This week Apollo Magazine offers a thoughtful piece on the work of the British sculptor Eric Gill (1882-1940), who is the subject of a new exhibition that just opened at the Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft in West Sussex. I warn you that it’s a difficult article to read, because author James Williams pulls no punches in looking at the rather shocking personal life of the artist in tandem with his religious art – and the piece includes one illustration by Gill toward the end of the article which you may not want to see, if you’re particularly sensitive. But for those of you prepared to read it, it offers a good opportunity for adult reflection and discussion on some difficult aspects of the arts where they intersect with faith.
Gill became a prominent artist at the turn of the previous century, primarily as a result of his sculpture, but also from his work as an engraver and a designer of typefaces, such as that still used by Penguin Books. His art can be seen in many places throughout Britain, but perhaps his most famous and public works are those which decorate Broadcasting House, the Art Deco headquarters of the BBC. When I lived in London, I walked past this building nearly every day on my way to and from school, and admired Gill’s figures of Ariel and Prospero from Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” which adorn the facade.
After he converted to Catholicism in 1911, Gill received many commissions to create works of art for Catholic institutions, including the Stations of the Cross which he created for Westminster Cathedral, the Catholic cathedral in London. He and his wife formed a lay religious fraternity with other artists interested in Catholic subjects, and went to live in an art colony in Wales. While his views became increasingly socialist as he grew older, he nevertheless continued to practice his faith, even as he supported more left-leaning causes.
Many years after his death, it was revealed that Gill had a voracious sexual appetite, which extended not only to his own adult sisters and grown daughters, but even to the family dog. He detailed his activities in his diaries, which came to light in the late 1980’s as a biography of his life was being researched. Up until then, Gill had been viewed as one of the preeminent British sculptors of the first half of the 20thcentury, and his religious faith was taken to be what it was: a part of his personal and artistic philosophy just as much as his outspoken public opposition to anything resembling fascism.
When the truth of Gill’s personal life became known, right around the time that the clergy sexual abuse scandal began to break, there were calls for his work to be removed from the churches where these pieces were displayed. Although that did not happen, the taint of this scandal now permanently colors his legacy, so that one cannot see his art without thinking of Gill’s private activities. It is fair to say that for many, there is an unavoidable feeling of discomfort in such a situation, and I must say, the more I have looked at Gill’s work after reading this piece, the more disturbed and disturbing an artist I find him to be. Perhaps there is something to be said, after all, for the idea that his art should not be in our churches.
That being said, works by many great Catholic artists who also happened to have considerable sexual appetites are very common in our churches, in Bibles and religious books, and so on. Raphael for example, supposedly died as a result of an evening’s overexertion with his favorite model-mistress, whose features he used in many of his religious paintings. Michelangelo wrote erotic love poems to a number of young men, including at least one of his assistants and two of his models. Late in life Velázquez fathered an illegitimate child during a trip to Rome to paint the Pope, an affair which kept him from going back to his wife for nearly 3 years.
The same proclivities and weaknesses are not limited to Catholic artists, either. Mozart may or may not have been a philanderer, but he was definitely a freemason (a mortal sin for a Catholic), while Fauré had endless mistresses and extramarital affairs. Nevertheless, the religious music of both composers is still performed regularly in churches all over the world. Waugh enjoyed affairs with both men and women, and became both alcoholic and drug addict, but still rose to become one of the most prominent Catholic authors of the 20th century. Indeed, as he famously remarked when Nancy Mitford pointed out that his faith and his behavior often did not jibe very well, he would have been even more of a reprobate if he wasn’t a Christian.
All of these men were great artists in their fields, and yet all them were great sinners as well. None of them were perfect, and yet they all succeeded in revealing something of Divine perfection in their work. If you’re looking for artists who both created great religious works and practiced personal continence, you’re going to find a very short list. With extremely few exceptions, someone who writes a beautiful hymn or paints a magnificent icon is not any less sinful than the rest of us are.
So when it comes to Gill, you’ll have to reach your own conclusions about what to think about his work. Personally speaking, I’m increasingly of the mind that his public art, beautiful though it may be, is tainted because of other art that he created, which inappropriately comingles eroticism and faith. However, I leave it to those with larger brains than mine to figure out what is to be done here.
Every area of creative endeavor is populated by sinners, just as our banks, hospitals, and grocery stores are. Artists are, perhaps, more likely to be unconventional in their personal lives than those engaged in more ordinary occupations. Yet if you care about both the arts and your faith, at some point you have to find a way to reconcile the two, which as we’ve seen are often diametrically opposed to one another. Perhaps in this context Mary Magdalene, the sinner who became a great saint, would be just as appropriate a patron saint for artists, as she already is for those who have suffered greatly from temptation.