Two nurses watching Eric Gill working on his sculpture “Christ giving sight to Bartemus”. Picture credit: Fred Morley via Getty Images

Man’s best friend

Eric Gill was an awful man — but that doesn’t make his art any less brilliant

Artillery Row

If you come to my house — and all Critic readers are more than welcome, should you ask nicely — then I will take great delight in showing you a small collection that I have built up, of work by the artist Eric Gill. It includes a couple of lithographs that he did to illustrate Hamlet, a signed limited edition of his drawings for Donne’s Holy Sonnets, a first edition copy of his (we now see circumspect) autobiography and a few other bits and pieces. It is modest in scope and size, but I am immensely proud of having built it up over the years. 

Unfortunately, I now fear that, rather than the knock at the door coming from a friend or Critic reader, it is likely to be some grim-faced upholder of public morals. They will firstly condemn me for my effrontery and moral turpitude in owning work by a man of appalling moral character, and will then set about confiscating and destroying my Gill artefacts. No doubt a small bonfire will be made in my front garden, and I will stand there, weeping, as my books and pictures are burnt. I can already hear my tormentor’s words. “What are you sad about? Think of all the people’s lives ruined by that monster! They’re the ones who you should be weeping for!” 

Picture credit: The Print Collector via Getty Images.

It is this confidence in Gill’s status as an irrevocable monster that surely inspired an as yet unnamed man who, on Wednesday afternoon, climbed onto the BBC’s headquarters at Broadcasting House in central London and began desecrating the statue of Prospero and Ariel, carved by Gill for the building in 1933. He was able to attack Gill’s sculpture for two hours before eventually being brought down by the fire brigade and arrested for criminal damage. All the while an accomplice of his live-streamed the event, shouting about paedophiles as he did so. There is no word yet whether either will be charged with having committed an offence. 

The question of whether Eric Gill should still be celebrated as an artist when he was so obviously deficient as a man has been debated ever since the publication of Fiona MacCarthy’s revelatory biography of him in 1989. The book, entitled simply Eric Gill, revealed that he had had sexual relations with his sisters Angela and Gladys, his daughters Betty and Petra and, alas, the family dog. He wrote in his diary in 1929 that he continued “[experiment] with dog in eve”, and then, five days later, “Bath. Continued experiment with dog after and discovered that a dog will join with a man”. 

One does not need to be Mary Whitehouse to find this repellent and morally abhorrent, and there are many who simply refuse to acknowledge Gill’s genius as an artist because they find him so unpalatable a figure. There is an argument to be made, as MacCarthy acknowledged, that Gill had an almost pagan attitude towards sex and love; after all, as she wrote, “he poured scorn on contraception as interfering with the natural pleasures of penetrative sex… these theories culminated in a book-length diatribe against the iniquity of trousers, so concealing of “man’s most precious ornament’”.

As a man, he was a shit, with a side order of masturbatory delusion. As an artist, he was a peerless genius

Yet as someone who still harbours hopes of one day completing my Whitehall farce A Life Without Trousers , I can also see that there is the counter-argument that much of what Gill said and did was, in the words of Kingsley Amis, “the spectre of bum”, and that he sought to justify and intellectualise his appalling activities under the thin façade of “creativity’”. Many others have done so — Gauguin with his Tahiti underage girls, for one, and Caravaggio was almost certainly a murderer — and yet their work continues to be celebrated and prized. Gill, then, should be condemned and indeed challenged as a false prophet of licentiousness, who was clearly using dubious arguments to justify his rampant libido, but celebrated for the complexity and beauty of his artwork and sculpture. The two are inextricable.  

It is a difficult and contradictory state. I remember the words of another great but dubious man Charles Dodgson, aka Lewis Carroll, that “Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” Gill’s iconoclasm, as he operated in the artists’ community in Ditchling in East Sussex, saw him overstep any conventional boundaries of personal or sexual behaviour. While this may have resulted in lifelong trauma for those around him, not least for poor old Rex, it also meant that he could establish himself as a major figure in twentieth century British art. As a man, he was a shit, with a side order of masturbatory delusion. As an artist, he was a peerless genius.

Unfortunately, such distinctions do not seem to matter to those who would tear down or attack the statues that he carved, and I fear that whoever climbed up onto Broadcasting House did so emboldened by the recent acquittal of the Colston Four. It is likely that the jury’s actions stemmed from a sense that the accused had acted in a manner that was morally and spiritually justified, even if it was, strictly speaking, a prima facie case of criminal damage.

But we are now a society that has looked again at statues and their sculptors, and angrily asks whether either the subject or the artist deserves criticism. If either is found wanting, it will almost certainly be attacked. I am astonished that, in my home city of Oxford, nobody has yet tried to tear down the (undistinguished) statue of Cecil Rhodes on the High Street, so great has been the “Rhodes Must Fall” clamour. It may yet happen. 

So invitations to my house to see my Gill collection, I now realise, must be very carefully vetted in the future. Perhaps I shall place the work slightly less openly on the shelves, or on my walls, in the fear that, some day, an intruder will barge in, take offence and start smashing it all up, and justify their violent incursion by a moral disdain for paedophiles and dog-rapists. Still, I look on the bright side. My other great passion is for the art of John Piper, and nobody has yet condemned him. But what’s that? He did the set designs for The Rape of Lucretia, by Benjamin Britten? Britten’s dubious too, you know, because of all those young boys in Aldeburgh. And it’s got “rape” in the title. Oh golly; better start hiding those ones too, just in case. It’ll be bare whitewashed walls before you know it, devoid of colour, life or vivacity. But at least that won’t offend anyone.  

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