The name Eric Gill can be a controversial subject for bibliophiles and artists to speak on. Certainly Gill’s life is something of the extraordinary – an intense study of multiple art forms, excelling at each, a full workload and recognized talent in his day, and even heavy religious beliefs contradicting the expressiveness of an almost insatiable sexuality… all go into the beautiful work that came from a unique mind.
The English typeface designer, printer and sculptor was born on the 22nd of February, 1882 in Brighton. He grew up in a large family – one of twelve children. When Gill was 15 years old he and his family moved to Chichester, a city in Southeast England. He was able to spend some of his teenage years studying at the Chichester Technical and Art School where he first gained interest in the arts. In 1900 he moved to bustling London, and began an apprenticeship with W. D. Caroe, a specialist architect who worked in ecclesiastical architecture. He enrolled in stonemasonry night classes at the Westminster Technical Institute to gain skills in sculpting with stone, and took calligraphy courses at the Central School of Arts and Crafts. Undaunted by the many different artistic arenas before him, Gill excelled in his work in all – calligraphy, masonry and as a letter-cutter alike.
In the early 1900s, Gill married the daughter of the Chichester Cathedral sacristan and moved back to the county of Sussex, to a small town called Ditchling. He worked tirelessly, producing sculptures that were a curious mixture of domesticity and eroticism. Some of his work included producing sculptures for the BBC London building and Westminster Cathedral, and then creating new typefaces and illustrations while working for the Golden Cockerel Press in Capel-y-ffin. Much later on he would found his own hand-press with his son-in-law and print out Fine Press bibliophile dreams, like the ones we have here at Swan’s Fine Books. As Fiona MacCarthy, a Gill biographer states, “The striking thing about Gill’s work, whether carving, letter-cutting or typography, is his mastery of linear expression.” This seems absolutely true, as when looking at all of his work one cannot help but notice the artistry in the lines of text or stone.
During his life, Gill was awarded several honors, including being named the Royal Designer for Industry in Britain. He was indeed eccentric, and though recent studies have shed new light on Gill’s personal and private life that one might find objectionable, we are awed by the true beauty of his art – especially his bibliographic works. We look at his book work with an open eye and are easily able to see the absolute craftsmanship that goes into each of his pieces. Don’t believe us? Come and see one for yourself at Swan’s Fine Books!