Gill’s Prospero and Ariel, Broadcasting House, 99 Portland Place, W1. Photo © David Secombe 2010.
The artistic legacy of Eric Gill (1882 – 1940) has been irretrievably sullied by the revelations made public in Fiona MacCarthy’s 1988 biography. MacCarthy quoted passages from Gill’s diaries in which he recorded a grotesque catalogue of perversions, including incest with his sister and daughters, as well as a passing liason with the family dog. Gill’s reputation was thus transformed from brilliant bohemian, who fused medieval craftsmanship with modernist practice, to that of a paedophile whose erotic carvings and prints are queasy evidence of a diseased mind.
Many of Gill’s admirers were appalled that MacCarthy had put this knowledge into her book, a sharp contrast to previous biographers who had resolutely ignored the evidence of the diaries. (That MacCarthy was blamed for her act of biographical integrity is appalling in itself.) At any rate, it is no longer possible to survey Gill’s huge output – his many religious carvings in cathedrals and churches, his monuments to the fallen carved in the wake of the First World War, his engravings, even his supremely elegant typefaces (Gill Sans, Perpetua, etc.) – without confronting the upsetting truth about their creator.
There are some fine examples of Gill’s public art in London: in Westminster Cathedral, on 55 Broadway, above St.James’ tube station, and his epic embellishments to the BBC’s flagship headquarters, Broadcasting House in Portland Place. B.H. features a cluster of works by Gill, most prominently his awe-inspiring Prospero and Ariel, two monumental carved stone figures which loom above the main entrance. There are many photographs of Gill working on the statues in situ: dressed in his customary monastic habit (affording passers-by glimpses of his genitals, as he considered underwear an ‘abomination’), Gill resembles a medieval stonemason carving for his God – or, perhaps, an extra who has wandered off the set of a period epic being filmed by Alexander Korda at Denham Studios. Broadcasting House is a sleek hymn to the Moderne set in Portland Stone, a Deco jewel keen to slip its moorings and set sail down Regent Street. And, for all Gill’s avowed medievalism, his sculptures are in keeping with the spirit of the times: Prospero and Ariel look fully at home at the prow of the BBC’s own dry-docked ocean liner.
… for The London Column. © David Secombe 2011.