“Perversity Raised to a Principle”*

*Review of Fiona MacCarthy’s Eric Gill (1989)

(Above: 55 Broadway, London SW1, built 1929, which straddles St James’s Park Underground Station. Integrity International Group have recently taken a 150 year lease from Transport for London on the property. At the presentation ceremony of an architecture award for the building in 1931, Frank Pick commented on the height, noting that “in fact, it goes so high that it has a 9th floor, which we cannot use because the London County Council has decided that it is unsafe for us to live there . But our architects insisted there should be a 9th floor, because the proportions of the building required it, and we were complacent clients, so it was built .”)

*“This is a very odd book. One doesn’t quite know whether to admire ”Eric Gill: A Lover’s Quest for Art and God” for its generosity and broadmindedness or to inveigh against it for its moral blindness. Actually there’s nothing wrong with Fiona MacCarthy’s powers of perception. Blindness isn’t exactly the word one wants; her view is morally blank. What makes it exceedingly odd is that Eric Gill, the eccentric British artist and craftsman, was a scoundrel (that’s one very mild way of putting it, I think; one might also call him a poseur, a fraud and a pervert). And his biographer, whose prose style is delightful and fastidious, is capable of astonishment but not, apparently, of moral outrage. She makes no judgments – unless choosing to write a nonjudgmental book about such a man as Eric Gill can in itself be construed as approbative. It’s troubling.” (The late) Barbara Grizzuti Harrison, in New York Times of 7/5/1989

“What is striking is that once the immediate commotion over Gill’s sexual aberrations had died down, there was a new surge of interest in his work. The 1992 retrospective at the Barbican finally demolished the patronising view of Gill as a Catholic sculptor, setting him in the mainstream of modern British art. The monumental architectural carvings made in Gill’s Pigotts period in the 1930s, such familiar elements in the London street scene that they were in danger of being overlooked, emerged with a new clarity. Prospero and Ariel outside the BBC building in Portland Place; the large-scale East Wind sculpture that hovers over St James’s Underground station: these are weirdly wonderful examples of Gill’s work.” Fiona MacCarthy, in The Guardian: 22/7/2006

“For me, though, the biggest question remains unanswered: why do this show at all? The darknesses in Gill’s life have been public knowledge for almost three decades now, ever since Fiona MacCarthy published her brilliant and wonderfully vivid life of the artist in 1989. It is not as though this information is secret. Why force it on visitors? What, in the end, does (Nathaniel) Hepburn hope to achieve by doing so? Again, he comes back to censorship: “I don’t want to censor which works we show because we don’t have the confidence of language to be able to interpret them properly.” But there is also the question of “responsibility” to be considered. “Museums have a duty to talk about difficult issues,” he says. “They are a place where society can think. There is some public benefit in organisations like ours not turning a blind eye to abuse. We are very well aware that certain parts of our audience are not going to want to look at this exhibition. But if we lose visitors for this period, so be it. We hope they come back.” ”

Rachel Cooke, in The Observer 9/4/2017, on Eric Gill:The Body at Ditchling Museum of Art & Craft

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