Ever since I first came across Eric Gill’s work for The Golden Cockerel Press when I was a student of fine bookbinding, I have admired his art whilst feeling an intuitive ambivalence about his portrayal of the female body. So when Fiona MacCarthy’s biography of Gill was published in 1989, revealing (from Gill’s meticulous diaries) some of the more extreme and perverse manifestations of his rapacious sexual appetite – including incest with his sister and two of his young daughters – I was not really surprised. I anyway knew enough about the tightly patriarchal communities over which he presided to suppose that ‘normal’ relationships would probably have been unlikely.
But all my life I have continued to be interested in Gill’s work, and in the work of other artists in the communities he established (at Ditchling, Capel-y-ffin and Pigotts). I have watched his star rise and fall and rise again. I have also known the wonderful Ditchling Museum of Art & Craft since I moved to Sussex in 1999, when it was still an eccentric local gem. More recently I have watched the impressive development of this place, and I have visited regularly since it reopened in 2013. It has been exciting to see Nathaniel Hepburn, appointed Director in 2014, taking the Museum forward.
Now, Hepburn and his staff have shown Ditchling Museum’s mettle by putting on the current exhibitions – ‘Eric Gill: The Body’ with ‘Doll for Petra’ by Cathie Pilkington RA (the latter I am not going to discuss here but may write about separately later) and by inviting visitors to consider whether and how a knowledge of Gill’s personal life affects our view of his art.
I like this idea – basing a show around a question or series of questions. It is a stimulating way to approach the inevitable debate about ‘Can bad people produce good art?’ which in itself seems to me a bit of a non-question without the possibility of a helpful answer, apart from a confused and reluctant ‘Yes’.
Asking ourselves how the knowledge of a person’s way of life, in this case their sexual behaviour, might influence our view of their creative output (or their work, or their social life, or anything else ‘public’ about them, come to that) is an important and worthwhile exercise. The Museum encourages us to reflect on the exhibition in ways that allow for many responses. This is realistic. The spectrum of feelings will encompass everything from ‘It doesn’t make any difference to how I see Gill’s work’ to ‘I don’t want to see Gill’s work and it shouldn’t be shown’. That’s OK, we are all different and have various expectations of what art means in our lives and many ways of engaging (or not) with the idea of the maker of that art.
For each of us who will feel intense discomfort when we look at some of Gill’s work, perhaps because we have a history of abuse ourselves – I am one such – or because we are sensitised by knowing someone else who does, there may also be an awareness that we are turning things over and over, refining our understanding of the associated pain. Experiencing the art may help us gain insight. The discomfort has a use. For those who look at Gill’s art in a new way having just become aware of his biography, there may be a thorough reassessment of the work. This too might be uncomfortable, disquieting.
What makes the personal life of this particular artist especially difficult to pass over in his work is the fact that he himself mixed everything up – his way of living and working was deliberately unboundaried (‘all in the soup together’ in Gill’s own words). As part of this soup, his children, his friends and his lovers were both his models and the objects of his sexual attention, and work he made from the inspiration of their bodies is often intensely erotic. How to disentangle the man from his work, then? I do not think it can be done.
In ‘fronting up’ Gill’s biography, Ditchling Museum is showing a timely and dignified awareness of sensitivities surrounding the hidden wounds of sexual abuse. If this pain is given space – even to the extent it is in this exhibition – there can be opportunities for discussion. There can be fresh air and new light. To my mind, it is proper that art should do this, that the context of a gallery should do this – somehow letting Gill’s art stand in its rightful place and contesting the idea that his work can be separated from his actions, indeed that any person’s public persona can be completely separated from their private life.
The response I felt keenly during and after seeing this show, and the response I feel whenever looking at Gill’s portrayal of female bodies, is the difficulty of knowing. Life is full of this difficulty. We know all kinds of things that we would live and sleep easier not knowing. But when we become aware of this tension and hold it within us we can be bigger and more compassionate people. Human beings are not either/or, they are both/and. As Fiona MacCarthy wrote of Gill in an article for The Guardian in July 2006, ‘We need to see him whole’.
I recommend this excellent exhibition. If you can, do go and see it. Ask yourself the questions it poses. Admire the art. Then think again, and look again, and feel the tension of knowing.