ERIC GILL: A Lover's Quest for Art and God by Fiona MacCarthy

ERIC GILL: A Lover's Quest for Art and God

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To previous biographers like Robert Speight (Life of Eric Gill, 1966), Gill was an artist/craftsman whose conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1913 ignited a blaze of religious fervor that was near-saintly. Gill himself, in his posthumous Autobiography, downplayed any human failings. Now, MacCarthy (British Design Since 1880) takes a hard, halo-bashing look at Gill's diaries and comes up with some startling revelations about the Britisher's anything-but-monastic sex life. Born into a Nonconformist Methodist sect--his father was a curate who later went over to the Church of England, taking the family with him--Gill was raised in an atmosphere that stressed divine retribution and Victorian idealism. These qualities were never to leave him, though the sexual repression of his childhood upbringing was quickly overcome. During his 58 years, Gill not only married and carried on a series of affairs with various women, but indulged in incestuous relations with his sisters and his daughters, produced a large body of erotic drawings, and seems to have experimented with bestiality. At the same time, he was espousing the Rule of St. Dominic in his private life, wore a ""girdle of chastity"" beneath his hand-loomed smock, and established a series of communes that attracted many of the religious-minded. He preached a kind of Christian socialism and was viewed by his followers as a major critic of modern life comparable to Bernard Shaw. MacCarthy's findings are convincing and often shocking, but she fails to integrate them into an overall evaluation of Gill's life. Was Gill a Blakean figure intent on free sexual expression as an aspect of divine fecundity--or a dirty old man and religious hypocrite? And what do his sexual peccadilloes have to do with his very real stature as an innovative sculptor and typographer? MacCarthy doesn't tell us, and her book, though providing an intriguing look at Catholic bohemia during the first half of this century, is thus ultimately frustrating and unresolved.

Pub Date: April 1st, 1989
Publisher: Dutton