although her book tries hard to stress the positive angle, and place Gill's sexual licence in a more general context of his work and belief. "He couldn't come to terms with what he did to his daughters. It is the only time in his diaries that he shows any kind of remorse or anxiety." Indeed in the daily diary he kept with exacting detail, but usually little emotion, he records a sexual encounter with Petra in graphic terms, and then ends almost on a note of panic, "This must stop."
In trying to make sense of these actions Gill developed a very individualistic theory of Christianity that was unremmitingly erotic. As Fiona MacCarthy puts it: "To Gill the erect phallus came to have a particular symbolism as the image of God's own virility, the potency of holiness. It became the basis of a quite elaborate theory of human love being a participation in and glorification of divine love." Such a system of thought and belief lies behind much of Gill's erotic art.
But he never fully convinced himself of the validity of such theorising, and his 1930 breakdown marked a peak of such self doubt according to his biographer. In the last ten years of his life he virtually gave up his attempt to sort out the contradiction.
However, in evaluating Gill's work as a sculptor, as a wood engraver, and as a typographer, Fiona MacCarthy feels that he "succeeded more than anyone I know in fusing religion, sex and art." The apex of that success was the eleven years (1913-1924) of the community he set up at Ditchling Common in Sussex in an attempt to achieve that, essential (to Gill's mind) fusion of life and work.
A recurring theme in Gill's life is his notion of himself as a stranger in a strange land, and the establishment of an exclusively Catholic community of craftsmen and their families at Ditchling in those years
showed this prophetic side of him.
In the company of such figures as Hilary Pepler, David Jones and others, Gill tried to build a cell of good living, a notion that was taken up by the Dominicans, notably Fr Vincent McNabb, who hoped that Ditchling would be the first of many such Catholic communities around the country where lay people would get away from the sordid capitalist world and its pressures, and start again with fundamentals.
This ''Robinson Crusoedom," as Gill termed it, would enable the masses • 'to control their own destiny, to quote an ideal that he was still expounding in his 1938 unpublished Herald letter. "He aimed to free people from slavery, to provide a working model that would end the separation between work and leisure."
Drawing its inspiration from the arts and crafts movement of William Morris, but rejecting some of its more middle class elements in favour of an earthy determination to live by their craft, to be self-sufficient, to get back to basics, the Ditchling community also had that added and distinguishing element of religious belief, of a kind of divine mission.
That Ditchling finally failed does not convince Fiona MacCarthy that its ideals were wrong. "1 am very sympathetic to the idea of people directly controlling their work, fusing life and work. If you look at the trivilisation of life today, you know that Gill would be horrified".
But Ditchling did fail. "It wasn't workable, it was too brave an attempt. Quite apart from the personality clashes (between Gill and Hilary Pepler) it was not a viable way of life. It was viable only for a few people for a few years, and indeed lived on for over 60 years." (The workshops at Ditchling and the community of craftsmen still exist, though, ironically, is in the process of closing down just as this book is being published). But Gill was not aiming at a viable way of life for a small group of craftsmen. "He wanted a national impact. He saw himself ultimately as a reformer who did not affect people's lives. In his last years he became an irrelevance, a figure in the wilderness, a stranger in a strange land."
It is such aspects of Gill's life that attract Fiona MacCarthy to him as a figure. The paradox of the man whose urge to get away from it all carried him at one stage to a remote former monastery in Wales at Capel-yffin, yet who once there craved -city life; the man who signed up to a religion only to break its rules; the man who hankered after truth more than anything but who ended up having to admit that life had an element of charade.
And then there is his sense of mischief that Ms MacCarthy brings out — like his clashes with authority, or his deliberate cultivation of the air of an eccentric with his habitual manner of dressing only in a smock.
At the heart of Gill's attraction to his biographer is his work. "Without that his whole story is a bit boring." And he is perhaps best known today for his typefaces which revolutionised typography. "They are still terribly modern, and in their simplicity impart that ideal of the sanctity of everyday things." To Fiona MacCarthy's mind Gill should be recognised as a great artist, and not a "Catholic artist" as he is sometimes termed.
During her research she came across a penny Catholic pamphlet published just after his death which proposed the idea of Gill as a saint. Given the private aspects of his life which Ms MacCarthy has been the first to bring satisfactorily to light and to deal with in relation to his work and faith, the pamphlet now seems absurd. "Gill was a great artist not a saint, but he would have been both pleased and sardonic about such an accolade — having it all ways as usual."