Eric Gill (1882-1940)
IN A CERTAIN SENSE, LIFE BEGINS
WITH BAPTISM. FOR WITH baptism we begin life with a kind of God-given
perfection. But from then on to the grave, we are subject to
countless conflicting possibilities and powers for good and for
evil which we have to co-ordinate if our lives are to become
integrated, if we are to achieve and maintain our integrity.
It is this sense of lifelong consistency of mind and heart for
truth and goodness that characterized the career of Eric Gill.
His life, in his words and
in his deeds, while of course not always perfect, were intact
and complete. And in our modern way of living a departmentalized
life, a life divided into separate compartments-our home life
one thing, our work life another, our leisure life still another,
and our religion something apart from all of them-we whose lives
are disjointed and full of compromises and contradictions, can
and should learn more than just admiration for the integrity
of Eric Gill.
Christened Arthur Eric Gill,
he was born in Brighton, England, in 1882. He was the second
of the thirteen children of a minister of a religious sect founded
by the Countess of Huntingdon. The sect was so small and its
doctrines so vague that one writer referred to it as having three
persons and no God. But like so many-witticisms, this one was
not true. Eric's parents were so sincerely religious minded that
he never lost his grasp on the eternal verities, even though
in a later period, for reasons which will be explained, his grip
was weakened. And even then, he never fouled his family n\est
As could be expected under
the circumstances, his family was poor. Poor but upright and
cultured and loyal and happy. And that was the starting point
of Eric's lifelong crusade against men or even nations dedicating
themselves to the amassing of material wealth. Yes, nations too;
for he was never deceived by the bringing of the blessings of
civilization to benighted countries which just happened to have
rich natural resources, where the white man's burden consisted
chiefly in shipping them home.
Eric's formal education consisted
of six years at a private school in Brighton and two years at
an art school in Chichester. He was weak in speculative subjects;
strong in those he thought worth doing for their own sake, chiefly
mathematics and drawing. While at art school, he joined his parents
in becoming a member of the Church of England. And so he was
an Anglican when he soon afterwards became apprenticed to a London
firm of architects which engaged largely in ecclesiastical building.
He was there but a short time when he lost his faith in what
was called religion and lost faith in what was called art. On
the one hand, the unnatural and tyrannical division of labor
which reduced the builder to a mere copying of things designed
on paper to the smallest detail by ponderous, pompous artists
who held religion in tolerant contempt while making a living
off it, and, on the other, the self-centered, softcushioned Anglican
clergymen and their indifference to the intellectual, moral,
and physical well being of the people -these among other things
drove the young man into a vague and hungry agnosticism. He had
thought that God meant a Supreme Being to be proudly loved and
served and he had thought that architecture meant building. But,
while he lost his illusions, he did not lose his head. He left
his fictitious world and began to build a real world for himself.
He wanted to be a workman, with a workman's rights and duties,
to design what was to be made and to make what he had designed.
An artist, he held, is not a special kind of man, but every man
is a special kind of artist. What work could he do that was wanted?
He soon found it: letter cutting in stone. He studied lettering
under the great Edward Johnston and after a year got his first
small commission, and from that day on was never out of a job.
And he just walked out of the architect's office.
It is an evidence of the fact
that his supposed agnosticism was just youthful bewilderment
at the abuses of religion which he had witnessed that it was
at about this time that Gill formulated the idea of his philosophy
of work which began with the idea of God. In sorites or extended
syllogistic form, it ran something like this: God is first of
all to us the Creator, first, for it is to that power in Him
that we owe our very existence as well as that of all the rest
of the world in which we live. But God said that He created man
in His own image and likeness. Therefore God intended man to
be primarily a creator. But a creator is one who makes at least
an appreciable part of a thing and who controls the means of
its making. Therefore assembly-line mass-production in particular
and our modern mechanized industrialism in general are contrary
to man's nature as God created him. We should need no elaboration-much
less proof-of Gill's reasoning. Have you ever met an assembly-line
worker, seeing one of his company's finished products, and commenting
on the quality of the job he did? And we see the results: workers
with one eye on the clock and the other on the paycheck, and
their hearts, in beer-gardens to help them forget the kind of
work that gives them no satisfaction of accomplishment, work
that makes them servants rather than masters of machines, work
that leaves them old at forty. Flowing naturally from this philosophy
of work, of man as a creator, as a maker, was Gill's doctrine
on the matter of the ownership of private property. Contrary
to prevalent opinion, he held that it was not primarily a moral
right, one flowing from man's free will. Gill denied that it
was as a moral being that man had a right to private ownership.
That right, he held, came primarily from man's material necessities
and man's intellectual nature, deriving not from his need to
use things but from his need to make things.
It is, then, to man as workman,
as an intelligent being who must manipulate things in order to
make them serviceable, that private ownership is both necessary
and a natural right, and only when there is control of the means
of production can there be proper and efficient production.
Unless a man-be he a farmer,
a miner, a craftsman, an artist, a laborer-unless he own, either
individually or jointly with others, the field or mine or other
necessary property or materials, he cannot properly control his
work. This necessity of manipulation it is, according to Gill,
which gives the right of private property in the means of production.
Maritain has put this truth in philosophical terminology: "The
exercise of art or work, whether it be that of craftsman or manual
laborer, is the formal reason of individual appropriation."
It is obvious that, as things
are here and now, the only grounds upon which productive goods
can be validly made, have to a great extent been destroyed. The
factory worker, for example, can make no claim to private ownership
and the big machine industries and the utilities are not private
industries-they are, as they publicly boast, public services;
and hence they are fair prey to socialists and communists for
what are public services should be publicly owned for the profit
of all. Bonds, bonuses, money in the bank, even profits sharing
are not ownership, they are not control of the means of production,
they do not restore the intellectual operation of the workman
by which he imprints on matter the mark of rational being. This
is the philosophy of the Distributists to which Belloc,
Penty, Pepler, McNabb,
the Chestertons, and scores of
other leading thinkers, Catholic and non-Catholic, subscribed.
The only possible reform of our world, Gill believed, must begin
with the distribution of ownership.
In 1904, Gill married Mary
Ethel Moore, a clergyman's daughter, and set up housekeeping
in a block of workmen's dwellings in the London suburb of Battersea.
Soon after the birth of their second daughter, they moved to
Ditchling in their native county of Sussex. There was no back-to-the-land
sentiment behind this, though Gill always loved the earth, and
especially "the earth that man has loved for his daily bread
and the pathos of his plight." What was behind the move
was the conviction that crowded city quarters were no place to
raise children. For to Gill, marriage meant babies-if it were
not for babies, he once asked, would there be any more marriages?"
He also believed that the coming of children aided in their parents'
development of character: the father, for example, was no longer
simply concerned with what conditions were best for his work
or even for his personal comfort,-he became concerned with what
conditions were best for a growing family.
In 1909, Gill interrupted his
successful inscription-cutting business to carve a female figure
in stone. His first sculpture. Most sculptors, at least at that
time, modeled their statuary, building it up in clay, and then
have this model reproduced in stone by a professional carver
with various machines and gadgets. Gill carved his subject himself
directly out of the stone. Moreover, he thought in terms of stone
(not of clay) and of carving (not of modeling). In his Autobiography
he records the event in these words: "So all without knowing
it, I was making a little revolution. I was reuniting what never
should have been separated: the artist as a man of imagination
and the artist as a workman. I was really like the child who
said, First I think and then I draw my think-in contrast with
the art-student who must say, First I look and then I draw my
look. At first the art critics didn't believe it. How could they?
They thought I was putting up a stunt -being archaic on purpose.
Whereas the real and complete truth was that I was completely
ignorant of all their art stuff and was childishly doing my utmost
to copy accurately in stone what I saw in my head."
Despite this misunderstanding,
the art world soon opened its doors to receive him. But before
it could close them behind him, he escaped. He found the atmosphere
stuffy with aesthetes, dillitantes, poseurs, and agnostics.
He returned to his home and
family and work, and he began to examine his own relations to
God. The religions he had known were ineffectual, insufficient,
and warring among themselves. So he set about making up a religion
for himself, or rather, a metaphysic, a preamble to religion.
And then he began to discover, slowly and gradually, that his
new invention was an old one. Invention, in its old meaning,
of course,-to discover, to come up with, to find. For man can
approach faith through reason but not fully apprehend it. Belief
in God means that you believe Him, that you accept His revelation.
Of this experience Gill said: "I found a thing in my mind
and I opened my eyes and found it in front of me. You don't become
a Catholic by joining the Church; you join the Church because
you are a Catholic." It is interesting to recall the similarity
of Gill's expression to Chesterton's when he entered the Church
some nine years later.
The importance that Gill attached
to his reception into the Church is indicated by the fact that
he concludes his Autobiography with the record of that
event. The remaining third of the book he designated as a Postscript.
For the next four years, 1913
to 1917, he was engaged principally in carving the Stations of
the Cross for Westminster Cathedral, the work which put him in
the front rank of contemporary English sculptors.
Then in 1918, he was conscripted
into the British army. His stint was brief-only four months,
and entirely on the home front. But it helped him to formulate
his opinions regarding Christians engaged in organized violence
at the behest of the civil power. He was not a pacifist, as he
has sometimes been called. He believed a just war possible, and
hence one in which a Christian man could be obliged even in Christian
charity to engage in. But he found it increasingly difficult
to understand how one could be fighting for justice when the
powers that attack each other are economic and financial powers,
unrelated to the moral law, and unredeemed by Christianity. Modern
war, he maintained, is mainly about money. And he carved his
belief in stone by choosing as his subject for the facade of
the war memorial at Leeds the scene of Christ driving the money-changers
out of the Temple.
With the recently deceased
Hilarry Pepler, Gill founded the still-existing
community of Catholic workmen at Ditchling. Although the community
adopted the Rule of the Third Order of St. Dominic, it was not
in the strict sense a religious community: its members remained
laymen and they took no vows. They lived in their own private
dwellings and, after Mass and Communion each morning, they went
to their separate labors. The basic principle of their life was
poverty, voluntary poverty; not penury or want for the necessities
of decent human living, but a spirit of detachment from material
possessions. Money as a means, not an end. Absurd? Do you know
anyone dedicated to amassing material possessions who has peace
? Do you know of any nation so dedicated which has peace? For
at least in this all the nations are united: all our modern politics
are based on a denial of the Gospel. Capitalism is based on the
notion that those who have money have the duty to get more, and
that who have none must be enslaved, or exploited or employed-until
machines make their very existence unnecessary. Fascism aims
at creating empires as rich and great as the others. Communism
wants to make the rich poor in order that the poor may become
rich. But the Gospel of God wants the rich to be poor and the
poor holy. That is the peace that Christ promised. That is the
peace that Gill sought-to be detached and free, and so to possess
his soul in peace. That was the ultimate secret of the integrity
at which he aimed.
Following a brief illness,
he died in a London hospital on a November night in 1940, during
the second World War. In fact, there was taking place overhead
at the time an alr raid.
[EDITOR'S NOTE: This above
is based on a number of sources, principally "A study in
integrity: the life and teaching of Eric Gill," by Father
Conrad Pepler, O.P., in the May, 1947, issue of Blackfriars.
Evan R. Gill edited a thorough Bibliography of Eric Gill (Cassell,
1953). It All Goes Together (Devin-Adair, 1944) comprises
his selected essays and numerous reproductions of his art. See
also his Autobiography (id., 1941), Beauty Looks After
Herself ( Sheed, 1935), Money and Morals (Faber, 1934),
Art (Devin-Adair, 1950), and his Letters (id., 1948).]