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. (Kirkus Reviews)
Eric Gill was perhaps the greatest English artist-craftsman of the
twentieth century: a typographer and lettercutter of genius and a
master in the art of sculpture and wood-engraving. 'A wonderfully
detailed account of his personality - so vivid, you feel you know
just what it would have been like to visit him at one of his
patriarchal communes . . . A Dominican, dining with the Gills, once
thought he saw a nimbus shining around Eric's head. Despite the
sexual improprieties it unearths, MacCarthy's authoritative
biography allows you to understand how someone might have thought
that.' John Carey, Sunday Times
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