Reckoning with Eric Gill’s legacy

Is it possible to separate the personal lives of artists and designers from the work they produce? As controversies around Eric Gill bubble up once more, designer Craig Oldham considers how we should handle his legacy

Eric Gill’s statue outside the BBC in 2019. Image: Shutterstock/Willy Barton

It’s no secret that monuments and statues have become increasingly contentious in this country. Yet in mid-January, a man was filmed defacing a sculpture outside the BBC’s London headquarters not because of its subject, but because of who had created it. The Ariel and Prospero sculpture was hand-carved in 1932 by the artist, designer and sculptor Eric Gill, whose diaries – first published by biographer Fiona MacCarthy in 1989, after being ignored by other biographers and long after his death in 1940 – revealed his sexually abusive behaviour towards his teenaged daughters, incest with his sister, and sexual acts with his dog.

Aside from the occasional petition and opinion piece, often prompted by Gill’s inclusion in exhibitions, his reputation as a creative luminary in many ways remained intact during the decades that followed MacCarthy’s revelations. However, as movements such as #MeToo and investigations including Operation Yewtree have highlighted historical crimes, his legacy as an abuser is seeping more clearly into public discourse and consciousness.

For example, the Ditchling Museum of Art and Craft (an institution inseparable from Gill, by its own admission, given the village’s centrality in his practice, and the local creative community that developed when he lived there in the early 20th century) dedicated a 2017 exhibition to reviewing the links between his art and his biography. By 2021, the museum appeared to consolidate these links in a statement about its purpose, explaining that it “exists to tell the story of the artistic and craft community of the village, the lives of the individuals, how they worked, were educated and interacted. We therefore do not, and cannot, see their work in isolation from their biography.”

Questions as to what to do with Gill have often centred on his artworks and sculptures, rather than his typography. This is perhaps because fine art is more obviously a form of personal expression compared to design (though many designers would argue their practice is equally as personal), and in the case of Gill, it’s easier to draw a direct line from his abuse of his daughters to drawings and sculptures he modelled on their nude forms.