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Facing up to Gill and the body

21 July 2017

Nicholas Cranfield on the artist, the man, and a response

private collection

State of undress: Bending Woman, 1923, by Eric Gill, depicts a woman on a bathmat

State of undress: Bending Woman, 1923, by Eric Gill, depicts a woman on a bathmat

WITH an unsettling feeling of almost guilty embarrassment, I made my way to the South Downs, realising that I had last visited Ditchling ten years ago when a significant exhibition of Eric Gill and of the Guild of St Joseph and St Dominic had been staged to mark the centenary of Gill’s first moving to the village in 1907.

I had not, therefore, seen the award-winning work (Adam Richards Architects) carried out at the Museum (2013) and achieved with commendable sensitivity to the mill pond and parish church that border the site.

The bookshop and café in the Grade I listed 18th-century cart lodge lead through a carefully considered link building and rising stairwell to the refurbished gallery spaces. The first room on the landing presents a Kunstkammer where temporary installations can be mounted. Here, the arc of the shelving and the vitrine neatly echo the vault of the ceiling void.

The permanent collection is shown thematically (Weaving, Wood Engraving and Lettering, Direct Carving, and Calligraphy) with the temporary exhibition on either side. A teaching room and the print gallery and printing press, as well as administrative offices, lie beyond.

Rather than simply present Gill as a great craftsman with a distinctive style of cutting, whether letters, stone, woodcuts or engraved plates, this show bravely confronts the man himself: is it possible to appreciate Gill’s depiction of the human form when we now know the disturbing nature of his sexual conduct?

Alun CallenderComment: in Cathie Pilkington’s studio, one of the sculpted heads made in response to the doll carved by Gill for his daughter PetraTo handle this as sensitively as possible and to do justice to the art as much as to the biography of its creator, the Director, Nathaniel Hepburn, has brought in a woman sculptor as co-curator, Cathie Pilk­ington RA, who has exhibited a number of her own works as a re­­sponse to the wooden doll that Gill carved for his four-year-old daugh­ter, Petra. Her five sculpted heads (one made to look as if it is carved wood) and childish dolls appear anonymous, as so many abused victims are.

In staging this, Hepburn has worked closely with several organ­isa­tions that help to ad­­dress issues of abuse and of family breakdown; it is unusual (and a little discomfiting) to approach an art exhibition that draws attention to the Samaritans, NAPAC (National Association for People Abused in Childhood), the Survivors’ Network, Rape Crisis, Stop it Now!, and Childline.

Although Gill did not receive any formal training as an artist until quite late in life — he was 44 when he first attended a life class, in Paris in 1926, and thereafter he drew the human body repeatedly and, at times, invasively — his earlier work has a remarkable degree of confid­ence. The small pewter plaque of two lovers enfolded in an eternal embrace, Icon, dates from 1923, and is as stirring as his later illustrations for the Song of Songs, such as the 1929 engraving Lovers in a Tent, which his widow, Mary, gave to the Victoria and Albert Museum.

On the train on the way down, I had read an article about a north-London school that is considering allowing gender-neutral uniform for its pupils to break down the barriers between boys and girls. Given that 80-or-so public-sector schools reportedly allowed this in 2016, it is not much by way of news, but I sup­posed that where Highgate leads, Harrow will soon follow, and the editors of the broadsheets will feel vindicated.

Ditchling Museum of Art and Craft Pencil study: Eric Gill, The Plait, 1922  Gill would have been thrilled; as early as 1920, in a text open at an “Epilogue on Trousers”, he had written that “men . . . have got to rid themselves of the preposterous no­­tions that trousers are especially a male garment and that skirts are specially for women”. Clothing without Cloth: An essay on the nude was privately published at Waltham St Lawrence in 1931, with an ideal­ised self-portrait of Gill as the frontispiece.

His preoccupation with dress and, more especially, the state of undress underscores some of the most powerful works in this display, which include the 1926 stone carv­ing of Mary Magdalene pouring ointment from a square-shaped box, and a woodcut of her naked em­­brace of the Crucified on the cross. Surprisingly, this illustration for The Nuptials of God (1922) was appar­ently used for an ordination card for Fr Gerald Vann OP (1906-63).

“We began by saying that a work of art is the work of a lover. It is a lover’s worship.” It would be a pity if well-meant piety became confused with prudery in our attempts to come to terms with an artist as singular as Gill.


“Eric Gill: The Body” is at Ditchling Museum of Art and Craft, Lodge Hill Lane, Ditchling, East Sussex, until 3 September. Phone 01273 844744. www.ditchlingmuseumartcraft.org.uk

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