Deviation and Art: The Eric Gill Case

The urine of the stallion fertilises the fields more than all the chemicals of science. So, under Divine Providence, the excess of amorous nature fertilises the spiritual field. (Eric Gill)

On the 17th of November 1940, British artist Eric Gill died of lung cancer in Hillingdon, UK. During his lifetime he was recognised for his original typeface designs, stonecutting, printmaking and characteristic sculptures. Among others, he was the author of the Stations of the Cross in Westminster Cathedral (1914), three out of eight studies of wind, carved for the exterior of the new London Underground Headquarters at St James’ Park station (1928) and statues for the BBC’s Broadcasting House (1932). Posthumously, the adoration for his unquestionable artistic genius was faced with spicy revelations on his shocking sexual behaviour, brought to light in a biography by Fiona MacCarthy (1989).

Most of the information in the book comes from Gill’s personal diaries, in which he went into great detail about sexual acts with his own children, sister and a dog. “His attitude to animals, as to some extent to children, was that particularly Victorian combination of scientific curiosity mixed with high emotionalism.” (Fiona MacCarthy, Eric Gill). As part of his deviated study on animals he would examine ‘specimens of semen from self and spaniel dog under a microscope’.  What is even more shocking to learn is that Gill was a devoted Roman Catholic. These two, allegedly very important forces in Gill’s life – the religious and the libidinal one – unquestionably determined the essence of his oeuvre.

So, on the one hand, he produced deeply religious and contemplative works of art, which in their simplicity and asceticism are reminiscent of Orthodox iconography, and on the other hand, his other works carry a highly erotic charge. One of them is a sculpture initially called by Gill Fucking (1910-11). But in 1982 it was surprisingly, coyly renamed by Tate Britain as Ecstasy. “The models were his sister Gladys and her husband Ernest Laughton… Like the sculptor, the models too were interested in experimental sex, and the carving acquires further piquancy since at the time it was in progress Gill was embarking on the incestuous relationship with Gladys which lasted almost all his adult life.” (MacCarthy).

Apparently, the inspiration for such a liberal approach to the subject of sex came to Gill after hearing the art historian Ananda Coomaraswamy’s talks on Indian art in 1908. The images of Hindu gods overseeing coupled figures mid-coitus were, in Gill’s eyes, an expression of a higher level of spirituality. Probably that is why the contradiction of values and morality present in his own life never occurred to Gill as a form of internal conflict. He claimed that human desire could find true satisfaction only through elevation of the sexual act to the rank of holy and sublime. Gill “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’.” (MacCarthy).

Gill’s tendencies, even though never made official during his lifetime, were successively tamed by his commissioners and the official artistic bodies. One example was the statue of Prospero and Ariel, carved for the BBC’s Broadcasting House in the 1920s which caused a huge row over the size of Ariel’s genitals and Gill was forced to make them much smaller. Bearing in mind the social Puritanism of the pre-war era, the attitude towards Gill’s work does not seem to be that much out of place. Unlike the earlier mentioned renaming of his other sculpture, Fucking. It seems that, either the post-modern, punk 1980s were not as far from the attitudes of the interwar period, or Gill’s works simply crossed the fine line of universally understood morality. But if so, and especially after the revelations on his morally unacceptable intimate misdeeds, should we still place Gill in the pantheon of high arts? Some critics claim that artists and their works should be treated as two separate matters – that a work of art, once produced, lives a life of its own.

Nevertheless,  isn’t it hypocritical to keep  the works of a man, who transgressed social norms and values, in the public eye? This conflict is particularly relevant when talking about the Stations of the Cross in Westminster Cathedral. There is an ongoing campaign for these works to be removed. The main campaigner, Margaret Kennedy, claims that: “Survivors couldn’t pray at the Stations of the Cross. They were done by a paedophile. The very hands that carved the stations were the hands that abused… He abused his maids, his prostitutes, animals, he was having sex with everything that moved – a very deranged man sexually.” (BBC News Magazine). Kennedy’s dilemma still remains unanswered. Is then genius enough of a justification for transgressing the universal laws of morality?