Page 8, 25th December 1981

25th December 1981
Page 8
Page 8, 25th December 1981 — Mortal flesh

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Locations: London


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Mortal flesh

Erie Gill, Man of Flesh and Spirit by Malcolm Yorke (Constable and Co. Ltd E12.501.

ERIC GILL was born on February 2. 1882. His centenary will be observed in May at a celebratory conference at Spode House, and a little later by an exhibition of his works in Chichester Cathedral.

In the autumn. this year's Beatrice Warde Memorial Lecture, to be given in London, will be on Gill.

As an introduction to these and other planned centenary events nothing could be more timely. and in general more successful, than this new book. whose author gives us a comprehensive and intelligently critical survey of Gill's oeuvre, and enough biographical information to give those hearing of him for the first time a not too bad idea of the kind of man he was,

And, as is only proper. the book contains well over a hundred reproductions. from photographs. of Gill's 'decorative' sculpture. functional stone and wood carving. engravings, drawings. lettering. etc.

Dr Yorke. himself a painter and sculptor, is too young to have known Gill. and this gives him a certain objectivity lacking to earlier biographers and commentators.

But there are also drawbacks to this lack of personal knowledge. For instance, in his openine pages Dr Yorke attempts to answer the question: What was Gill like'? The resulting sketch is more like Edward Carpenter. the Whitmanian-Tolstoyan author of Towards Democracy. than the Eric Gill whom I knew.

If you begin by trying to describe Gill's clothing. a subject on which he had strong ideas, he is almost bound to sound odd: but if you met Mr Gill in his tunic and beret he looked so normal that you wondered why everybody else did not wear such sensible clothes.

In fact. Eric Gill, although he would not have liked to be told so. for he had no use for the idea that the artist is a special kind of man. was a very great artist, and yet in many ways a very normal mail.

But in an untraditional, irreligious society such as ours, any normal man, or woman. is bound to seem odd.

For instance, everyone knows today that sex is a major human preoccupation. In Gill's day this simple fact was still not generally admitted in polite society.

. Eric Gill proclaimed his own interest in sex quite openly, but took up the unusual practice of emphasising its holiness.

'Man is made of matter and spirit. both real and both good.' Sometimes, though, he failed to exercise the virtue of prudence in this context, and so earned for himself the hostility of a number of clerical fusspots and puritans.

But none of his writing or engravings was put on the index: his writings. in fact, he often sub meted before publication to the informal censorship of such friends as Fr John O'Connor or Fr John-Baptist Reeves, who rarely round anything to fault in them.

Even today some of Gill's critics seem to think that a Catholic lacking in manichaeism and puritanism must be lacking in orthodoxy.

Gill was also suspect among the hierachs of his day for his outspoken condemnation of their silence in the face of the evils of industrialism and of modern warfare. In all areas he was a real pioneer.

Some of Gill's writings,

certainly the Autobiography and the Letters, will continue to be read. but it is on his sculpture, his engravings, drawings, lettering. and designs for typefaces, that his enduring reputation will rest.

Here Mr Yorke's publishers have been most generous. Even those who know Eric Gill's works well will lind much here that is new to them. such as the beautiful portraits of Mary Gill, Moira Gibbings, and Daisy Hawkins.

It must be said. though. that some of the wood-engravings. notably the self-portrait on page 158, and 'Autumn Midnight' on page 168. have suffered badly in the process of being enlarged for reproduction.

On a point of detail. Mr Yorke has not got the matter of the St' Dominic's Press at Ditchling quite into perspective.

Eric Gill was at no time a proprietor or director of this famous private press. which was the sole creation of Douglas (later knows as Hilary) Pepler. a printer whose achievements deserve a more generous assessment than Mr Yorke has given them.

Brocard Sewell

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