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Eric Gill: 'The Soul and the bridegroom', wood engraving from The Song of the Soul, 1927 

The book was published in 1989 with a great deal of publicity, including a special TV programme on Gill and an article in The Independent colour supplement, all pursuing the theme that startling revelations were to be found in it concerning sexually aberrant behaviour with his daughters, at least one sister, maybe two, and even the family dog. It is a theme hammered home by the Introduction. Gill is presented as a 'tragic' figure riven by contradictions between his fine religious and social ideal and his disorderly life and passions (pp.vii-viii):

'He was taken very seriously in his day. At his death, the obituaries suggested he was one of the most important figures of his period, not just as an artist and craftsman but as a social reformer, a man who had pushed out the boundaries of possibility of how we live and work; a man who set examples. But how convincing was he? One of his great slogans (for Gill was a prize sloganist) was ‘It All Goes Together’. As I traced his long and extraordinary journeys around Britain in search of integration, the twentieth-century artistic pilgrim’s progress, I started to discover aspects of Gill’s life which do not go together in the least, a number of very basic contradictions between precept and practice, ambition and reality, which few people have questioned. There is an official and an unofficial Gill and the official, although much the least interesting, has been the version most generally accepted. ...

She refers (p.x) to 'the smokescreen Gill himself and others so determinedly erected' and affirms boldly: 'At least I can be confident that Gill was not what he said he was. The Autobiography is full of obfuscation'.

And yet this is not at all the impression that is conveyed once we get into the substance of the book. Indeed even the Introduction itself makes it plain that, whatever about the details of his sexual activity, no-one who came into contact with him could be in any doubt that he regarded sex as a matter of immense importance, of endless wonder and delight and that he was, or seemed to be, completely lacking in any inhibitions on the subject, that he expected the same of all the others around him. I don't myself share that attitude and, for the sake of the ideas that he had in common with Gleizes, I regret that he had it. But I can't accuse him of 'obfuscation' on the matter.  

Having made this accusation, the Introduction continues (p.xi):

'In earlier years Eric Gill had alighted on and promulgated in his own version Ananda Coomaraswamy’s Hindu doctrines of the erotic elements in art. Later on, at Ditchling, with the same conviction, he began propounding a complicated theory, or succession of theories, in which sexual activity is aligned to godliness, in which the sexual organs, far from their conventional depiction as the source of scandal, are ‘redeemed’ by Christ and ‘made dear’. It is a very radical and interesting theory, where Gill challenges Christendom’s traditional confrontation of matter and spirit, and indeed his theory is justified in part, at least for connoisseurs of art, by the wonderful erotic engravings of that period. But one senses something frantic in the zeal with which Gill exfoliated his passion, in contexts likely and unlikely, and in his evident enjoyment of the waves of consternation which followed, particularly from the monasteries.'

When she comes to discussing the Autobiography she herself quotes, with evident relish, the wonderful passage in which Gill recounts his first discovery of the joys of masturbation (p.20):

'But how shall I ever forget the strange, inexplicable rapture of my first experience? What marvellous thing was this that suddenly transformed a mere water-tap into a pillar of fire, and water into an elixir of life? I lived henceforth in a strange world of contradiction: something was called filthy which was obviously clean; something was called ridiculous which was obviously solemn and momentous; something was called ugly which was obviously lovely. Strange days and nights of mystery and fear mixed with excitement and wonder - strange days and nights, strange months and years.' (11)

(11) Eric Gill: Autobiography, London, The Right Book Club, 1944, pp.53-4.

Not much sign of 'obfuscation' there! Nor in the passage which she quotes (p.290) with equal enthusiasm in which Gill describes the beauty of the flowers of the field as a magnificent display of sexual parts designed to entice for the purpose of procreation. And accordingly invites us to see our own genitalia, male and female, as our most precious 'ornaments.' (12)

(12) Ibid., p.225

 She makes the remarkable, almost perverse, observation that 'Gill the patriarchal figure surrounded by what at times seems dozens of his children and his grandchildren, is also a scene of pathos, fertility run wild, the all-too-logical conclusion of his "let ’em all come" theories'  (pp.xi-xii). She is referring to a passage, again in the Autobiography, when at the time of their marriage Gill and his wife, Mary (or Ethel as she was before her conversion to Catholicism) agreed not to bother with contraception: '"Always ready and willing" was our motto in respect to lovemaking and "let 'em all come" was our motto in respect of babies.' (13) But they only had three daughters as well as one adopted son. Gill came from a family of thirteen children and he and Mary may well have wanted more but after a series of miscarriages they knew it was not to be. The 'fertility run wild' was the fertility of their daughters. Is Gill to be blamed - assuming it is a bad thing - for that?

(13) Ibid., p.132.

She says (p.x) that she has 'come to see Gill as a rather tragic figure', because of the contradiction between his role as a model English Catholic 'paterfamilias' and his unruly sexual appetite. What is astonishing about Gill, however, and this book confirms it, is the apparent absence of any such contradiction. Gill had sexual relations with his housekeepers, with female colleagues, the wives of his friends, his sisters (or at least one sister) and even - and we shall be discussing this in a bit more detail later - his daughters. Yet the book gives little evidence of the ill-feeling, tension and jealousy which such behaviour should normally have provoked. It is as if the normal rules don't apply, and at one point, MacCarthy (following one of Gill's Dominican friends) asks (p.214): 'Was Gill honestly entitled to the privilege of innocence? Had he really been unaffected by the Fall?'

The question is an interesting one, given that Gill believed in the Fall and Fiona MacCarthy, one assumes, does not. In fact, the whole prurient glee with which the media establishment has swooped on Gill's sexual misdeeds is interesting.

In theory, sexual innocence should be an easy matter for those who do not believe that the sinfulness of sexual passion has been revealed by God. Yet here is a man who is apparently incapable of feeling sexual guilt and whose sexual activities seem to have caused no lasting damage to anyone, and Fiona MacCarthy tries to persuade herself that he was unhappy, tragic, eaten up by contradictions, even though all the evidence she gives proclaims the contrary.


While MacCarthy thinks that there should have been a tension between Gill's sexual activity and his Catholicism, Gill maintains that the two were mutually complementary. She tells us (p.212) about a visit Gill paid with his then protégé, the Welsh writer and artist, David Jones, to a certain 'big fat man with a taste for true pornography ... The walls of his flat in Lincoln's Inn Fields were almost papered over with pornographic postcards. At the sight of these, Gill turned to David Jones, saying: "If I were not a Catholic, I should have been like this."' 

Again, Gill complained about his brother whose marriage was breaking up that 'Brother Max is so virtuous by nature and so stupid and muddle-headed ... that he prefers to cast M. adrift and break up the home (thus depriving his children of all that home implies) rather than have a love affair to go to confession about' (p.287). The same attitude to acknowledging sin is found in the Autobiography in which he proclaims it as a privilege, an assertion of one's pride in being a man and thus capable of sinning. (14) One has the feeling that having a good sin to confess was all part of the fun (one of his confessors, incidentally, was Fr John O'Connor, thought to have been the model for Chesterton's Father Brown. That must have made things easier).

(14) At least that is how I interpret the passage in the Autobiography, pp.223-7.

He develops an argument that Catholics, confident in their membership of the True Church, can afford to take a lighter attitude to life than Protestants and agnostics, who continually have to prove themselves. (15) And, especially towards the end of his life, MacCarthy tells us, new visitors to Pigott's, the last of the rural artistic communities he founded, had to pass through a sort of initiation test in which Gill held forth to them about Christ's genitals which, given that He was the Perfect Man, could be assumed to have been of a goodly size. While he was receiving instruction to enter the Church in 1913, he was working on a life size marble replica of his own phallus. One feels a certain sympathy for MacCarthy. He ought to have been a neurotic and unhappy soul. It somehow seems unjust that he wasn't.

(15) Ibid, p.164,

MacCarthy argues (p.xi), in support of her view that he was a tragic figure, that 'a chain of destructiveness began at Ditchling, not long after his conversion to Catholicism. Perhaps a part of his tragedy is that he was both ahead of his times and behind them. His urge to experiment with social conventions, especially the prevailing sexual mores, became more obviously and more painfully at variance with the Gills' accepted role as the ideal Catholic family, the public demonstration of fidelity and cohesiveness.'

In fact, Gill's life at Ditchling Common, at Capel-y-ffin, and at Pigott's (the three rural craft communities he founded or co-founded after his conversion to Catholicism) was astonishingly creative, not just for his own work but for his ability to attract and train loyal followers and apprentices, bringing out their own creative capacities. Of course there were immense problems, and it is quite believable that he was crushed by his workload, his financial responsibilities and his despair at the direction in which political events were moving in the 1930s. But anyone who knows anything about the difficulties of maintaining his kind of life, and of holding such communities together, will be impressed by his achievement, especially remembering that, unlike Ruskin, Morris, Carpenter or Ashbee, he had no inherited wealth. All his ventures were financed only by his own work.

The main evidence for Gill's 'destructiveness' is his quarrel with his former close friend, the printer, Hilary Pepler. But though MacCarthy discusses this at some length and tells us that there is a long correspondence on the subject, she doesn't in my view quite come to grips with it. Was it, as she hints in the Introduction, prompted by jealousy because his eldest daughter Elizabeth had fallen in love with Hilary's son, David (whom she eventually married, against her father's opposition)? Or did his opposition to this affair spring from an already established rift with Pepler, which he attributed to questions of finance and also (a major part of the account in the Autobiography) to his complaint that Ditchling was more and more taking on the character of a Catholic tourist  resort. This would seem to be confirmed by his withdrawal to the - at the time - nearly inaccessible Capel y Finn. MacCarthy's account of the joyous arrival at Capel and the subsequent life there (and a couple of years later when the whole menagerie moved again to Pigotts, near High Wycombe in the Chilterns) hardly fits the idea that it was a 'chain of destructiveness.' 

Gill, MacCarthy says, was both ahead of his times and behind them. Presumably it is as a sexual libertarian that he was ahead of the times, and as a Catholic family man, who loved being surrounded by children and grandchildren, that he was behind. But Gill's sexual libertarianism is utterly different from the unhappy obsessions of modern society. He lived in a different world from that of William Burroughs, Hubert Selby Jr, Peter Greenaway or Tom Sharpe. What is so striking about post war sexual permissiveness, chronically so in the case of pop music (David Bowie, Lou Reed, Ultravox, The Smiths, Prince - I don't claim to be up-to-date in these matters!), is the carefully cultivated atmosphere of misery and degradation that surrounds it. There is a feeling of the obsessive scratching of an itch, knowing that it will only make the wound deeper. Compare them with Gill, a passage from the diaries which I have taken at random from MacCarthy's book:

'C.L. (the discretion is my own - P.B.) came in and I drew her portrait. We talked a lot about fucking and agreed how much we loved it. Afterwards we fondled one another a little and I put my penis between her legs. She then arranged herself so that when I pushed a little it went into her. I pushed it in about six times and then we kissed and went into lunch.' (p.262)

Gill, incidentally, was a strong opponent of artificial contraception. It is a curious thing that, while he had three daughters by his wife, he does not seem to have had any children outside marriage. I think we can safely assume that he would have accepted responsibility for them if he had. MacCarthy gives what might be the answer in her account of his exchanges with Dr Helena Wright, well-known as an adviser on sexual matters and advocate of contraception. After telling her 'You are entitled to believe in and work for a matriarchal state. Men are equally entitled to resist it', he continues: 'I believe in birth control by the man by means of:– (1) Karetza. (2) Abstinence from intercourse. (3) Withdrawal before ejaculation. (4) French letters' but 'I don’t think 3 and 4 are good. I don’t think abstinence from orgasm is necessarily a bad thing. It depends on the state of mind and states of mind can be cultivated.'  (p.261) 'Karetza' is a form of sexual activity without orgasm. Gill, as we know, did not practise abstinence. Karetza may also explain the willingness of the most improbable women to have sex with him. They didn't take it very seriously.