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Son of a non-conformist minister, one of twelve children, Eric Gill was born in Brighton in 1882 and brought up in Chichester, where he attended art school and learned the rudiments of drawing. At the age of eighteen he went to London to work in an architect's office, a prosperous firm specializing in church buildings. Here he acquired more of a draftsman's skills, although not entirely in sympathy with modern building methods, which Gill believed to favor the designer and contractor at the expense of the craftsman.

The Arts and Crafts movement, then in its first flowering, offered an exciting alternative to the "wage slavery" of the office as well as the opportunity to make his living independently. Instead of studying architecture in the evenings, Gill learned the art of carving inscriptions in stone. He attended classes in masonry at the Westminster Technical School and lettering at the Central School of Arts and Crafts, both schools specializing in practical, hands-on instruction in materials and methods. His teacher at the Central School was Edward Johnston, an expert calligrapher and an eloquent proponent of Arts and Crafts techniques. Gill not only shared Johnston's rooms for a few years, but even contributed a chapter to Johnston's Writing & Illuminating & Lettering, still a standard text on penmanship. By 1904 Gill was self-employed, supporting himself and his wife by carving lettering on public buildings for architects as well as tombstones and memorial tablets for private clients.

At this time, Gill's interest in art, religion, and politics were developing in diverse, often contradictory directions. His first experiments in sculpture won the approval of such influential artists and critics as Augustus John, Jacob Epstein, Roger Fry, and William Rothenstein. They admired the primitive vigor of his work and also its technical polish, a combination that prompted flattering comparisons with archaic sculpture on one hand and the newly fashionable Post-Impressionist art on the other. A German patron introduced him to Aristide Maillol, hoping the two artists would work together and learn from one another. During a brief and intense friendship with Jacob Epstein, he collaborated on the monument for Oscar Wilde and joined in wild plans to build a modernist Stonehenge in the Sussex countryside. On a much smaller scale, Gill carved in Hoptonwood stone a Golden Calf, originally intended for a London cabaret but eventually loaned to Roger Fry for the Second Post-Impressionist exhibition, where it was surrounded by paintings of Picasso, Matisse and Cézanne.

Gill never quite renounced his heritage in the Arts and Crafts or the patronage of the London art world, but he adamantly refused to be identified simply as a craftsman or an artist. He constantly sought other labels, other ways to fix a special place for himself in a society that he believed to be oppressive and unjust. He had a disputatious streak, a craving to be heard, a compulsive urge to take sides on the social issues of his day that could be satisfied only by sampling, asserting, and rejecting a profusion of political and religious allegiances. He dabbled in socialism, attended meetings of the Fabian Society, and spoke vociferously against the factory system. But he soon wearied of the discipline and obligations of political action, left London, and joined a community of craftsmen in Ditchling, Sussex. While at Ditchling, he and his wife converted to Catholicism, moved to another part of the village, and founded there a reconstituted religious community linked with the Dominican order. The Guild of SS. Joseph and Dominic operated on Distributist rather than socialist principles, extolling the sanctity of individual labor and advocating a return to private property and a self-sufficient rural economy. Some members of the Guild helped Gill in the studio, others tended livestock and tilled gardens.

Sculpture continued to occupy Gill during the Ditchling period (1907-1924) - perhaps most importantly the Stations of the Cross at Westminster Cathedral and the War Memorial at Leeds University - but at the same time Gill mastered other skills and developed other sources of income. His lettering was in great demand not just for stone inscriptions, but also for painted signs and printing, particularly buildings, title pages, and chapter headings. Characteristically, Gill learned wood engraving to have better control over how his lettering was printed. Once he became proficient with boxwood and graver, he began to experiment with printmaking and book illustration, and in turn tried his hand at the handpress, learning the first principles of typography and composition. The Guild founded its own private press, more to make a political than an artistic statement, yet its rudely printed broadsides and pamphlets are fetchingly illustrated with some of Gill's first engravings.

In 1924 Gill moved his family and studio to a deserted, half-ruined monastery in South Wales, having quit the Ditchling community in a dispute over finances. Although remote, inconvenient, and uncomfortable, the monastery of Capel-y-ffin provided a perfect setting for Gill to build his ideal religious community without unwelcome publicity or intrusions from the outside world. He found a new market for his wood engravings in the Golden Cockerel Press, publisher of far more ambitious books than the Guild, with higher standards of presswork, better design, and a more sophisticated clientele, willing and able to pay handsomely for sumptuously illustrated books. Increasingly intrigued by typography and its possibilities for independent self-expression, Gill not only catered to book collectors and bibliophiles but also to trade printers through the Monotype Corporation, which commissioned from him a series of distinguished typefaces. This lucrative relationship seems to have overcome his aversion for industrial capitalism, even though he was being paid by businessmen to design types for machine composition - and on retainer at that. He also put his business in sculpture on a sound financial footing by having his work regularly exhibited at the Goupil Gallery in London. Assured of steady sales, he undertook one of his largest, most impressive, and highly regarded carvings, Mankind, now at the Tate Gallery. Some critics consider it a companion piece to the earlier Mulier at UCLA, which is equally monumental if not a bit portentous and cold.

As his fame and business grew, so did the demands on his facilities, time, and energy. Gill brought his family closer to London in 1928, settling at Pigotts, near High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire, in a commodious red-brick farmhouse with outbuildings providing ample space for studios, cottages, and a chapel. This too was intended to be a community of craftsmen, though now defined more as employees and family members than as adherents of a religious or political doctrine. Nevertheless Gill still attracted pupils, disciples, and pilgrims, who came to learn from the master craftsman, to share in his sense of high purposefulness, and to observe how he and his associates managed to live and work together apart from modern society.

In 1929 Gill reached the highpoint of his career: several major monographs appeared on his sculpture; a complete collection of his engravings was published in a lavishly printed limited edition; and a selection of his polemical essays was printed at his own press inaugurating a typeface of his own design. Within a year he suffered a breakdown from overwork. Although he never fully recovered, he remained formidably busy during the rest of his life. He designed and built a church, noteworthy for its stark interior and the central placement of its altar, a practical and symbolic expression of his views on liturgy. He carved massive public sculptures for the headquarters of BBC and of the London Underground. The British government selected him to carve huge panels for the League of Nations building in Geneva. Along with these prestigious commissions came more honors: he was elected an Honorary Associate of the Institute of British Architects, and Associate of the Royal Academy, and one of the first Royal Designers for Industry. Despite failing health, he wrote his Autobiography during 1940 and kept hard at work to the very end. While awaiting a minor operation, he corrected proofs of the Autobiography, sketched out some book illustrations, started a translation of the Psalms, kept up his accounts, and wrote the last entries in his voluminous diaries. Unexpectedly the surgery failed, and he died on November 17, 1940 at the age of fifty-eight.

When he died in 1940, he left behind more than a thousand engravings; at least one hundred and fifty books with his illustrations; eleven different printing types; and countless sculptures and inscriptions on city buildings, Catholic churches, and public squares throughout England. He harbored passionate convictions on religion, politics, and art, which he expressed in more than two hundred articles and more than fifty books. In his own day he was probably best known for his sculpture, his Stations of the Cross at Westminster Cathedral, his controversial War Memorial at Leeds University, and the monumental relief panels commissioned by the British government for the League of Nations building in Geneva. Trained by the distinguished calligrapher Edward Johnston, Gill developed an extraordinary skill in lettering. His vigorous sans-serif lettering is still used for tabular matter, signage, and advertising, and his elegant Perpetua has long been a favorite display face for fine printing.

Gill's fame nowadays rests on fine printing. The private press movement of his day opened a natural market for his many skills, not just lettering, but also book illustration and book design. His Four Gospels published by the Golden Cockerel Press in 1931 is considered a modern masterpiece, joining his wood-engraved illustrations, his decorative lettering, and a specially designed typeface in an uncanny union of image and text. A bitter foe of mass production and industrialized society, Gill eagerly embraced the ideals of hand craftsmanship propounded by John Ruskin and practiced by William Morris at the Kelmscott Press. Gill collaborated with the Golden Cockerel Press on several important books and also founded his own printing business, intended to be an outright commercial venture. Although not exactly a private press, the firm of Hague & Gill resembles the modern equivalent in that it bore its owner's highly individual stamp in matters of editorial policy, manufacturing, and design. Gill retained complete artistic control over publications such as his Twenty-Five typefaces. The UCLA Library has published an annotated checklist of Hague & Gill imprints, based on the Clark holdings and business records.

From the guide to the Eric Gill Archive, 1887-2003 (bulk 1905-1940), (University of California, Los Angeles. Library. William Andrews Clark Memorial Library)

Archival Resources
Role Title Holding Repository
referencedIn Oscar Wilde and his Literary Circle Collection: Wildeiana, 1858-1998 William Andrews Clark Memorial Library, UCLA
creatorOf Eric Gill Archive, 1887-2003 (bulk 1905-1940) University of California, Los Angeles. Library. William Andrews Clark Memorial Library
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correspondedWith William Andrews Clark Memorial Library. corporateBody
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William Andrews Clark Memorial Library, UCLA
William Andrews Clark Memorial Library.


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