Celebrated artist is back in the picture

THE Sussex connections of the celebrated letter cutter, wood engraver, sculptor and typographer Eric Gill come to life in a new book published by the British Museum.

Written by father and daughter team Joe and Ruth Cribb, Eric Gill: Lust For Letter And Line explores a figure who has only recently come back into focus, as Joe explains.

Educated in Chichester, Gill discovered himself as an artist during his years in Ditchling.

“The last decade or so has seen a very different approach to Eric Gill, particularly since Fiona MacCarthy’s biography which took away the focus from his art to his life and his sexual behaviour,” Joe said.

“The revelations of the book created a different emphasis for Gill. It’s a distraction from his art but it also brought him back into consciousness in a general way and has done a lot of good for understanding his art.

“He played such an important part in the development of many aspects of art, particularly in England but also across the world. Some of these things have been forgotten. It is always good to remind people how art has moved through time.

“In terms of official art history, Eric Gill plays a very small part. He deliberately identified himself as separate from the art movement in Britain. Because of his Catholicism and his roots in the Art and Crafts movement, he saw himself as separate from the art world and the art world therefore tended to ignore him. But if you look at accounts of sculpture in Britain more recently, then people have added Gill back into the picture.

“Gill was a person who made a lot of changes to the different arts media that he operated in. As a sculptor, he was already a person using the tools of a letter cutter. In Chichester Cathedral, there are two inscriptions from him, one right from the beginning of his career, both exemplifying his line of development as a letter cutter.

“As a letter cutter, he had chisels and hammers and stone and when he became a sculptor, he knew exactly what to do. And he started doing it in a way that had done been done in Britain for some time, the artist cutting directly into the stone. It was a return to authenticity and engagement with the materials. It is generally referred to as direct carving as a concept.”

After spending his early years in Chichester, Gill moved to London and from there to Ditchling where he flourished: “He became a different artist. Before the move, he was just a letter cutter.

“After moving to Ditchling he became a sculptor and a writer as well. Really Ditchling was the transformation for him. It gave him the isolation to develop his own way of doing things. He was also joined in Ditchling by like-minded friends. He gradually drew people around him.”