Arthur Eric Rowton Gill was an English sculptor, typeface designer, stonecutter and printmaker, who was associated with the Arts and Crafts movement. He is a controversial figure, with his well-known religious views and subject matter being seen as at odds with his sexual and paraphiliac behaviour and erotic art.
Gill was named Royal Designer for Industry, the highest British award for designers, by the Royal Society of Arts. He also became a founder-member of the newly established Faculty of Royal Designers for Industry.
Early life and studies
Gill was born in 1882 in Steyning, Sussex. He was the elder brother of MacDonald "Max" Gill (1884-1947), the well known graphic artist. In 1897 the family moved to Chichester. He studied at Chichester Technical and Art School, and in 1900 moved to London to train as an architect with the practice of W.D. Caroe, specialists in ecclesiastical architecture. Frustrated with his training, he took evening classes in stonemasonry at 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.
At Ditchling in Sussex, where he lived with his wife, he started producing sculptures. 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, he 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 the Indiaphile William Rothenstein.
In 1914 he produced sculptures for the stations of the cross in Westminster Cathedral. In the same year he met the typographer Stanley Morison. After the war, together with Hilary Pepler and Desmond Chute, Gill founded The Guild of St Joseph and St Dominic at Ditchling, where his pupils included the young David Jones, who soon began a relationship with Gill's daughter, Petra.
Commissioned to produce a war memorial for the University of Leeds, Gill controversially produced a frieze depicting Jesus driving the money-changers from the temple, showing contemporary Leeds merchants as the money-changers (Gill's contention being that the "money men" were a key cause of the war taking place). This is at the Michael Sadler Building at Leeds University.
In 1924 he moved to Capel-y-ffin in Wales, where he set up a new workshop, to be followed by Jones and other disciples. In 1928 he set up a printing press and lettering workshop in Speen. He took on a number of apprentices, including David Kindersley, who in turn became a successful sculptor and engraver, and his nephew, John Skelton, noted as an important letterer and sculptor. Other apprentices included Laurie Cribb, Donald Potter and Walter Ritchie. Others in the household included Denis Tegetmeier, married to Gill's daughter Petra, and Rene Hague, married to the other daughter, Joanna.
In 1928–9, 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 1932 Gill produced a group of sculptures, Prospero and Ariel, and others for the BBC's Broadcasting House in London. He was commissioned to produce a sequence of seven bas-relief panels for the facade of The People's Palace, now the Great Hall of Queen Mary University of London, opened in 1936. In 1937, he designed the background of the first George VI definitive stamp series for the Post Office, and in 1938 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 newly established Faculty of Royal Designers for Industry.
Midland Hotel, Morecambe
The Art Deco Midland Hotel was built in 1932-33 by the London Midland & Scottish Railway to the design of Oliver Hill and included works by Gill, Marion Dorn and Eric Ravilious.
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.
Typefaces and inscriptions
In 1925 he designed the Perpetua typeface, with the uppercase based upon monumental Roman inscriptions, for Morison, who was working for the Monotype Corporation.
An in-situ example of Gill's design and personal cutting of his Perpetua typeface can be found in the nave of Poling church in West Sussex, on a wall plaque commemorating the life of Sir Harry Johnston. The Perpetua design was followed by the Gill Sans typeface in 1927–30, based on the sans serif lettering originally designed for the London Underground. (Gill had collaborated with Edward Johnston in the early design of the Underground typeface, but dropped out of the project before it was completed.) In the period 1930–31 Gill designed the typeface Joanna which he used to hand-set his book, An Essay on Typography.
In 1904 he married Ethel Hester Moore (1878–1961), and 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.
In 1913 he moved to Hopkin's Crank at Ditchling Common, two miles north of the village. In 1924 he moved to Capel-y-ffin in Wales. Gill soon tired of Capel-y-ffin, coming to feel that it had the wrong atmosphere and was too far from London, where most of his clients were. In 1928 he moved to Pigotts at Speen near High Wycombe in Buckinghamshire.
A deeply religious man, largely following the Roman Catholic faith, his beliefs and practices were by no means orthodox. His personal diaries describe his sexual activity in great detail including the fact that he sexually abused his own children, had an incestuous relationship with his sister and performed sexual acts on his dog. This aspect of Gill's life was little known until publication of the 1989 biography by Fiona MacCarthy. The 1966 biography by Robert Speaight mentioned none of it.
Gill died of lung cancer in Harefield Hospital in Middlesex in 1940. He was buried in Speen churchyard in the Chilterns, near Princes Risborough, the village where his last artistic community had practised. His papers and library are archived at the William Andrews Clark Memorial Library at UCLA.