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Friday, 24 December 2010

The Eric Gill Pilgrimage

The Eric Gill pilgrimage turned out to be providential. I had planned out my landmarks but was unaware how close they were together; Oxford Circus, Victoria and South Kensington formed a tightly bound prism on the tube map. Then there was the Itsu ( opposite Portland Place which provided the perfect lunch and the unexpected Gill sculptures which greeted me as I entered the V&A. When I emerged from the underground at Oxford Circus I could already see the beacon of broadcasting house beckoning from just behind the lines of Christmas shoppers.

In 1932 Gill produced the Prospero and Ariel sculptures which still furnish the exterior of BBC broadcasting house. The BBC chose Shakespeare's The Tempest as a theme in order to make a cultural statement. Prospero was an 'airy' spirit who represented the airwaves of broadcasting. However Gill adapted the sculpture to his own beliefs about culture. And so Prospero and Ariel become God the Father and God the Son. When I arrive at broadcasting house in the flesh all I can see is Eric Gill's big joke on the BBC.

I assume that Gill's sculptures are details hardly noticed as commuters, businessmen and shoppers pass them by. However they are beautiful. I particularly like the detail of the wave that rides the building round as a trimming. I have seen so many photographs of these recently that I don't know what it means to have a set of my own, whether it will mean anything? Nevertheless I get in to the road and flutter about the steps of Langham church making a fool of myself with my camera.
‘Had not Prospero power over the immortal gods? At any rate it seemed to be only right and proper that I should see the matter in as bright a light as possible and so I took it upon me to portray God the father and God the son. For even if that were not Shakespeare’s meaning it ought to be the BBC’s’ Eric Gill
For Eric Gill the light of religion illuminates all creation.

My second stop, and what I assumed was my final, in the short pilgrimage was Westminster Cathedral. In the bitter cold as Christmas is nearing The Stations of the Cross with a little Catholic liturgy thrown in for good measure, seemed satisfyingly appropriate (probably more suited to Easter, but as a heathen I only have a gentle feel for these things). As a raging Catholic sculptor, although relatively unheard of at the time, Gill was asked to furnish the Cathedral's pillars with carvings of the Fourteen stations of the cross. This is Gill's 'Epic' just as The Anathemata is David Jones's; it communicates the whole history of a people and culture even if this history is uniquely that of Religion and the Passion. Mounted on pillars in Westminster these succeed in being epic.

Only one photo for you as the angles were awkward, although I did get some beautiful postcards so perhaps I will share those as a treat eventually. Red lettering and Gold details add subtle decoration, to a stark but beautifully conceived sculpture.
The final joy of the day was arriving at the V&A believing I had, had my warm cosy fill of Gill, only to be confronted by a preparatory carving for Prospero and Ariel in an alcove. I had unwittingly stumbled upon a new landmark in my pilgrimage.

To supplement my endless reading on lettering and typography there were framed tablets of Gill's typefaces. He donated them so that they could be studied by the V&A's legacy. You have no idea how often I have consulted black and white reproductions of these, now I am the student poring over them.

Gill's sculpture Mankind is a female cipher for the power of his sculpting. She is a luxurious decapitated monument to sexuality and the sensuality of stone. Gill admired tradition with such fervour but he commands a space in the centre of it all. I spent a long, long time absorbing buttocks, indents, curves and Gill's own deep admiration of the female form. Here she is for your enjoyment.

You can deny Eric Gill many things, but not this appreciation. In the V&A Fiona McCarthy's biographical revelations are irrelevancies, Eric Gill is a modern British sculptor whose influence stretches across the exhibition hall from Robert Gibbings to the student of lettering.


  1. Thank you for your lovely comments... I will need some time to explore your blog!
    Have a beautiful day, week and New Year!!

  2. Really enjoyed reading your latest article. I need to stop back for a more thorough reading... and thanks for stopping by with a comment on my blog. Nice to hear from folks "across the pond."

  3. hello.,
    Searching the sensuality in stones!
    Thanks for your good article.
    See our sculpture from kerala Sri kanai kunjuramans works :

  4. and photos from my land : :)

  5. Frangipan this post really moved me. I too search out Eric Gill. Did you know there are some Gill sculptures on the side of 55 Broadway (London Transport HQ) near to Westminster Cathedral. Epstein and Moore are also up there by the way. But it was when I saw the one photo of you took of his Stations of the Cross in Westminster Cathedral...I always sit by that Station at Mass as the Cathedral is my "local" church and when I am in London I always go back to Mass there. We may have been there at the same time! I am really appreciative of your Jude-like knowledge!

  6. ps I was so taken with your photo of the 2nd Station I forgot to add that Robert Gibbings also struck a chord with me. He was from Cork and his father was a Canon at the Church of Ireland St Fin Barre's Cathedral across the street from me (you likened it to an ice palace in your comments). What a small and wonderful world!

  7. I didn't know that, although I think I probably should have done. I suspect that there is a lot more Gill in London which I missed out. How lucky you are to have Westminster as your local church and to be able to sit under Gill's Stations of the Cross.
    And yes I have heard of Gibbings, although I haven't seen very much of his work. It is a small world! Does that mean they have some sculpture by Gibbings in Cork?

    1. Hello,
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