Eric Gill is one of the most influential proponents of modern British design, printmaking, typography, and sculpture. Any visitor to Eames Fine Art during this exhibition will have experienced Gill’s handiwork before — even if they were unaware of the fact. His work is held in the Tate and National Portrait Gallery collections, and sculptures of his adorn the façade of the BBC building and the walls of Westminster Cathedral. But probably the most ubiquitous example of Gill’s design work is Gill Sans, the font that he invented in the 1920s and one of the most popular typefaces of the twentieth century. It is used by Pixar, the BBC, and in countless publications, advertisements, and signs (and this exhibition's catalogue!). He also designed the typefaces Perpetua and Joanna. Gill’s approach to lettering as an art form is clear in several works in this exhibition, namely AND – Palm Sunday and JESUS – Washing Peter’s Feet. Both of these pieces deftly intertwine beautiful figural work into the spindly but strong lines of the words’ letters, showing the importance that Gill placed on the overlaps among lettering, the Scripture, and artistic expression.
Some of Gill’s other religion-inspired works convey quite a different tone, oozing sinewy sensuality. Gill converted to Roman Catholicism in 1913, explaining his focus on religious and spiritual subjects. The combination of religion and sexuality may seem odd, but Gill saw sex as a transcendent act, one that glorified the human body as a figure made in God’s image (a perspective clearly evoked in his tender piece Divine Lovers). This devotional tension between sex and God erupts in works like Adam and Eve in Heaven, where the palpable, Biblical sensuality is seen in the electric interplay of hands, exposed legs, and diaphanous drapery.
Gill passed on some of these interests — like graphic simplicity, religious subject matter, and sensual tones — to the group of artists that gathered around him in Ditchling, East Sussex. This prominent artists’ community was also influenced by and contributed to the continuing Arts and Crafts movement in England. This artistic movement espoused visual clarity, reacting against the excessive ornamentation of the first half of the nineteenth century. The idyllic and rural setting of Ditchling harmonises with the movement’s emphasis on traditional, uncomplicated forms. The bold but stripped-down lines in Gill’s Crucifix exemplify this expressive simplicity. Gill’s work in printmaking, sculpture, and typography helped to advance the visual agenda of the Arts and Crafts movement, greatly contributing to his significant status in the history of British art.
The pieces in this exhibition are undeniably beautiful works. They speak to many of the conflicting urges that exist in human nature: religious and rebellious, human and animal, serene and violent, prudent and sexual. The graphic value of these pieces, and the universal themes on which they focus, shows us why Gill has remained such a strong presence in the worlds of British art, design, and typography.
If visitors to this exhibition would like to learn more about Eric Gill’s biography and work, we recommend the following publications:
Cribb, Ruth and Joe. Eric Gill: Lust for Letter & Line. London: British Museum Press, 2011.
Hepburn, Nathaniel and Cathie Pilkington. Eric Gill: The Body. Ditchling, UK: Ditchling
Museum of Art + Craft, 2017.
McCarthy, Fiona. Eric Gill. London: Faber and Faber, 1989.
Yorke, Malcolm. Eric Gill: Man of Flesh and Spirit. London: Tauris Parke Paperbacks, 2000.
(First published 1981.)