In everything, a high standard
A tombstone in the little cemetery at Speen, some thirty miles west of London , bears the spare inscription "Pray for me Eric Gill stone carver 1882-1940." It is a modest memorial which Gill designed himself during his busy life as a sculptor, engraver, typographer and writer.
Eric Gill embraced the ideas of high-standard craftsmanship which stemmed from William Morris and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. He could fairly be regarded as a link in the chain that binds the Brotherhood to the contemporary art world. Gill cannot be neatly pocketed, but to the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood he also owed the medievalism that sustained his work. In many ways he tried to live as if the Middle Ages had been miraculously prolonged. He did not share the sentiment and doe-eyed romance with which the Pre-Raphaelites depicted medieval life, but gave his sculptures a contemporary glint. From Morris and from the Middle Ages he took the attitude that good craft must be "made," not "done." "Work is sacred," said Gill, and "leisure is secular."
He grew away from his beginnings as the son of a Church of England parson and away from the youthful, radical, Fabian Society towards a belief that the churches must take an active part in governing, and that art was a religious process. It is sufficient to say that in this, as in all other parts of his life he was eccentric and controversial.
By 1910 be braved the idea of carving directly from stone, finding a medium in which hardly anyone else in England, except Epstein, was working. Already he was well known for his clearly incised inscriptions, and with the support of Roger Fry, who championed his instinctive and natural use of plastic imagery, he became known as a sculptor and consequently exhibited with the painters Matisse, Vlaminick and Picasso at the Post-Impressionist Exhibition held by the Grafton Gallery.
Both in stone and on paper the most outstanding aspect of all of Eric Gill's work is the purity of his line. In 1925 he carved "the Sleeping Christ" from an odd lump of soft stone. It is one of the best things he ever did in that medium. The ragged outlines stage a contrast to the carefully incised linear face. Jesus sleeps a serene sleep and the face is untroubled and filled with peace. The angular cupped hand that pillows the head is in marked constrast to the curves of the hair but is echoed by a long straight nose. Gill allowed the hint of a smile, for this benign sleep manifests the beauty of dreams and visions rather than of waking, worldly laughter.
In 1923 he caused great controversy with the Leeds university War Memorial which he was carving. The subject of the carving was Jesus expelling the money-changers from the temple, and along the cornice Gill inscribed in Latin, "Go now, you rich men, weep and howl in your miseries which shall come upon you. Your riches are putrid." It was not the best way to marry the important businessmen of Leeds to modern art. The carved figures were dressed contemporaneously and the businessman rightly felt that the criticism was directed at them.
Gill was always a crusader, in his art, in his opinions and in his religious and political attitudes. Some of his opinions have been dismissed as cranky, fro he sometimes rushed in where angels fear to tread. His sculptures, however, are among the best religious works of this century.
His idiosyncratic religious certitude led him to say, "Without philosophy man cannot know what he makes; without religion he cannot know why." Without doubt Eric Gill knew what and why he was making.