A Sketch of Eric Gill

“An artist is not a special kind of man, but every man is a special kind of artist.”  This phrase, owned by Eric Gill from the writings of Ananda Coomaraswamy, came to summarize his philosophy of life. We can ask ourselves, in examining the work and life of that craftsman, was Gill a special kind of man or a special kind of artist? The answers come back with the clarity and punch of a Gill typeface—he was indeed both.

Born on February 22, 1882, the son of Arthur Tidman Gill, originally a Congregationalist minister, later a clergyman of a Calvinist Methodist sect and eventually an Anglican rector, Eric Gill was the eldest of twelve children.

His mother, Rose King, was a singer on the light opera stage who performed under the name Rose le Roi. Gill inherited his artistic ability and obsessive neatness from his father and his energy for life from his mother, who was able to indulge her singing talents while still caring for twelve children all born within fifteen years.

He exhibited early promise in the arts with his fine drawings of locomotives done at the switchyard in Brighton, the town of his birth. His enthusiasm for the academic disciplines of school was tepid but he learned to appreciate fine literature from his family.

His father’s income, even in later years as an Anglican vicar, was never enough to allow for luxuries with such a large family. Gill remembered and emulated the noble poverty of his childhood throughout his life, and though he possessed little, he was genuinely content.

In 1896, Gill experienced the beginning of his “adventure,” as he called it. For the first time his father took him to visit an Anglican church during services. He describes the nameless church as “large . . . arid, bare and gaunt” and his feeling that “A strange and uncomfortable, almost disreputable gap had suddenly appeared in our quiet, respectable world of prayerful shopkeepers. For the uncomfortable character of that church was not indicative of mere poverty but of the presence of the poor!”

In 1897 his father joined the Church of England, with the rest of the family soon to follow. They moved to Chichester, where his father would undertake theological studies. This was a momentous shift in urban perspective for the sensitive young boy, from the bleak suburbs and slums of Brighton to the medieval cathedral city. Gill saw it this way:

I had not been training myself to become an engineer, I had been training myself to see Chichester, the human city, the city of God, the place where life and work and things were all in one and all in harmony.

His future efforts at community living would be attempts at writing small the urbane lessons of Chichester. He attended the Chichester Technical and Art School. But the greater influence upon him would be the cathedral itself. He was befriended by one of the canons who, in turn, introduced him to the sacristan whose daughter, Ethel, he would eventually marry. Gill had the run of the cathedral, exploring it entirely and attending services: “I was as regular as any canon and much more regular than any lay person except the usual cathedral lunatic.”

First Love

There Gill fell in love for the first time with Winifred Johnson, a fellow student of art. His second, more enduring love, however, was Ethel Moore. It was a period of intense growth emotionally, intellectually, sexually. Gill put it this way: “I was, I suppose, just the right age. I was mentally bursting like a bud and physically too.”

But the romance of Chichester faded fast. His love affair with Ethel was unacceptable to both families; he abandoned the hope of an art career for which he had been preparing, and his faith in the Church of England began to wane: the new-found sanctuary of religion, the august and unshakable castle that the Church of England had seemed in comparison with the Countess of Huntingdon’s chapel, seemed now

less venerable—not venerable at all, less holy—good kind clergymen but many asses as well—no force, no sharp edge, no burning fire of Christ’s word, no apostolate, no martyrdom—no power to bind and loose, no strength to hold even me, still less to hold all men.

In 1900 he was apprenticed to William Caröe, architect to the Ecclesiastical Commissioners. He moved to Clapham, and spent hours visiting and sketching the bridges of London, Westminster Abbey, and the new Catholic cathedral of whose design he thoroughly approved. But life in the architect’s office became oppressive. Gill soundly detested “sham Gothic,” the taste of the day. For him it was an object lesson in what to avoid: “As far as I was concerned, architecture in that office was almost completely ‘debunked.'” He began to evolve his own ideal of functional architecture epitomized in the ideal cottage.

While still working for Caröe, he attended Westminster Technical Institute to learn stonemasonry and inscription cutting. In 1901 he was introduced to Edward Johnston and attended his class on writing and lettering. Johnston’s influence on Gill was seminal and years later in his autobiography he would describe it in the most lavish terms, liking it to erotic impulses and spiritual transport. Remembering the first time he saw Johnston write, he states: “On that evening I was thus rapt. It was no mere dexterity that transported me; it was as though a secret of heaven were being revealed.”

In 1902 Johnston invited Gill to share rooms with him at Lincoln’s Inn, but before he left Clapham and abandoned his career as an architect, he underwent another profound experience. He had his first sexual encounter with a woman, a Picadilly prostitute. Gill’s reaction to this event, his “apology,” is indicative of the direction his life would take trying to harmonize his religious fervor, artistic creativity, and sexual aberrancy.

In his biography he reflects on the event in this way: “The final cause, as I thought then and as I think even now, was not so much sensuality as curiosity.” Moving up another notch on the scale of apologetic abstraction, he complains: “Lettering, masonry—these are not trades for eunuchs, they are different sorts of priesthood.” And a final leap to the metaphysical plane: “The urine of the stallion fertilizes the fields more than all the chemicals of science. So, under, Divine Providence, the excess of amorous nature fertilizes the spiritual field.”

Our recognizing here some ironic content is a credit to Gill’s intelligent wit.

He moved in with Johnston to the agreeable, semimonastic surroundings of Lincoln’s Inn. It was what Gill had been looking for, and he claimed “at Lincoln’s Inn for the first time I experienced the integrated life.” He received commissions for inscriptions and was able to support himself enough to marry Ethel in 1904.

Becoming Catholic

After abandoning the Anglican Church, Gill says he became an agnostic, reading Fabian tracts and the works of Ruskin and William Morris. While still at the architects offices, his friend George Carter gave him a copy of Robert Browning’s poem, Bishop Blougram’s Apology, of which Gill says: “if any mere book did do anything to make me a Catholic, it is Bishop Blougram’s Apology.”

Gill’s reading and thinking were leading him to invent a “new” religion. It was a subliminal propaedeutic to his conversion: “Without knowing it we were Thomistic and Aristotelian.”

His marriage to Ethel meant he had to leave Lincoln’s Inn; he moved to a flat in Battersea Bridge Buildings, and a year later to Hammersmith. In this time he received his first commission for engraved headings and titles from Count Harry Kessler of Weimar, and taught masonry and letter carving at Paddington Institute.

In 1906 he visited Rome with his wife to study inscriptions. A year later he visited Chartres with Lillian Meacham, when again, as is common with Gill, sexual delights mixed with religious and aesthetic flights of emotion. Meacham was a member of the Fabian circle Gill frequented. They shared an interest in Nietzsche and in each other. The romantic tryst in France seems to have been tolerated by Ethel. Gill even sent his family a postcard from Chartres. In characteristic Gill fashion, he dismissed the infidelity as “having cleared away the passionate side of the matter,” the “matter” being the spiritual turmoil he was then experiencing.

Chartres Cathedral

Gill saw the cathedral as “The most perfectly proportioned stone building in the world, the holiest work of masonry.” He visited it nine times; and his initial enthusiasm never waned:

Oh taste and see how gracious the Lord is! I did taste. I did see. And though when I first went there in 1907, I was not aware of such things in these words. I was inebriated with more than a sensual delight; for my sensual delight was, as sensual delight should be: an attraction to the truth.

Attraction to the truth and pursuit of a rational existence caused Gill to move his family from London to Ditchling Village in Sussex. First he took a house in town, where they remained six years. Eventually he acquired a larger property in Ditchling Common, where they lived for another eleven years.

Gill’s engagement with socialism arose from a genuine concern for the laboring classes and the inhuman conditions industrialism inflicted upon people. His own philosophy of work sought to reintroduce responsibility to the worker in the act of production. The worker was not just a useful and obedient tool for designers and the owners of the means of production. He ought to be a craftsman who exercised control from the beginning to the end of the creative process.

In Gill’s mind, an increase in responsibility would lead to an investment of personal pride in the object produced and, consequently, satisfaction to the worker. Socialism, while it sought to alleviate some of the negative consequences of industrialism, still did not resolve the root of the problem.

Beyond Socialism

In 1908 he resigned from the Fabian Art Group. He fell under the influence of A. R. Orage and abandoned socialism for a kind of guild social structure free of “wage slavery,” as they called it. Gill would come into contact with the thought of G. K. Chesterton, who wrote for Orage’s magazine New Age.

Late in 1909 Ethel was pregnant with Gill’s third daughter, Joanna. This enforced continence upon Gill and he sublimated his energies to the plastic arts, where he cut his first figure in stone—quite predictably a naked woman supporting the Greek inscription: ESTIN THALASSA [BEHOLD THE SEA].

Gill admits its inspiration in his autobiography and calls it his first “erotic” drawing on stone. It opened new vistas to his creativity. The move from lettering to carving was seen in mystical terms:

Lord how exciting . . . I was responsible for her very existence … a new world opened before me . . Lettercutting — a grand job, and as grand as ever . . . this new job was the same job, only the letters were different ones. A new alphabet—the word was made flesh.

The work met with critical success and Gill added to his talents that of stone carver.

On February 22, 1913, Eric and Ethel (now Mary) Gill were received into the Catholic Church. Like Chesterton, Gill’s conversion was not so much a case of embracing a new faith, but rather one of finding a home for the religion he had been “inventing”.

His discovery of Catholicism was not a kind of naive escape into medieval romanticism. He did indeed love the buildings of the Gothic age, the plain chant he heard for the first time in Louvain, the monastic discipline of life he tried to implant into family life; but he entered the Church with his eyes wide open to her imperfections. Of the Vatican he said:

Think of St. Peter’s and its toy soldiery, and the purple and lace of its fat worldly-looking prelates, and when you think of the subtle intangibilities and intransigencies of its diplomacy, it is not difficult to understand why people run away in panic.

He admired the encyclicals of Leo XIII and Pius X; but he acknowledged that they went unheeded for the most part by both clergy and laity alike. Being the individualist he was, he had no problem in finding isolated but authoritative consolation:

If I had the Popes at my back, if I could claim the support of many notably holy men among the clergy and even a few among the laity, I had no reason either to be unhappy or to think myself unorthodox.

He summed up his response to those pathologies of Church corruption in a sentence that also can be taken autobiographically: “I knew, surely everyone knows, that a man can be a holy man, a good man, and an intelligent man, and yet be covered with sores, have a shocking temper and be subject to all the temptations of the flesh.”

Gill certainly was covered with sores in the moral sense. He himself would admit it, and would chronicle it with a perverse precision in his still-unpublished diaries.


Gill was fascinated with sex. His interests were almost entirely heterosexual, even venturing into the forbidden realm of incest with his sisters and daughters. In his diary he details also an experimental quest into homosexual oral sex and one incident of bestiality.

Curiously enough there is no evidence that Gill’s sexual anomalies affected his family’s long-term psychological stability since he and Mary lived a happy life, and their children all enjoyed good marriages.

While at Ditchling, Gill became a member of the Third Order of St. Dominic, along with his wife and other members of the artistic enclave that gathered around him. The recitation of the Divine Office and daily Mass gave a monastic discipline to the otherwise bizarre assemblage of personalities. Gill also founded the Guild of St. Joseph and St. Dominic, an entity that sought to practice the distributive theories of Chesterton and Belloc.

Only a year after his conversion, Gill received the commission to do the Stations of the Cross for Westminster Cathedral. Commissions were never lacking from either ecclesiastical or civil sources. When one adds to this the various typefaces, engravings and inscriptions he executed, along with his writing and occasional lectures, Gill was a very busy man.

In fact, Gill’s lifetime of creativity is phenomenal. It is estimated that he produced nearly 500 works of sculpture, many of them monumental in size. He designed eleven typefaces including ones in Hebrew, Greek and Arabic, and cut the punches for ten of them.

He illustrated 128 books, not to mention numerous drawings and independent engravings. He designed the inscription for Oscar Wilde’s tomb, and executed the tombstones of G.K. Chesterton and Francis Thompson. He wrote 54 books, pamphlets and essays on his own, and collaborated in 202 other books, periodicals, and essays.

Personal conflicts and financial difficulties made it inevitable that Gill would have to leave Ditchling in search of another Eden. In August of 1924 he moved his own family and two others, totaling thirteen people, together with belongings and livestock to Capel-y-ffin in Wales. There they took up residence in a remote set of monastic buildings dating from the ninetieth century. They would stay there only four years until making his final move to Pigotts in the Home Counties.

Tortured Success

Needless to say, it is impossible to summarize the life and work of a man whose art depicts everything from erotic copulation to the blessed virgin Mary and her divine child; whose essays treat of social criticism, aesthetics, clothing design, and baking good bread; who detested architectural ornamentation yet executed some of his largest works for building facades; who scorned social pretense, but pursued a preindustrial Eden.

Gill strove with some success, albeit very tortured at times, to live an integrated, human life. It cannot be doubted that at the heart of that effort was the Mass. The Eucharist expresses all that is palpable and transcendent about faith.

Gill says in the autobiography quickly written after being diagnosed with terminal cancer:

I became a Catholic because I fell in love with the truth. And love is an experience. I saw. I heard. I felt. I tasted. I touched. And that is what lovers do. And lest anyone should think that in this devotion to the Mass, to the Blessed Sacrament, to the Holy Eucharist I am devoted to an abstraction, to a purely intellectual and even aesthetic Catholicism (not that such things are to be despised or rejected) I must say this: the Real Presence which we affirm is the real presence of the man Jesus. Let no one suppose that because we adore him in spirit we do not adore him in our hearts. Very God, yes. And dear Jesus also. He speaks to us and we speak to him. We kiss the hem of his garment, we also thank him for our bread and butter. He ordained that our bodily motions should be pleasant and gratifying and that the pleasure of marriage should be beyond the dreams of avarice. He ordained the thunderstorms and the lion’s voracity; he also blessed the daisies and the poor. He sits in judgment; he is also friend and brother.

Eric Gill died November 17, 1940. His marriage certificate gave his profession as calligrapher; his death certificate read “sculptor”; the tombstone he designed reads “stone carver.”

  • Stephanie D. Moussalli

    At the time this article was published, Stephanie D. Moussalli was an adjunct instructor in the department of history and political science at Pensacola Junior College in Pensacola, Florida.

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