Arthur Eric Rowton Gill (; 22 February 1882 – 17 November 1940) was an English sculptor, typeface designer, and printmaker, who was associated with the Arts and Crafts movement. His religious views and subject matter contrast with his sexual behaviour, including his erotic art, and (as mentioned in his own diaries) his extramarital affairs and sexual abuse of his daughters, sisters, and dog.
Gill was born in 1882 in Hamilton Road, Brighton, the second of the 13 children of (Cicely) Rose King (d. 1929)[a] and Rev. Arthur Tidman Gill, minister of the Countess of Huntingdon's Connexion.[b] He was the elder brother of graphic artist MacDonald "Max" Gill (1884–1947).
In 1897 the family moved to Chichester. Gill studied at Chichester Technical and Art School, and in 1900 moved to London to train as an architect with the practice of W. D. Caröe, specialists in ecclesiastical architecture.
Frustrated with his training, he took evening classes in stonemasonry at the Westminster Technical Institute and in calligraphy at the Central School of Arts and Crafts, where Edward Johnston, creator of the London Underground typeface, became a strong influence. In 1903 he gave up his architectural training to become a calligrapher, letter-cutter and monumental mason.
Working from Ditchling in Sussex, where he lived with his wife Ethel, Gill began direct carving of stone figures in 1910. These included Madonna and Child (1910), which English painter and art critic Roger Fry described in 1911 as a depiction of "pathetic animalism", and Ecstasy (1911). Such semi-abstract sculptures showed Gill's appreciation of medieval ecclesiastical statuary, Egyptian, Greek and Indian sculpture, as well as the Post-Impressionism of Cézanne, van Gogh and Gauguin.
His first public success was Mother and Child (1912). A self-described "disciple" of the Ceylonese philosopher and art historian Ananda Coomaraswamy, Gill was fascinated during this period by Indian temple sculpture. Along with his friend and collaborator Jacob Epstein, Gill planned the construction in the Sussex countryside of a colossal, hand-carved monument in imitation of the large-scale Jain structures at Gwalior Fort in Madhya Pradesh, to which he had been introduced by William Rothenstein.
Gill designed several war memorials after the First World War, including the Grade II* listed Trumpington War Memorial, the memorial at Chirk and "the huge lettered wall panel recording 228 names of the fallen in the ante-chapel at New College, Oxford". Commissioned to produce a war memorial for the University of Leeds, Gill produced a frieze depicting Jesus driving the money-changers from the temple, showing contemporary merchants as the money-changers. "In doing so, Gill was suggesting that the merchants of Leeds had profited from the war".
In 1924, Gill moved to Capel-y-ffin in Powys, Wales, where he established a new workshop, to be followed by Jones and other disciples. In 1928, moved to Speen, Buckinghamshire where he set up a printing press and lettering workshop. During this time, he took on a number of apprentices (see below). Others in the household included Gill's two sons-in-law, Petra's husband Denis Tegetmeier and Joanna's husband Rene Hague.
In 1928–29, Gill carved three of eight relief sculptures on the theme of winds for Charles Holden's headquarters for the London Electric Railway (now Transport for London) at 55 Broadway, St James's. He carved a statue of the Virgin and Child for the west door of the chapel at Marlborough College.
In 1934, Gill visited Jerusalem where he worked at the Palestine Archaeological Museum (now the Rockefeller Museum). He carved a stone bas-relief of the meeting of Asia and Africa above the front entrance together with ten stone reliefs illustrating different cultures and a gargoyle fountain in the inner courtyard. He also carved stone signage throughout the museum in English, Hebrew and Arabic.
Gill was commissioned to produce a sequence of seven bas-relief panels for the façade of The People's Palace, now the Great Hall of Queen Mary University of London, which opened in 1936. In 1937, he designed the background of the first George VI definitive stamp series for the post office. In 1938 Gill produced The Creation of Adam, three bas-reliefs in stone for the Palace of Nations, the League of Nations building in Geneva, Switzerland. During this period he was made a Royal Designer for Industry, the highest British award for designers, by the Royal Society of Arts and became a founder-member of the RSA's Faculty of Royal Designers for Industry when it was established in 1938. In April 1937, Gill was elected an Associate member of the Royal Academy.
For the project, Gill produced two seahorses, modelled as Morecambe shrimps, for the outside entrance; a round plaster relief on the ceiling of the circular staircase inside the hotel; a decorative wall map of the north west of England; and a large stone relief of Odysseus being welcomed from the sea by Nausicaa.
One of Gill's first independent lettering projects was creating an alphabet for W.H. Smith's sign painters. In 1914, Gill had met the typographer Stanley Morison, who was later to become a typographic consultant for the Monotype Corporation. Commissioned by Morison, he designed the Gill Sans typeface in 1927–30.[c] In 1925, he designed the Perpetua typeface for Morison, with the uppercase based upon monumental Roman inscriptions. An in-situ example of Gill's design and personal cutting in the style of Perpetua can be found in the nave of the church in Poling, West Sussex, on a wall plaque commemorating the life of Sir Harry Johnston. In the period 1930–31, Gill designed the typeface Joanna which he used to hand-set his book, An Essay on Typography."Manuscript and Inscription Letters for Schools and Classes and for the Use of Craftsmen"
These dates are somewhat debatable, since a lengthy period could pass between Gill creating a design and it being finalised by the Monotype drawing office team (who would work out many details such as spacing) and cut into metal. In addition, some designs such as Joanna were released to fine printing use long before they became widely available from Monotype.
One of the most widely used British typefaces, Gill Sans, was used in the classic design system of Penguin Books and by the London and North Eastern Railway and later British Railways, with many additional styles created by Monotype both during and after Gill's lifetime. In the 1990s, the BBC adopted Gill Sans for its wordmark and many of its on-screen television graphics.
Gill was commissioned to develop a typeface with the number of allographs limited to what could be used on Monotype systems or Linotype machines. The typeface was loosely based on the Arabic Naskh style but was considered unacceptably far from the norms of Arabic script. It was rejected and never cut into type.
Gill published numerous essays on the relationship between art and religion, and a number of erotic engravings.
Gill also provided woodcuts and illustrations for a range of other books, including:
Gill's first apprentice was Joseph Cribb (1892–1967) a sculptor and letter carver, who came to Ditchling with Gill in 1907. Hilary Stratton, was an apprentice sculptor between 1919 and 1921. Other apprentices included David Jones, David Kindersley (who in turn became a successful sculptor and engraver) and his nephew, John Skelton (noted as an important letterer and sculptor), Laurie Cribb, Donald Potter and Walter Ritchie.
In the 1930s Gill became a supporter of social credit; later he moved towards a socialist position. In 1934, Gill contributed art to an exhibition mounted by the left-wing Artists' International Association, and defended the exhibition against accusations in The Catholic Herald that its art was "anti-Christian".
Gill was adamantly opposed to fascism, and was one of the few Catholics in Britain to openly support the Spanish Republicans. Gill became a pacifist and helped set up the Catholic peace organisation Pax with E. I. Watkin and Donald Attwater. Later Gill joined the Peace Pledge Union and supported the British branch of the Fellowship of Reconciliation.
In 1904, Gill married Ethel Hester Moore (1878–1961), with whom he had three daughters (Elizabeth, b. 1905; Petra, b. 1906; Joanna, b. 1910) and a fostered son (Gordian, b. 1917). In 1907, he moved with his family to Sopers, a house in the village of Ditchling in Sussex, which would later become the centre of an artists' community inspired by Gill. Much of his work and memorabilia is held and on display at the Ditchling Museum of Art and Craft.
In 1913, Gill and his wife became Roman Catholics. They moved to Hopkin's Crank at Ditchling Common, two miles north of the village. The Common was an arts and crafts community with a chapel at its centre, with an emphasis on manual labour in opposition to modern commerce. He worked primarily for Catholic clients, notably his commission at Westminster Cathedral (above). After the war, together with Hilary Pepler and Desmond Chute, Gill founded The Guild of St Joseph and St Dominic at Ditchling. There his pupils included the artist and poet David Jones, who was to become engaged for a time to Gill's second daughter, Petra. Gill also became a lay member of the Dominican Order.
His personal diaries reveal that his religious beliefs did not limit his sexual activity, which included several extramarital affairs, incestuous sexual abuse of his two eldest teenage daughters, incestuous relationships with his sisters, and sexual acts on his dog. This aspect of Gill's life was little known beyond his family and friends until the publication of the 1989 biography by Fiona MacCarthy. An earlier biography by Robert Speaight, published in 1966, mentioned none of it. Gill's daughter Petra, who was alive at the time of the MacCarthy biography, described her father as having "endless curiosity about sex" and that "we just took it for granted". Despite the acclaim the book received, and the widespread revulsion towards aspects of Gill's sexual life that followed publication, MacCarthy received some criticism for revealing Gill's incest in his daughter's lifetime.
In 1924, Gill left both Ditchling and the Guild of Sts Joseph and Dominic, and moved to the monastery built by Fr Ignatius at Capel-y-ffin near Llanthony Abbey in Wales. At Capel, he made The Sleeping Christ (1925); Deposition (1925) and war memorial altarpiece in oak relief for Rossall School (1927). He began printing his own engravings: The Song of Songs (1925), Troilus and Criseyde (1927), The Canterbury Tales (1928), and The Four Gospels (published 1931) for Robert Gibbings's Golden Cockerel Press. It was at Capel too that he designed the typefaces Perpetua (1925), Gill Sans (1927 onwards) and Solus (1929).
In 1928 he moved to Pigotts at Speen near High Wycombe in Buckinghamshire, where he lived for the rest of his life. Gill died of lung cancer in Harefield Hospital in Middlesex in November 1940 and was buried in Speen's Baptist churchyard.
Gill's papers and library are archived at the William Andrews Clark Memorial Library at UCLA in California, designated by the Gill family as the repository for his manuscripts and correspondence. Some of the books in his collection have been digitised as part of the Internet Archive. Additional archival and book collections related to Gill and his work reside at the University of Waterloo Library and the University of Notre Dame's Hesburgh Library.
As the revelations about Gill's private life reverberated, there was a reassessment of his personal and artistic achievement. As biographer Fiona MacCarthy sums up:
After the initial shock, [...] as Gill's history of adulteries, incest, and experimental connection with his dog became public knowledge in the late 1980s, the consequent reassessment of his life and art left his artistic reputation strengthened. Gill emerged as one of the twentieth century's strangest and most original controversialists, a sometimes infuriating, always arresting spokesman for man's continuing need of God in an increasingly materialistic civilization, and for intellectual vigour in an age of encroaching triviality.