New Tour Launch: Unnatual Histories

Join us for a unique tour of the Natural History Museum in Oxford! We'll explore how human influence and selective choice shape the narrative of natural history museums, offering an 'unnatural' perspective on their historical and ideological foundations.

From Gill Sans, to Sans Gill: The Controversy over the Work of Eric Gill

Content warning: Rape, sexual abuse On January 12, 2022, an activist used a ladder to ...

return to all posts

20th CenturyAround the WorldArts & CultureOn StatuesResearch & Opinion

From Gill Sans, to Sans Gill: The Controversy over the Work of Eric Gill

Content warning: Rape, sexual abuse On January 12, 2022, an activist used a ladder to ...

return to all posts

20th CenturyAround the WorldArts & CultureOn StatuesResearch & Opinion
Content warning: Rape, sexual abuse

On January 12, 2022, an activist used a ladder to climb above the entrance to the BBC Broadcasting House in London and preceded to attack the statue of Prospero and Ariel prominently displayed above the door. Wielding a hammer, the activist swung at the stonework for nearly four hours before he was brought down safely and arrested on suspicion of criminal damage by the Metropolitan Police.

The statue is another one that has been brought into the national spotlight as part of the controversies surrounding statues and public memorials in Britain. It was carved by a famous British artist, Eric Gill, as a special commission for the BBC when Broadcasting House first opened. Gill died as a celebrated national sculptor, typeface designer and printmaker. However, the publication of his biography in 1989 by Fiona MacCarthy revealed him to be a child rapist, who sexually abused his daughters and the family dog.

The Statue

Modern stone sculpture of an older bearded man holding a young boy in the nude in front of him.
Eric Gill’s sculpture of Prospero and Ariel on the front of Broadcasting House. Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/8265353@N05/532088358/ Credit: R/DV/RS

The statue was commissioned in 1929 and finished in 1932. It depicts the two figures of Prospero and Ariel, inspired by Shakespeare’s play, The Tempest. Prospero serves as the main character of the play, a sorcerer and exiled duke who reigns over a small island on which his rivals are shipwrecked. Ariel is an air sprite in service to Prospero who uses magical powers over the wind and air to stir up trouble amongst between the characters.

The figure of Ariel, who stands naked with arms wide, served as an appealing symbol for the BBC. The corporation has stated that “When the statue was commissioned, Ariel – as the spirit of the air – was seen as an appropriate symbol for the new dawn of broadcasting” [1].

Who was Eric Gill?

Gill’s reputation as an artist grew continuously over the course of the early 20th century until his death in 1940. He began his work as an inscription artist, inscribing lettering on numerous buildings throughout Britain, especially in churches, graveyards, and institutions. He invented three different typfaces, including the popular Gill Sans font, which becme the font of choice for railway signs and the London Underground. Gill transitioned to sculpture in 1909 and his work often involved references to religious iconography. He would later declare that his statue of Prospero and Ariel was as much a depiction of “God the Father and God the Son” as it was of Shakespeare’s characters. [2].

Drawing profil portrait of a bearded man wearing glasses and a hat.
Self-Portrait, 1927, Eric Gill. Transferred from the Library 1979. Photo: Tate

As his sculptures became more famous, Gill was commissioned for more and more religious works. He was hired to carve the stations of the cross in 1913 for Westminster Cathedral, a project that cemented his recent conversion to Roman Catholicism and helped him express his avid Christian enthusiasm.

He was prolific, carving numerous religious images in churches across Britain. He also produced war memorials, various inscriptions, and a number of decorative statues. In Oxford, his work can be seen in seven colleges, several chapels, a church, and in a number of public spaces [3]. The statue of John the Baptist just inside St. John’s College was sculpted by him, and Campion Hall has a number of his wooden panel carvings with both religious and domestic scenes that decorate their entrance, stairways, and coffee room.

Gill was also deeply fascinated with sex and eroticism, a theme which is considered to clash with his deep religiosity. MacCarthy depicts him lurching from numerous extremes, merging his personal experiences of sex and relationships – which included ongoing incestuous relations with his sisters, as well as many adulterous affairs – into his art and religious beliefs [4].

MacCarthy would write of his religious conversion: “the Church of England was too easy-going for someone with Gill’s spiritual and intellectual torments. He craved more strict authority, a degree of flagellation, his sins cast upon the rock that is Christ.” [5]

Carved image of a naked woman sleeping.
Model for Sculpture: The South Wind, 1929, Eric Gill. Purchased 1995. Photo: Tate.

Gill had three daughters who were raised in isolation within their family home. They were kept away from other children their age and raised in his own notion of ‘holy poverty’ in a house at Hopkins Crank, a few miles north of Ditchling Village. Their education came from their parents and included an emphasis on manual labour and scripture. During this time, he created a series of life drawings of his oldest daughter Petra, a series which has long been admired as one of his greatest works.

It was MacCarthy who would reveal to the world the darker truth behind these portraits: that Gill habitually sexually abused his daughters. This aspect of his life had been unknown for many years after he died, and it fundamentally changed the way the public viewed his work. Gill’s personal diaries revealed the abuse, as well as his other sexual encounters.

Line drawing of a woman in a bath tub.
Girl in Beth: I, 1922, Eric Gill. Transferred from the Library 1979. Photo: Tate.

His Legacy

Gill’s reputation may have been darkened by the truth behind his artistic talent, but that didn’t stop him from maintaining his spotlight in the British art world. Gill had his personal supporters, with one defender writing to the Irish Sunday Tribune: “What he believed in, how he tried to do his work and how he tried to live his life were, I think, far closer to the teachings of Christ than is shown.” [5]

Indeed, in the aftermath of the revelations from MacCarthy’s work, exhibitions of Gill’s work increased. The first ever retrospective of his art was opened at the Barbican in 1992, featuring a number of his sculptures alongside his religious and erotic pieces. One BBC presenter, Valentine Cunningham, described the exhibit a showing Gill as “a witty, canny, self-conscious man, devoutly keen on weaving together the apparent contradictions of the erotic and the spiritual, the pagan and the Christian.” [6]

In Cambridge, a Gill woodcuts exhibition was hosted at the Bodilly Galleries in 1994, while an exhibition explicitly featuring his erotic engravings was held at the Fordham Gallery in the spring of 1998.

Controversy

Sculpture of a saint-like figure in an alcove, above some engraved writing.
Gill was commissioned to carve a number of inscriptions in Oxford, including this one on Blackfriars Hall, St. Giles, Oxford.

It was really only in the late 90s that his work started to face explicit protest. The first vocal calls for the removal of his art came in the Catholic press, with one group that supported sexual abuse survivors lobbying for the removal of his stations of the cross from Westminster Abbey.

Though further controversies over his displayed work have arisen in various locations across the UK over the past 20 years, no Gill works have actually been officially removed or covered because of the protests. Rather, displaying Gill’s work alongside interpretations which highlight his status as an abuser is becoming the normative approach. The Ditchling Museum of Art and Craft is a good example, as Gill’s work is central to their exhibits. The Tate Modern in London, which holds 107 artworks by Gill, has also made this aspect of his life explicit in their displays and catalogue.

The question of whether we can separate the art from the abuser is becoming outdated in the art world. Rather, many argue that to separate the two is to misrepresent the art, and to miss a vital aspect of its meaning, impact, and understanding. Gill’s work cannot be viewed comprehensively without the knowledge of his sexual obsessions and child sexual abuse. It is up to the viewer to decide on the effect: aesthetic delight, or revulsion?

By Paula Larsson


References

[1] Tessa Soloman, ‘Protestor Vandalizes Eric Gill Statue Outside BBC, Sparking Debate Over Sculptor’s Sordid Biography‘, ART News (14 January 2022).

[2] Tate Modern, ‘Eric Gill: Prospero and Ariel 1932‘, Display Caption.

[3] Sophie Huxley and Edith Gollnast, Eric Gill in Oxford (Oxford: Huxley Scientific Press, 2011).

[4] Fiona MacCarthy, Eric Gill: A Lover’s Quest for Art and God (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1989).

[5] Fiona MacCarthy, ‘Written in Stone‘, The Guardian (22 July 2006).

[6] Eoghan Buckley, ‘When Gill visited Dublin’, Sunday Tribune (19 February 1989), pg. 31.

[7] Valentine Cunningham, ‘Night Waves – Eric Gill‘, BBC Radio 3 (10 November 1992).