Font nerds hold Eric Gill’s ‘Gill Sans’ in high esteem some 90 years after its first appearance, and it’s easy to see why – the sans-serif typeface epitomises the clean lines we associate with the first flush of modernism in this country. Its continuing use by the BBC and the Church of England would no doubt please Gill, who died in 1940; even though he railed against technological advance and converted to Catholicism in 1913, at times using his art to attack formal religion from self-imposed exile in the sticks, he readily accepted commissions from the very heart of the establishment.
Of course, if Gill’s contradictions fell only along these lines, he would be an infinitely more fathomable artist than he is. Yet, in the 20-odd years since the publication of Fiona MacCarthy's incendiary biography of Gill, with its revelations of incest, paedophilia and bestiality, the ripples of controversy continue to make impossibly choppy water of any evaluation of Gill’s work.
The BM, claiming not to dwell on the ‘sensational aspects’ of Gill’s life, has in this small display of sculpture, sketches and prints, designs for typefaces and bookjackets, coins, notes stamps and medals, given a sense of his breadth and occasional greatness as an artist and designer while at times underlining the grotesque hypocrisies of the man. Knowing that Gill abused his two elder daughters, can we read the text ‘members of your own households and your friends and relatives are the best models’, a quote from the artist, while studying ‘Girl in Bath II’, a print of his daughter, Petra, without feeling profound unease?
Gill’s conflation of sexual and religious ecstasy, as illustrated in the 1922 sculpture ‘Divine Lovers’, in his life reveals itself to have been perversion, madness. In fact, appreciation of his art would be easier had Gill been locked up for his crimes – at least he would enjoy the kind of amnesty afforded to so-called ‘outsider’ artists. The problem lies in seeing Gill as integral to British modernism, part of the system. It’s too easy to discount his contribution, as some critics have, too difficult to fully accept him. It probably always will be.