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Why are we still celebrating the art of Eric Gill?

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Eric Gill, why are we still celebrating his artIf Gill was a sexual abuser, why do we still celebrate his work?

I watched the BBC programme ‘How to be Bohemian’ recently and discovered for the first time the story of Eric Gill, ‘one of the most respected British sculptors of the 20th century’.

As well as being described as ‘bohemian’ he was also described as a sexual deviant; he said in his own diaries he had had sex with his teenage daughters, as well as his sister and even his own dog.

Eric Gill (1882 – 1940) was an English sculptor, typeface designer and printmaker. During his lifetime his work was much celebrated. With many sexual undertones his work also focused on the religious. He converted to Catholicism at the age of 31.

Gill’s perversions were brought to life in 1989 in a biography by Fiona MacCarthy who had been given access to his private diaries.

A biography that was described in a New York Times review as “a very odd book. One doesn’t quite know whether to admire ”Eric Gill: A Lover’s Quest for Art and God” for its generosity and broadmindedness or to inveigh against it for its moral blindness.”

Moral blindness is the key phrase here, because it seems vast quantities of it surround Gill’s work to this day.

Eric Gill’s statue of Prospero and Ariel currently adorns the BBC’s Broadcasting House in central London. His Creation of Adam is in the Palais des Nations, the headquarters of the United Nations in Europe. The Tate Britain currently showcases his sculpture Ecstasy. And four years ago a special exhibition of his work was displayed at the British Museum. If you want, to you can even buy some of his handiwork.

In 1998 Margaret Kennedy, who campaigns for Ministers and Clergy Sexual Abuse Survivors (MACSAS), called for his sculpture Stations of the Cross to be removed from Westminster Cathedral, but was not successful.

A BBC news magazine article published in 2007 quoted Bishop George Stack, a former administrator of Westminster Cathedral, as saying “There was no consideration given to taking these down. A work of art stands in its own right. Once it has been created it takes on a life of its own.”

But does it? Should that really be the case?

Is it possible to still value highly the work of an artist whose private life you find abhorrent?

One question I had when reading about Gill was what had become of his daughters.

An obituary of Petra Tegetmeier, his middle daughter, which I found in the Independent, describes a woman who had led a happy and fulfilled life.

It also says; “When Fiona MacCarthy’s biography Eric Gill (1989) revealed, from the evidence of Gill’s diaries, his sexual relations with his two eldest daughters Petra remained unflappable in the face of media furore. She made it clear that her own attitude to sex had not been harmed. The sisters had never been made to feel shame.”

An obituary in the Guardian went even further; “A remarkable aspect of those liaisons with Petra is that she seems not only to have been undamaged by the experience, but to have become the most calm, reflective and straightforward wife and mother. When I asked her about it shortly before her 90th birthday, she assured me that she was not at all embarrassed – ‘We just took it for granted’.”

Shame is an interesting concept. Does the lack of shame suffered by a child who has been sexually abused by their father in any way assuage his actions? Because Tegetmeier said she was ultimately okay, does that somehow lessen Gill’s wrongdoing?

The simple answer, certainly here in 2015, should be no.

I enjoy art and understand its importance in our lives, but I find it hard to countenance the idea that a piece of art is worth more in significance than the actions of the man who created it.

The news that past calls for Gill’s work to be removed from places such as Westminster Cathedral and the BBC fell on deaf ears does not surprise me, but I wonder if the same thing would happen now?

In days gone by a man behaving like Eric Gill was allowed to live his life unchecked. Sadly, this has been the case even more recently, with men such as Jimmy Savile getting away with abusing children for decades, protected for reasons no one understands.

But now, in the wake of the Jimmy Savile scandal, should the BBC really have the work of an abusive man adorning one of its buildings?

Artwork produced by Rolf Harris, who was sentenced for indecent acts against children in 2014, has been removed from countless places.

In an interview in The Telegraph one owner of one of his paintings explained what he planned to do with a painting by Harris, “I’m planning a bonfire.. my preparedness to have Rolf Harris’s daubs on my wall is affected by my views of the man.”

And perhaps that sums it up perfectly.

Knowing what I now know about Eric Gill I do not want to see any artwork his hands produced, and I cannot help but wonder if thousands of people would feel the same if they knew what he had done?

Ultimately, there are enough excellent artists out there whose work could replace Gill’s. Certainly on places as prominent as the BBC’s Broadcasting House, Westminster Cathedral and the European headquarters of the United Nations.

  1. Eleanor McCarthy says:

    Good article Siobhan. The age old question “should supposedly great art survive even if it’s produced by a monster”? In my book, No! There will always be another artist along to produce something else no matter what anyone says. These ghastly old male artists/conmen have been getting away with all sorts of abusive behaviour (mostly towards hapless women) for years. Many victims of historical abuse had all sorts of mechanisms to deal with their abuse over their lives. Maybe Gill’s daughter’s attitude to her father was part of that.

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