What is it about artists that causes them to behave badly? A case in point is Eric Gill, the great sculptor and calligrapher. He is the subject of an exhibition, Eric Gill: The Body, running until September at the Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft.
The museum addresses the scandal about Gill head-on. It informs visitors that Ditchling in East Sussex was “a place of great innovation and creativity for the artist, but also the village in which he sexually abused two of his teenage daughters”.
At Ditchling, Gill and his pupil David Jones set up the Guild of St Joseph and St Dominic, their ideal Catholic arts and crafts community. According to Gill’s biographer Fiona MacCarthy, he became a Catholic in 1913 because he was seeking a stricter moral authority; the Church of England was too easygoing.
He needed it, because his voracious sexual behaviour (which also included a long-term affair with his sister, general adultery and “experiments” with his dog) was already well entrenched by then.
He recorded it all in his diaries, at one point writing: “This must stop.” As a lay Dominican, he took to wearing the girdle of chastity. “Much good it did him,” said a friend.
Outwardly Gill was pursuing his ideal of an integrated life of devout simplicity, set apart from the mechanised modern world, in which “life and work and love and the bringing up of a family and clothes and social virtues and food and houses and games and songs and books should all be in the soup together”.
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