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Eric Gill 1882-1940  
 

Eric Gill has been described as perhaps the greatest English artist-craftsman of the twentieth century - a typographer and letter cutter of genius and a master in the art of sculpture and wood-engraving. 2

Many may not appreciate though his connection with Bognor or St. John's church in Bognor Regis (the mother church to St. Wilfrid's church in Gill's lifetime and the church that his father was curate 1899-1914).

The front cover of the 1903 Parish Magazine of St. John's in May 1903 (right)  contains the line drawing of the church by Eric Gill. At that time Eric Gill's father was living in Strathmore in the High Street (see below), Eric was living in Edward Johnston's apartments in 16 Old Buildings, Lincolns Inn, EC and this was the year that Eric left the church architects W.D. Caröe to become a self -employed letter cutter.

The purpose of this article is to record the on-going examination into Gill's association with St. John's Church. The reader though should be aware that Gill remains a controversial figure as his subject matter swung between the deeply religious and the highly erotic which was a direct echo of his eccentric life.
 

 

 

Eric Gill's drawing of St. John's Church on the front page of the  May 1903 Parish Magazine

When St. John's church was demolished in 1972 some of Gill's earliest carvings (previously unlisted but identified through our research), the finishing of the 6 corbels in the sanctuary of St. John's church during the period April - June 1910, must have been lost in the builder's rubble. However a memorial  inscription was transferred from St. John's to St. Wilfrid's church and there is also the tantalising possibility that Gill was responsible for the carvings of the 4 Evangelists in the chancel screen of St. Johns. Fortunately, the carvings of the evangelists have now been discovered and we are currently trying to establish provenance for what could be some of Gill's earliest and as yet unrecorded carvings.

The inscription, which can be viewed in the North Transept of St. Wilfrid's church, was designed by Eric and his brother Macdonald Gill.

Macdonald became a notable cartographer and was a pupil at the Royal Naval Academy (now Streete Court) opposite St. Wilfrid’s church in Victoria Drive and the brothers designed the memorial plaque for one of Macdonald’s fellow pupils at the Academy who lost his life when the ship “Brier Holme” sank off Tasmania in 1904.

They were part of a family of eleven surviving children and their father was the Rev. Arthur Gill, curate of St. John’s church, London Road, Bognor Regis from 1899 to 1914. The family lived at Strathmore in the High Street (left picture) and later at 32 Glamis Street.  

Eric was born at Brighton on 22 February 1882 and was the eldest son and second child of Arthur Tidman Gill, the latter at that time a non-conformist minister of the Countess of Huntington's Connection. In 1897 the family moved to Chichester so that Arthur Gill could study at the Chichester Theological College with a view to becoming an Anglican minister. For two years Eric attended the Chichester Technical and Art School  and, under the influence of Art Master George Herbert Catt, developed his passion for lettering.

During the Chichester period 1897-1900 Eric became actively involved with the daily life in Chichester Cathedral. Dr. Codrington, Prebendary of Chichester Cathedral became his friend and mentor and encouraged Eric's interest in the older forms of the alphabet. Eric also began a courtship with his future wife Ethel Moore who was the daughter of Henry Holding Moore, sacristan at the cathedral.

On 3rd April 1900, just a few months after his family's moved from Chichester to Bognor Regis on his father's appointment as curate of St. John's church, Eric moved to London. He was articled to the architectural practice W.D. Caroë in Westminster and took up lodgings at St. Saviours Church House, Clapham paid for by Dr. Codrington. Eric developed a friendship with George Carter, an older pupil in the practice and  quickly became disenchanted with the then current notions of architecture. In 1901 at the suggestion of Carter, Eric missed out on the evening classes on architecture and enrolled in classes in practical masonry at the Westminster Technical Institute and separate classes in writing and illumination at the LCC Central School of Arts and Crafts in Upper Regent Street where Edward Johnston taught. 

Johnston was a teacher of calligraphy who had a widespread influence on 20th-century typography and calligraphy, particularly in England and Germany and has been called the father of the modern revival of lettering. He received a commission from the London Underground Railway to execute a new alphabet for its signs and publicity and in 1916 designed the Sans Serif font.

In 1902 Eric took up lodgings in Edward Johnston's apartments in Lincoln's Inn and stayed there after Johnston married until he (Eric) married Ethel Moore in 1904.

The transformation in the style and quality of Gill's lettering work following Gill's association with Johnston can be seen firsthand in Chichester cathedral where there are two memorials almost side by side on the west wall of the south transept.

The first is the memorial to Percy Joseph Hiscock who was a contemporary of Eric who died in 1900 at the age of 21. Eric was a friend of Osmund Daughty the assistant organist and, as recorded on the memorial, Percy was both in the choir and a bellringer at the cathedral. Eric’s brother Evan maintained an inventory of Eric Gill’s inscriptions and stated that this was Eric’s second inscription and a pencilled note ‘A.E.R.G. 1901, before attending LCC & before E.J.’s teaching.   The second memorial is that for Henry Holding Moore, sacristan of the Cathedral and Eric’s father in law, who died in 1911. It can be seen that the lettering is now much finer and of the quality we associate with Gill

 

Eric first became established as a very fine letter cutter and type face designer and his font designs, which included Gill Sans and Perpetua,  are still very popular to this day [e.g. the current BBC logo type face].

Eric's sculpture commissions include  Prospero and Ariel outside the entrance to Broadcasting House, the Stations of the Cross in Westminster Cathedral, ten panels at the Palestine Museum in Jerusalem, the great relief of the 'Creation of Adam' for the League of Nations in Geneva and, nearer to Bognor, carvings on the outside of Guildford Cathedral and memorial inscriptions in Chichester Cathedral.

Stone Carvings in St. John's Church, Bognor

There has been a verbal tradition that Eric Gill was responsible for some carvings in the chancel screen at St. John's church, Bognor comprising the four evangelists - two on each side of the chancel screens with pilasters trimmed to a point. Local writer Gerard Young did some research into the carvings and his sources for stating that the carvings are by Gill are two letters from N.R. Hilton and Miss E.A. Haviland dated in the 1960s, both long-term Bognor residents who claimed to have been told by Canon Lea (vicar St. John's church 1905-1913).

When it was decided that the church was to be demolished to make way for a shopping development, an article appeared in the Bognor Post on 27th November, 1971 with concerns about what would happen to the carvings and stating that the carvings were 'one of his earliest commissions and unrecorded in any list of his work'. The article indicated that the diocesan authorities were aware of this and that 'Gill's sculpture may not end up as rubble when the church's demolition gets underway'. The Bognor Post of 22 January 1972 stated that 'The carvings by Eric Gill are to go to Chichester Cathedral'. At that time the Dean of Chichester cathedral was Dean Walter Hussey, a great patron of the arts (he commissioned for the cathedral a number of notable works from famous artists such as Graham Sutherland, John Piper, Marc Chagall, Leonard Bernstein and he also bequeathed his personal art collection to Pallant House in Chichester) and fortunately we now know that the carvings were removed from the chancel screens before demolition work took place in 1972 and safely stored on the cathedral site.

An early  photograph of the east end of St. John's Church showing the full chancel screen with the carvings and the six corbels
This had to be taken before the reredos central panel was changed from a Transfiguration to an Ascension scene i.e. before 1934 (see reredos)
close up of the chancel screen with the carvings below

 

Matthew

Mark

Luke

John

Pilasters

Peter Green and Research Historian John Hawkins, with the valuable assistance of Colin Clark (Chief Guide of Chichester Cathedral), have been undertaking research to try and to establish provenance for these carvings. 

There would appear to be no recorded faculty to incorporate the carvings in the chancel screen which would confirm if and when the carvings were added or any surviving photograph that shows the west facing sides of the chancel screens when the church was new in 1886.

If the carvings were by Gill then they would have to have been carved directly 'in situ' in a  likely time frame of around 1899 - 1914 when Eric's father Rev. Arthur Tidman Gill was the curate at St. John's Church. An essential part of the research was therefore to establish that the carvings were not there when the church was built back in 1886 to the designs by the celebrated architect Sir Arthur William Blomfield (1829-1899). Fortunately, John Hawkins, with the valuable assistance of Ron Iden from the WSCC Record Office and another visitor to the Records Office, established that Dove Bros., the builders of St. John's Church, had lodged all their architectural drawings in the RIBA Drawings Collection of the Henry Cole Wing, V&A Museum in London. On 6th July 2005 Peter and John visited the Henry Cole wing and examined all (approx.150 drawings) of St. John's Church. PA2037/1 no 23 and another 2 detailed drawings of the chancel screen clearly showed that the chancel screens were devoid of any ornament other than carved niches where the discovered pilaster carvings either side of the chancel steps were evidently added later.

A drawing of the chancel screen from the architectural drawings for St. John's Church, Bognor in the RIBA Library Drawings Collection of Sir. Arthur William Blomfield. This image is kindly authorised by the RIBA Library Photographs Collection, Royal Institute of British Architects and must not be reproduced without their permission.

Eric Gill maintained a daily diary from 1898 until his death in 1940 and it was felt that an important aspect of establishing provenance was to try and find reference to the carvings in his diaries. Although the original diaries are held at the University of California, Los Angeles, it was known that microfiche copies were held at the Hyman Kreitman Research Centre, Tate Library and Archive, Tate, Millbank and a visit was made there by Peter and John on 23rd March 2005 where entries between 1898 through to the 22nd June 1906 were checked. No evidence was found and it was rather disheartening to find that many of the diary entries were illegible and also sections of the diaries including the whole of 1901 (at the time thought to be a crucial year) were missing. Another visit was made on the the 20th April 2006 and again the morning's work from 1906 to 1910 did not yield any results on the microfiche. However, on the afternoon a different continuous film reel type record was loaded by the Tate staff covering 1908 to 1914 and it was a great relief to find that this film provided evidence that Gill was involved with St. John's on a significant carving project.

The diaries (see the notes made on the diary entries) confirmed that on Tuesday 12th April 1910 Gill went to London to see George Fellowes Prynne, the architect of the new daughter church of St. Wilfrid's (just days away from the dedication service for the church) about 'carvings in St. John's Church'. On the 23rd April, (the day that St. Wilfrid's church was dedicated at a 11:00am service), Gill travelled down to Bognor on the 5:23pm train re carving at St. John's'. In all 15 days of diary entries have been identified (see extracts from the 1910 diary) covering the period from 12th April to 24th June 1910 including a full week from Monday 20th - Friday 24th June totalling 55.5hrs recorded work on the carvings.

Armed with the dates for when Gill was involved with St. John's church, another visit to the West Sussex Records Office was made on 25th April 2006 to look at local newspaper entries and also the Bognor parish magazines (the joint one for both St. John's and St. Wilfrid's churches) that covered this period. A trawl of the Bognor Observer, West Sussex Gazette and The Observer and West Sussex Recorder newspapers for the period was negative but the bound copies of the Bognor Parish Magazine Par 24 7/6 (1905-1913) and Par 7/7 (1908-1916) proved useful. In the September 1910 edition of the Bognor Parish Magazine there was found the following entry under NOTES OF THE MONTH:

 

"It may have been noticed that some finishing work has recently been done in the way of carving at the Parish Church. It was felt that 28 years was enough time to elapse, if not more than enough, before this was undertaken. A lady of the congregation who remembers the early days, kindly volunteered to bear the expense of the six corbels in the Sanctuary. This finishing and cleaning up work is now done in the chancel, but there are sundry other little items inside and outside still to be undertaken. The Pulpit and Screen stone work have also had their faces cleaned, and look all the better for it."

 

It will be noted that in the Gill diary entries for April to June 1910, 14 entries refer to 'Bognor Carvings' or 'Carvings in St. John's Church' without any reference to the specific carving work done, but the 10th May entry does state 'Bognor (Corbels)'. This diary entry plus the September 1910 magazine reference above would seem to confirm that Eric Gill did the carving work on just 6 corbels during this period and not the carving work on the Evangelists. So Eric Gill's part in the carving of the evangelists and when they were carved in the chancel screen still remains a mystery.

Hopefully the remaining time frame when Gill could have been involved is not too wide. We do know that Gill in his own autobiography1 stated that until 1909 he was a monumental mason and stone cutter and 'until 1909 I don't think I so much as dreamed of doing anything else'. His earliest recorded work Estin Thalassa (now lost) was started in late 1909 and completed early 1910 and he mounted his first a solo exhibition of his carvings at the Chenil Gallery, London in January 1911. The exhibition was a sensation and reported in the Bognor Observer on 15th February 1911 under the heading 'Fame for Bognorian'. The article emphasised that Eric Gill had resurrected the practice of much earlier sculptors such as Michael Angelo where the sculpture is cut directly out of stone.

Judith Collins in her book 'Eric Gill - The Sculpture' 4 goes into some detail under the section 'The Technique of Direct Carving' how the self-taught Gill played an important part in resurrecting the art of cutting directly in the stone rather than following the 20th century practice where the sculptor modelled the piece in clay and then a plaster mould was made of the work and an assistant craftsman produced the stone work from the plaster model using measuring and pointing tools. She states that Gill was probably the first sculptor to work in this way since the Middle Ages. Gill in his Autobiography1 stated ' without knowing it, I was making a little revolution. I was reuniting what never should have been separated: the artist as a man of creation and the artist as a workman'.

One of the most fascinating aspects about the evangelist carvings in the chancel screen is that they were evidently carved directly in the stonework 'in situ' as the evangelists were carved over several stones in the chancel walls . It looks likely therefore that if Gill was responsible for the four evangelist carvings, these could not only be some of the earliest (and until now unlisted) examples of his carving in stone, but also possibly some of the earliest carvings since the Middle Ages to have been carved directly in stone. The research into the provenance for these carvings continues as does consideration as to where the carvings should be permanently exhibited.

Peter Green and John Hawkins

References:

(1) Autobiography by Eric Gill published by Jonathan Cape, 1940

(2) Eric Gill, Fiona MacCarthy published by Faber and Faber ISBN 0-571-13754-7

(3) Eric Gill's Diaries held by the University of California, Los Angeles (UCCLA) Berkeley, The Bancroft Library, MSS Division, Berkeley California. 94720, USA. Tel: (415) 642 6481. There are microfilm copies at the Tate Gallery Archive, Millbank, London SW1P 4RG

(4) Eric Gill . The Sculpture by Judith Collins published by The Overlook Press ISBN 0-87951-830-8

(5) 'Looking for Mr Gill'  by the documentary film-maker, Luke Holland. A DVD of the documentary shown on BBC One, Two and Four about the legacy  Eric Gill, maverick genius of the Arts and Crafts movement, has left to the Sussex village of Ditchling, the early twentieth-century setting for his controversial experiment in art and community. Sussex-South Downs Guide webpage.

Children of Rev. Arthur Tidman Gill, Father of Eric Gill

Curate of St. John's Church (1899-1914):

Name DOB
Enid Rose: 12 January 1881
Eric Gill: 22 February 1882
Cicely Eleanor: 8 March 1883
Leslie MacDonald:  6 October 1884
Stephen Romney Maurice: 5 January 1886
Lilian Irene: 16 September 1887
Madeline Beatrice: 27 November 1888
Gladys Mary: 18 September 1890

Evan Robertson and

Vernon Kingsley (twins):

24 April 1892
Kenneth Carlyle: 9 August 1893 1
Margaret Evangeline: 29 January 1895
Cecil Ernest Gaspar: 7 May 1897

Notes:

1 Kenneth Carlyle Gill's name is recorded in the Roll of Honour that was created at the time the reredos was added to St. John's Church as a memorial to the war dead. Kenneth Carlyle Gill's birth was registered at Steyning. He served in the Cambridgeshire Regiment, and then in the RAF. He became a Captain, was awarded the Military Cross, and was mentioned in despatches. He died in France on 23th October 1918, less than three weeks before the Armistice.

Critical dates:

Date Place Event  
22/02/1882 Brighton Eric born; lived at 32 Hamilton Road, Brighton  
  Brighton moved to Prestonville Road  
  Brighton moved to Cliftonville Road  
  Brighton moved to Highcroft Villas  
1897   Death of sister Cicely  
1897 Chichester End of the summer family move to No. 2 North Walls to allow Arthur Tidman to attend Chichester Theological College  
1898 Chichester Enrolled at Chichester Art School  
1898   Eric began a diary kept up until his dying days in Harefield Hospital in 1940  
04/05/1899 Chichester 'Up Cathedral all day with Sir Arthur Blomfield (Sir Arthur Blomfield was the celebrated architect who designed St. John's church and he died later that year on 30th October 1899)  
17/06/1899   Arthur Gill appointed curate of St. John's Church, Bognor  
20/06/1899 Bognor Regis Family moved to Strathmore in the High Street  
1899   Pen and ink drawing of St. John's church for the church magazine.  
03/04/1900 Clapham Eric's mother brought him up to the lodgings at St. Saviour's Church House found and paid for by Dr. Oliver Codrington, brother of the Prebendary Codrington who befriended him at Chichester Cathedral. The move followed enrolment  as a pupil with the architectural practice of William .D. Caröe, Westminster, architect to the Ecclesiastical Commissioners.  
1901   Enrolled in classes in practical masonry at the Westminster Technical Institute and separate classes in writing and illumination at the LCC Central School of Arts and Crafts in Upper Regent Street where Edward Johnston taught.  
1902 Lincoln's Inn Moved into Edward Johnston's apartments in 16 Old Buildings, Lincolns Inn, EC  
1903   Eric left W.D. Caröe to be a self-employed letter cutter.  
1903   First work as a professional cutter of inscriptions for the Medical School, Downing St., Cambridge. Came about following correspondence between Edward Prior, pioneer of community architecture, with Eric in the Chichester Observer about the restoration of the Market Cross.  
1903   Commission in Paris to paint the letters W.H. Smith & Son on the fascia of Smith's Paris bookshop.  
06/08/1904 Battersea Married Ethel Moore and they moved to a flat in Battersea.  
    Introduced to Count Harry Kessler, godson of Kaiser Wilhelm I, the first of Eric's grand patrons.  
1905   Edward Johnston and his wife Greta moved to Hammersmith Terrace.  
01/06/1905   Birth of first daughter Elizabeth  
1905   Appointed Instructor in Letter Carving at the Paddington Technical Institute  
1905 Hammersmith Eric and Ethel moved to 20 Black Lion Lane in Hammersmith. Arts and Craft movement stronghold in Hammersmith Terrace - No. 3 Johnston's, No.7 Emery Walkers, No. 8 May Morris, William Morris's daughter, No. 9 Edward Spencer  
1905   Peplers moved into No. 14 Hammersmith Terrace.  
1906   Birth of second daughter Petra  
1906   Visit to Rome - photography of Roman lettering including the Trajan Column  
1907 Ditchling Family move to Sopers in Ditchling with Joseph Cribb.  
1909   Gill's first sculpture Estin Thalassa  
01/02/1910   Birth of third daughter Joanna.  
1910   Travelled to Paris to study sculpture with Aristide Maillol but stayed only one day.  
1911   First solo exhibition of stone carvings at the Chenil Gallery, London.  
1912   Edward Johnston moves from Hammersmith to Ditchling  
22/02/1913   Gill and Ethel (thereafter known as Mary) converted to the Catholic Faith  
13/11/1913   Moved to Hopkins Crank, Ditchling Common.  
1914 -18   Stations of the Cross for Westminster Cathedral  
1915   Peplers move from Hammersmith to Sopers, Erics previous house in Ditchling.  
01/01/1916   Pepler set up his own hand press soon to be called St. Dominics Press  
1917   Began negotiations for the adoption of a son, Gordonian  
1917 October   With Douglas Pepler discussed project for a religious order of artists and craftsmen with Father Vincent McNabb at Hawkeswood Priory, Staffordshire.  
29/03/1918   Canonical blessing of the Stations of the Cross, Westminster Cathedral.  
29/07/1918   With his wife, Desmond Chute and Douglas Pepler, invested as a novice in the Third Order of St. Dominic.  
1920   Foundation of the craft based Guild of St. Joseph and St. Dominic.  
03/07/1921   Archdeacon of Chichester unveiled South Harting War Memorial.  
1922 November   Crucifix erected at Spoil Bank on Ditchling Common.  
1924   Resigned from the Guild of St. Joseph and St. Dominic after a quarrel with Pepler.  
13/08/1924 Capel-y-ffin Gill family move to Capel-y-ffin, 14 miles from Abergavenny, South Wales to a one-time monastery which stood empty and dilapidated and belonged to the Caldey Island Benedictines. Joined by David Jones, René Hague.  
1925 April   Laurie Cribb, Joseph Crib's brother came to stay at Capel-y-ffin and assist Eric.  
1925   Commission from Lanston Monotype Corporation for the Perpetua typeface instigated and supervised by Stanley Morrison.  
1926   Commission from Lanston Monotype Corporation for the Gill Sans typeface  
11/10/1928 Pigotts, High Wycombe Family move from Capel-y-ffin to Pigotts in the Chilterns.  
1932   Carvings for the BBC Broadcasting House in Langham Place  
1932   Lettering for the nameplate of The Flying Scotsman  
13/03/1933   Prospero and Arial unveiled at Broadcasting House in the presence of the King  
10/03/1934   Travelled to Jerusalem to carve reliefs for the New Archaeological Museum.  
1935   Received commission from HM Government to carve a large relief for Assembly Hall of new League of Nations Building, Geneva.  
1938 Feb-Aug   Carved relief for League of Nations and travelled in August to Geneva for the unveiling.  
1939   Commission from Sir Edward Maufe to carve sculptures for his new Cathedral in Guildford (Rose window finished by his assistant Anthony Foster)  
1939   Building of St. Peter's church, Gorelston, Norfolk, to Gill's design.  
1940   Cancer of the lung diagnosed.  
1940 Jan-Oct   Carved altarpiece for St. George's Chapel, Westminster Cathedral.  
1940 Apr-July   Wrote Autobiography published in December.  
17/11/1940   5:00am during an air raid died of lung cancer Harefield House Hospital, Middlesex where Brompton Chest Hospital had been evacuated to.  

Links to other items of Gill's work:

Westminster Cathedral

Broadcasting House Sculptures

Guildford Cathedral

Other Local Work