February 4, 2023

Eric Gill was one of the most celebrated British artists of the 20th century – and for decades his work had a prominent place in the small museum in the village where he once lived.

But after his death, details of his grotesque sexual behavior came to light – including continued abuse of two of his daughters and his younger sister – and since then there have been mounting calls for his work not to be displayed.

The growing controversy surrounding Gill came to national attention in January when a protester used a chisel to chip one of his most famous pieces, the statue Prospero and Ariel outside the BBC’s Broadcasting House, .

Eric Gill's Prospero and Ariel statue outside Broadcasting House was damaged by a protester in January 2022.
Eric Gill’s Prospero and Ariel statue outside Broadcasting House was damaged by a protester in January 2022. Photo: Ian West/PA

Now the Observer may reveal that Gill’s hometown gallery has apparently begun a campaign to distance themselves from the artist. Ditchling Museum of Art and Craft in East Sussex has been more closely associated with Gill than any other artist since its formation in 1985, later receiving £2.3 million from the Heritage Lottery Fund. The bond was so close that for many years it was commonly known as “the Eric Gill museum”.

But none of his substantial body of work in the collection has been on display for most of 2022, and he is now described as an artist “among many others” on display at the museum when he was previously “central”.

Until 2017, work by Gill, who lived and worked in Ditchling for 15 years, was exhibited at the museum without any comment on his personal behaviour. But then, after an extensive review by a panel of artists and critics, the museum decided to reference it alongside his work—and continue to show it at the same time.

As late as February last year, the museum still reaffirmed its intention to remain associated with Gill – describing him in a statement as “an artist who is central to our story and whose importance to art and design history in the UK and beyond of the world. is impossible to ignore…we absolutely condemn Gill’s abuse of his daughters without any attempt to conceal, excuse, normalize or minimize, but we also have a duty to protect the artworks we have in our collections , exhibit and interpret”.

The Museum of Arts and Crafts in Ditchling, East Sussex.  Eric Gill lived and worked in the village for 15 years.
The Museum of Arts and Crafts in Ditchling, East Sussex. Eric Gill lived and worked in the village for 15 years. Photo: Steve Speller/Alamy

However, it seems to have been quietly reconsidered since then: without making any public announcement, it has removed all traces of Gill for most of 2022, his work remaining in storage. From January to May, the museum was all about a show featuring the saner local figure of Dame Vera Lynn.

And just in recent weeks, four smaller pieces have been put back on display for context in an exhibition dedicated to another artist, Japanese potter Shoji Hamada, who also worked at Ditchling.

This year would be the first time in the museum’s history that Gill’s work was not on display – and that period lasted 10 months.

The museum told The observer that it is trying to find new ways to “give visitors a clearer picture of Ditching’s core story about the artists and artisans who lived here from the early 20th century to the present day, including Gill and many others”.

Eric Gill at work on the carvings adorning Broadcasting House in London.
Eric Gill at work on the carvings adorning Broadcasting House in London. Photo: Fox Photos/Getty Images

This “among many others” tone is in stark contrast to its previous “central” position. Observer journalist Rachel Cooke, who took part in that 2017 review, then described the museum as “a small but beautiful gallery devoted mainly to exhibitions of Eric Gill’s work”.

Journalist and author Alex Larman said: “The news that the Ditchling Museum is removing Gill is both depressing and predictable. Gill and Ditchling are inseparable, and it would be a short-sighted act of folly for the museum to try to remove its most famous resident. of the village from its cultural history.

“No one should have to defend Gill’s personal actions, which were appalling and depraved and are now rightly recognized as the abusive and coercive behavior they were. But many great artists throughout history – from Caravaggio to Gauguin – behaved despicably, and it seems to me that I am in the wrong place to try to make an example of Gill, especially since no attempt has been made to public debate or consultation. about this.”

But Margaret Kennedy, who founded the Minister and Clergy Sexual Assault Survivors (Macsas) and has campaigned since 1998 to have Gill sculptures removed from Westminster Cathedral, approved of the move in Ditchling.

She said: “Once you know a work is Gill’s, you automatically wonder ‘Why is this institution honoring a sex offender?’ And you wonder if they care enough to understand that if it’s honored it means that my pain being caused has no consequences It’s kind of like saying ‘We know this is a trigger for survivors, but actually Gill’s brilliant art trumps that’.

Gill was a prolific artist, sculptor, printer, designer and writer, described by the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography as “the greatest artist-craftsman of the 20th century”.

His sculptures appeared on numerous religious buildings, including Westminster Cathedral, and he was commissioned by, among others, the League of Nations (predecessor of the UN). His typefaces were widely used by Penguin Books, the BBC and British Rail, for example

He died at the age of 58 in 1940. But it was another 49 years before the details of his astonishingly dark and abusive sexual desires – he even abused the family dog ​​- were discovered in diaries by the journalist Fiona MacCarthy while investigating a biography.

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