No description of Eric Gill is ever without the words ‘devout Catholic’, and Eric Gill: Lust for Letter & Line (British Museum Press, £9.99), while short, provides evidence to both confirm and confound that assessment. One can follow the three-year journey of Gill’s celebrated Stations of the Cross for Westminster Cathedral from preparatory drawing to finished sculpture. Or one can study ‘Girl in bath’, a wood engraving of the artist’s daughter Petra, impossible to contemplate without bearing in mind his sexual abuse of his children.
Limiting themselves almost entirely to works owned by the museum, authors Ruth Cribb and Joe Cribb handily distil the career of a restlessly prolific artist while highlighting the sheer breadth of his creativity: sculpture, typefaces, drawings, woodcuts and polemical pamphlets have their place here. There are juicy examples of Gill’s delight in subverting even the most high-profile of public commissions, such as his designs for new coins submitted to King George V in 1925 including the pawnbroker’s emblem of three balls.
The book makes much of Gill’s mistrust of industrialisation, which manifested itself in working methods that were deliberately anachronistic, even medieval. The skill he displayed in their use will allow some to overlook the details of his scandalous private life. Compact, almost a pocket guide, Lust for Letter & Line ties in with a similarly bijou exhibition in Room 69a of the British Museum which runs until 7 August.
Subscribe to The Spectator today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator for less – just £12 for 12 issues.