27 September 2007
The year 2007 marks the centenary of Eric Gill moving to Ditchling. A man of extraordinary contradictions, Gill repudiated the arts and crafts movement - and, especially, the writings of William Morris and Ruskin - whilst maintaining many of the tenets of the movement throughout his working life.
Born in Brighton in 1882, Gill initially learnt drawing and decorative lettering at Chichester Technical and Art College before becoming apprenticed as a draughtsman in the office of the architect William D Caröe. In order to learn a craft (a prerequisite of the Arts and Craft Movement experience) he studied stone masonry and letter cutting at Westminster Technical College. At the same time he attended classes in lettering at Lethaby’s Central School of Arts and Crafts under Edward Johnston. From 1905 to 1907 Gill lived close to Johnston in Black Lion Lane, Hammersmith – in the very heart of the Arts and Crafts Movement stronghold that members of ACMS discovered on a visit to Emery Walker House in April 2007. (The Johnstons lived at no. 3 The Terrace – a little group of 16 eighteenth century houses – the Emery Walkers at no. 7, May Morris was at no. 8, Edward Spencer at No. 9 and the Peplers at number 14.) Even in quitting industrial London for the country in 1907, Gill was following an Arts and Crafts Movement pattern established by Ashby (to Chipping Camden), Gimson and the Barnsleys (to Sapperton) and Godfrey Blount (to Haslemere) among others.
To celebrate the centenary of Gill’s arrival in the village, Ditchling Museum held an exhibition Eric Gill and Ditchling: The Workshop Tradition which members of ACMS visited on Thursday 27th September. In a period of pretty dreary, dull weather, Thursday 27th September turned out to be a crisp, sparkling and sunny day. From the top of Ditchling Beacon it seemed that the whole of SE England was visible. (There was also a very cold wind so my wife and I did not stay long to enjoy the view!)
Our tour of the exhibition started with an introductory talk by curator Hilary Williams who took us through the chronology of the exhibition. The first few exhibits were from Gill’s pre-Ditchling period but we were quickly into his work in Ditchling between 1907 and 1920. Early exhibits included an exquisite inscription of the words Omnia per ipsum et sine ipso nihil (Everything through him and nothing without him) made by Gill for his father in 1913, and probably never previously seen in public exhibition. Gill’s drawings for the Westminster Cathedral Stations of the Cross were there (he converted to Catholicism in 1913) as was the drawing for Roger Fry’s commission Mulier B.V.M. which Fry rejected for being too sexually explicit.
The next section came, to me at least, as a bit of a surprise. It featured work not by Gill but by his apprentice and assistant (and disciple, friend and successor) Joseph Cribb, and as one proceeded through the exhibition it became clear that, certainly in the later years, the work of Gill and Cribb became almost indistinguishable. Gill is credited with producing more than 800 inscriptions in stone, wood and metal during his career but a considerable proportion of them were, in fact, done by Cribb. Other exhibits included diaries, letters (including one from Jacob Epstein), receipts and workbooks but perhaps the most fascinating were Gill’s own illustrations and carvings in stone – beautiful, but certainly sensual too, even erotic. There were also exhibits from the Guild of St Joseph and St Dominic established by Gill at Ditchling Common both from Gill’s time there and later (up to as late as 1961 – the Guild itself continued until 1989).
The output of Gill and Cribb was enormous. Inevitably, the exhibition itself was limited in size – part of the attraction of Ditchling Museum is its intimacy – and could show only a small sample, but it provided a good introduction to the work of these two master artists.
Following the exhibition, and a very welcome cup of tea and delicious slice of cake, we were taken on a short tour by Janet Cragg, Group Visits organiser at the Museum. We looked at the sadly deteriorating headstone of Edward Johnston beneath a yew tree in the churchyard (where we also saw examples of Gill’s headstones for the war dead – a major commission). We viewed the exterior of Gill’s first Ditchling home, Sopers (later also lived in by Pepler).
We visited St. Margaret’s church and admired the screen to the Abergavenny Chapel, designed by J L Denman as a memorial to the between-the-wars-poet Louis Ginnett and carved by Cribb and others. We admired Gill’s lettering on the commemorative sundial in the churchyard and Cribb’s letter carving on the Gill designed village War Memorial.
The village of Ditchling resonates with the presence of Gill and his followers and the many other artists who lived there – they are still lurking in the shadows - and the ACMS day visit was both highly enjoyable and very instructive. Inevitably it also raised wider questions in one’s mind. For me there were three in particular. Is a work of art any less worthy because of the deficiencies in the moral/sexual code of the artist? (Witness the current minor furore concerning the Westminster Cathedral Stations of the Cross.) Is a work of art any less valuable because it turns out to be by someone other than the master to whom it is accredited? (Witness the “works” of Gill actually accomplished by Cribb.) And should we allow works of art (eg the Johnston headstone) to just weather away or should they be restored and thus cease to be the original work of the artist? Discuss.
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