Eric Gill and the Bad Man Conundrum

15 Jan

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No, this blog post isn’t the first episode in my bid to write “the next Harry Potter” – it’s about the sculptor Eric Gill. For the uninitiated, Gill was an artist, a stonecutter and a typeface designer, famous now largely for having given his name to a well-known font.

Oh, and he raped his own daughters and had sex with his dog.

Sorry if that was all a bit much to take in in one sentence, and sorry if it was a little shocking, but if you know two things about Eric Gill, one is that he has a font named after him, the other is that he carried out incestuous affairs with both his sister and his own daughters and had an ongoing sexual relationship with his pet dog. Much of this didn’t come to light until long after Gill died in 1940, when his diaries – in which he confesses all – were made public.

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“Psst. Eric Gill bummed a dog. True story.”

These revelations were a cause for concern for those who run the many public buildings that are home to Gill’s work, including a large number of churches (he was a “devout” Catholic) and the BBC’s Broadcasting House in London. Indeed, Cardiff Museum (which is about 10 minutes’ walk from my flat) has in its collection, and proudly on display, a Jacob Epstein sculpture engraved by Gill. His work is everywhere.

The question, for admirers of Gill’s, is whether the facts of his private life should affect how we look at his work. The reason Gill came to mind was because right now the sexual misdeeds of famous figures are front page news on an almost weekly (if not daily) basis. Operation Yewtree seems to have gone from an inquiry into sexual abuse within the UK’s entertainment industry into the wholesale arrest of my generation’s childhood, and while it may be easier to accept the horror stories about Jimmy Savile (who, after all, hid in plain sight – looking, acting and sounding like a child molester throughout his career), there are others for whom I think we all, secretly, want the accusations to prove unfounded.

Say it ain't so. Say it ain't so.

Say it ain’t so. Say it ain’t so.

Many of these cases are still pending, so we don’t yet know how many of those arrested as part of Yewtree are genuinely guilty. The fact is, even if many of them are acquitted, that shadow of suspicion will – rightly or wrongly – hang over them for the rest of their days.

Over in the States, I imagine both R Kelly and Woody Allen thought they were in the clear, with almost two decades of distance between them and their own accusations, but with celebrity child abusers receiving such intense media attention on this side of the Atlantic, perhaps it was only inevitable that bloggers and journalists would revisit those cases. Many remain unconvinced of either man’s innocence, and yet that doesn’t stop them from working. Allen has just enjoyed his greatest critical and commercial success in quite some time with Blue Jasmine, while R Kelly is back in the charts with his latest album, Black Panties.

Because R Kelly passed through parody's looking glass in 2005.

Because R Kelly passed through parody’s looking glass in 2005.

Meanwhile, this year should also see the general release of Roman Polanski’s latest, Venus in Fur, a good 37 years after he fled the United States, accused of the statutory rape of a 13-year-old girl. That accusation, never fully denied by the director, has had little to no impact on his career. Indeed, his film The Pianist scooped him the Oscar for Best Director in 2003.

My question is should we always judge – and maybe even boycott – an artist’s work based on what we know about their private life, and if so, when do we apply this? I’ve enjoyed Polanski films (I thought his 2011 movie, Carnage, based on the Yasmina Reza’s play God of Carnage, was excellent), and Allen films (especially, funnily enough, the ones he isn’t in very much), and I’m sorry, but the Glitter Band’s Rock & Roll Part 2 is an amazing track. Should I pretend these things don’t exist, or that I didn’t enjoy them?

And if so, should we stop listening to Led Zeppelin because Jimmy Page totally abducted a 14-year-old?

And if so, should we boycott all this because Jimmy Page abducted a 14-year-old?

I won’t pretend this issue isn’t without its thorns. Having been told that Allen’s Manhattan was a soaring, beautiful ode to the director’s hometown, I found the plot thread about his character’s relationship with a 17-year-old girl more than a little creepy, enough to spoil the rest of the film. Similarly, there are elements of Wagner’s Ring Cycle that are tainted by the composer’s notorious and rampant antisemitism, and despite having died 50 years before the Nazis came to power in Germany his work wasn’t performed in Israel until a Daniel Barenboim-conducted concert in 2000.

This post isn’t anything like my “final word” on the subject, because the truth is, I don’t know what I think. A part of me thinks we should perhaps divide the artist as a person from their body of work, and judge each one separately, but when so much of an artist’s biography – their emotional experiences, their personality, their political opinions – bleeds into the work itself, is this ever truly possible?

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One Response to “Eric Gill and the Bad Man Conundrum”

  1. Frivolous Monsters January 15, 2014 at 2:18 pm #

    It was the saddest thing when Rolf got involved. I was hoping that his was a mistake, but yesterday his list of charges seemed quite damning. Time will tell.

    The biggest problem, for us, is that these people are cultural touchstones and as such the TV archives are now being censored. How far will this go? Jimmy Saville was in ‘Life on Mars’ and it makes me wonder how that will be treated. I’m against “altering” artwork – and a piece of art it is – because then you get into the George Lucas school of madness. And no-one wants that.

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