Saturday 24 March 2018

Gill Country

Yesterday I was walking on and below the South Downs with my walking friends – a rather gruelling circuit beginning and ending high up on Ditchling Beacon. It's a beautiful landscape: the Downs, with their big skies, wide views and rolling contours, still look very much as they do in the paintings of Ravilious, Nash and co; and the villages below are the stuff of picture-postcards. The churches are modest buildings that sit perfectly in the landscape. Their interiors are plain and contain little to catch the eye of a monument man (but one we visited, Clayton, has some truly astonishing twelfth-century wall paintings).
  As we walked from church to church, we noticed how many of the modern headstones in their graveyards bore decently, and more than decently, hand-carved inscriptions. It's a rare treat, in these days of machine lettering and incongruous black marble/granite, to come across hand-carved lettering on appropriate stone. Why was there such a pleasing concentration of good letter-carving here?
  The answer only occurred to me after I got back. I knew that Ditchling (where we lunched) was a place with artistic associations, but I couldn't think what they were. A moment's search online and I was reminded: it was at Ditchling that the great letter-carver, sculptor and print-maker Eric Gill [above] founded his first community of artists and craftsmen, the Guild of St Joseph and St Dominic, an idealistic enterprise modelled on the medieval guild system and founded in work, communal domestic life and Roman Catholic faith. According to its mission statement, it was a community of 'Men rich in virtue studying beautifulness living in peace in their houses'.
  'Men' was accurate enough – women were denied membership until 1972 – but Gill himself could hardly be described as a man 'rich in virtue'. Indeed, since the publication in 1989 of Fiona MacCarthy's revealing biography, Gill has been notorious for an untrammelled sexual appetite that extended to just about anything with a pulse. As a result he has become a popular focus of arguments about whether really bad people can create really good art, and how much our knowledge of its creator's vices should colour our judgment of a work of art. In my own opinion, the answer to the latter is 'as little as possible' – especially if the art is as impersonal and as far removed from direct self-expression as lettering. (It's harder, of course, to enjoy Gill's erotic prints in the knowledge of his incestuous and bestial habits.)
  Although Gill left his Guild to its own devices after a few years, it thrived without him, attracting a wide range of talented artists, writers, engravers, stone carvers, weavers, silversmiths, graphic designers and craftsmen and women of every kind. The Guild was dissolved in 1989, but its legacy lives on – not least in having kept alive the art of headstone lettering in this corner of Sussex.

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