Childhood & Early Life
Born on February 22, 1882, in Brighton, Sussex, England, United Kingdom, Gill was one of the twelve children of Rev. Arthur Tidman Gill and Cicely Rose King Gill. Renowned graphic designer MacDonald "Max" Gill was his younger brother.
His father served as the minister of the Countess of Huntingdon's Connexion after he made his departure from the Congregational church, following disputes over doctrines.
In 1897, the family relocated to Chichester, where he attended Chichester Technical and Art School. In 1900, he went to London to receive architectural training under W. D. Caröe. However, he became extremely dissatisfied with the training and joined stonemasonry classes at the Westminster Technical Institute and calligraphy classes at the Central School of Arts and Crafts.
In 1903, he fully left his architectural training and devoted himself in pursuit of a career as a calligrapher, letter-cutter and monumental mason.
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Career & Later Life
Eric Gill established his studio in Ditchling, Sussex. In 1910, he started sculpting figures out of stones. Later that year, he produced one of his earliest works, ‘Madonna and Child’.
In 1911, he displayed ‘Ecstasy’. His early works demonstrate how much he was influenced by medieval ecclesiastical statuary, Egyptian, Greek and Indian sculpture, as well as the Post-Impressionism of Cézanne, van Gogh and Gauguin.
His first popular artwork was ‘Mother and Child’ (1912). During this period, Gill developed a deep interest in Indian temple sculpture and his art reflected that. In collaboration with Jacob Epstein, he conceived the idea of building a colossal, hand-carved monument that would emulate massive Jain structures in the Gwalior Fort in Madhya Pradesh.
In 1914, he made sculptures for the stations of the cross in Westminster Cathedral. Following the conclusion of First World War, Gill set up The Guild of St Joseph and St Dominic at Ditchling along with Hilary Pepler and Desmond Chute. He also produced war memorials like the Grade II”listed ‘Trumpington War Memorial’.
After being hired to create a war memorial for the University of Leeds, Gill made a frieze showing Jesus driving the money-changers from the temple. The money-changers represent the contemporary merchants of Leeds, and Gill argued that the "money men" were one group among many whose actions led to the war.
In 1924, he relocated to Capel-y-ffin in Powys, Wales, and set up another workshop there. He was soon joined by his disciples, including David Jones.
In 1928, he established a printing press and lettering workshop in Speen, Buckinghamshire. In 1928-29, Gill produced three of eight relief sculptures, the theme of which were winds, for Charles Holden's headquarters for the London Electric Railway (modern-day Transport for London) at 55 Broadway, St. James’s.
In 1932, he carved a collection of sculptures, ‘Prospero and Ariel’, and others for the BBC's Broadcasting House in London. In 1934, he travelled to Jerusalem to work on various projects at the Palestine Archaeological Museum (present-day Rockefeller Museum).
Gill created the backdrop of the first George VI definitive stamp series for the post office in 1937. Although he left architectural training when he was quite young, he finished one work of architecture in his lifetime, St Peter the Apostle Roman Catholic Church in Gorleston-on-Sea (1938-39).
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The construction of the Art Deco Midland Hotel in Morecambe took place between 1932 and 1933. It houses several of Gill’s works, including sculptures, reliefs, and a medallion. Marion Dorn and Eric Ravilious also contributed their works to the hotel, which was designed by Oliver Hill.
One of his earliest works as an independent typographic designer was the creation of an alphabet for W.H. Smith's sign painters. In 1925, he made the Perpetua, a serif typeface, for the British Monotype Corporation.
Between 1927 and 1930, he came up with the Gill Sans typeface, which was inspired by the sans-serif lettering originally designed for the London Underground. He created the typeface Joanna between 1930 and 1931 and typecast his 1931 book ‘An Essay on Typography’ with it.
Gill attempted to create a typeface inspired by Arabic Naskh style with several allographs restricted to what could be utilized on Monotype or Linotype machines. However, it was so different from the norms of the Arabic script that it was found unacceptable, and no type based on the design was ever cut.
Gill put out a number of essays on the connection between art and religion and made numerous erotic engravings. Some of his published works are ‘A Holy Tradition of Working: An Anthology of Writings’, ‘Autobiography: Quod Ore Sumpsimus’, and ‘Notes on Postage Stamps’.
Personal Life & Family
In 1904, Eric Gill exchanged wedding vows with Ethel Hester Moore. They had three biological daughters and also raised an adopted son. In 1907, Gill relocated the family to a house named Sopers in Ditchling. They moved once more in 1913 to Hopkin’s Crank, located two miles north of the village.
In 1913, Gill converted to Roman Catholicism and began accepting commissions predominantly from Catholic clients. In 1921, he set up a Catholic artists community named The Guild of St Joseph and St Dominic. Later, he joined the Dominican Order as a lay member.
According to his personal diaries, Gill’s sexual activities were in direct contradiction with his faith. He had a number of extramarital affairs. In the 1989 biography by Fiona MacCarthy, it was revealed that Gill had committed incest on his two older daughters and bestiality on his dog.
He also had incestuous relationships with his sisters. A previous biography, written by Robert Speaight and published in 1966, did not have any passages dedicated to these aspects of Gill’s life.
Death & Legacy
Gill passed away on November 17, 1940, in Harefield Hospital in Middlesex, England, after a fight with lung cancer. He was 58 years old at the time and is interred in Speen churchyard.
While his artwork is still very popular, his private life irredeemably tainted his legacy. Galleries that house his works, like the Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft, have chosen to address the issue in various ways, including letting the visitors have a discussion on it.