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Visual arts >

Sculpture saved from the grave

Nicholas Cranfield on Eric Gill alongside his contemporaries

ERIC GILL (1882-1940) was the son of a clergyman of Evangelical persuasion who gradually became more traditionalist as the years went by. He first came to London to work in an architectural practice while tak­ing night classes to become a stone­mason and letter-carver, inter­ests that almost became as obsessive as his later sexual adventures were loathsome.

His album from a trip he made to Rome in 1907 (kept at the little-visited but delightful Ditchling Museum in Sussex) includes few shots of classical landmarks and historic buildings, but he repeatedly photographed street signs and the graceful carving of Imperial inscrip­tions.

Although he later developed a range of artistic skills, and in his craftmakers’ guild established a legacy that included silversmithing, weaving, and design, for instance, it is in print and stone that he is best remembered. It is said that, in his lifetime, Gill produced some 800 sculptures, in wood, stone, and metal — a staggering tally by any reckon­ing — although by 1912 he rarely carved inscriptions himself, rely­ing heavily on a team of assistants in his workshop.

Soon after Jacob Epstein came to London from Paris in 1905, the two young artists met, and Gill noted that his new American Polish friend was determined “to rescue sculpture from the grave”. Looking around exhibitions in London this winter sug­gests that, a century later, sculp­ture is still not quite seen as main­stream, in the way that painting is, but it is certainly nowhere near being left in the cemetery.

Sculpture is powerfully presented in terms of the Hispanic and New World traditions in the current shows in the British Museum and the National Gallery (Arts, 16 and 23 October). More surprisingly, the increasingly popular Anish Kapoor turns in a disappointing show at the Royal Academy exhibition that is much less exciting than that staged at the Hayward a decade ago, but moves towards interactive sculpture.

But even that is worth it, if only as an excuse to go to Burlington House in Piccadilly. Upstairs, in the Sackler Wing, where London’s sole Michel­angelo sculpture can be seen (for free), the three galleries are given over to the work of Gill, Epstein, and the contemporary French artist Gaudier-Brzeska, who was killed fighting for his country in 1915.

The exhibition is centred squarely on the ten years before the Somme, and suggests how the three men transformed both the notion of sculpture and the forms that it could take. In an inevitably uneven show, there are some remarkable works, and the staging accentuates both the angularity and the suppleness of each form.

In the first gallery room, devoted to Gill, a run of his Mother and Child statues are displayed side by side mounted, as are the three monumental statues of doves by Epstein. Those of a mother and her child, while clearly religious in some aspect, are also different enough from all that had gone before, and would almost seem out of place in a church. This is rather less to do with their scale than the distance between the breast-fed child and his mother, and the mannered hair of both.

It would be almost less surprising if they turned out to have been made by Gauguin, as the influence of Pacific and Polynesian cultures is so visible in them. At the same time, Gill was fascinated by the explicit figures to be found in Indian temple carvings and this explains, for him, the congruity of, say, placing a Crucifixion next to a bas relief of a naked woman (A Roland for an Oliver/Joie de vivre), a pair he showed in his first exhibition (1910). It might even explain the later scandal of his 1922 work the Nuptials of God, in which a naked woman, person­ifying the Church, embraces the Crucified on the cross.

Gill returned repeatedly to the theme of motherhood. Although it is possible to see this as a direct reflection of his own parenting, he was also already treating of his own religiosity. He had left London to live nearer where he had grown up in 1907 at Ditchling, and in 1911 and 1912 he began to ask questions about the Roman Catholic Church.

Having tried everything else, he was, he said, hoping to find “in­forma­tion, instruction and enlight­enment”, and in February 1913 he was formally received. Increasingly, he cut himself off from all but his fellow travellers, and the Guild of St Joseph and St Dominic was intended as an exclusively RC craft-workshop community.

Gill left Ditchling never to return in 1924, and contemporaries held that it was his faith that cut him off from the rest of the avant-garde artists of his day.

Jacob Epstein, whose friendship with Gill was short-lived, was an Orthodox Jew who had come to London with a letter of recom­menda­tion to George Bernard Shaw from none other than Rodin. At the time that he was making The Rock Drill (1913-14), Gill had just begun work on the Stations of the Cross for Westminster Cathedral. Both works are monumental, something that the small page sketch of Gill’s designs can only hint at, and a walk across the park to the magnificent cathedral itself is a must for any visitor. If Gill was drawn more and more into religion, Epstein was keen to celeb­rate the technology of the age.

In Epstein’s futuristic-looking piece, the driller mounts the rock drill and almost becomes one with it, flesh moulding with metal. The worker’s torso has been ripped open, and a foetus is huddled inside his ribcage. Whether he deliberately set out to offend and to astound the London scene with his sculpture, his personal life, which was as complex as Gill’s, soon did: his first wife shot one of his mistresses, even though she had tolerated raising two children as her own whom he had already fathered.

Gaudier-Brzeska did not arrive in London until 1911. He visited Epstein’s studio the following year and was impressed by the tomb of Oscar Wilde, which was destined for a Paris cemetery. In only three brief years of sculpting, we can glimpse just how impressed Ezra Pound must have been when they first met in 1913. Gaudier’s massive head of the American poet stands sentinel for a young life cut down on the battle­field.

“Wild Thing: Epstein, Gaudier-Brzeska, Gill” is at the Royal Academy, Burlington House, Piccadilly, London W1, until 24 January 2010. “Anish Kapoor” runs until 11 December 2009. Phone 020 7300 8000 (tickets: 0844 209 1919).

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