eric gill lettering typography

Eric Gill, incest and Petra Tegetmeier

UPDATE – February 4 2011.

There is something not right in this post. It has, I notice, been generating a number of views and it is only justified if I update my view. Yes, Gill can be classified as having committed incest. Yes, he also had bestial sex. As such he would be condemned in our world. And, indeed, had it been known what he was doing to his own children in the 1920s I don’t think any right minded person would have given him comfort, me certainly. I don’t give him comfort now. Let me make that clear. I do not bypass these events and say, “well, he was a fine typographer, a good stone carver, a passable sculptor so let it be”. Do we give him the benefit, do we, like Catholics, which he was, pass this by? No. So we have to acknowledge the fact and respond in our own way. I would much appreciate comment on this: what do you think?

This is the text of the original post – please read in light of above.


I’ve been mulling this question over for some weeks now in my mind since an earlier post. Clearly Gill had sex with his own daughters – it is well documented. Does this make him, in the terms of the British tabloid press, ‘a monster’?


I finally came across what I had been searching for today – the obituary for Petra Tegetmeir. She died on January 1, 1999, age 92. By the accounts written she lived a full, happy and rich life. This is by Patrick Nuttgens from the Guardian. (Nuttgens a stained glass craftsman lived near Gill in Pigotts.)

“Gill introduced Betty [older sister] and Petra to the mysteries of sex and recorded the occasions in his diaries. A remarkable aspect of those liaisons with Petra is that she seems not only to have been undamaged by the experience, but to have become the most calm, reflective and straightforward wife and mother. When I asked her about it shortly before her 90th birthday, she assured me that she was not at all embarrassed – ‘We just took it for granted’. She agreed that had she gone to school [the children were taught at home by their father] she might have learned how unconventional her father’s behaviour was. He had, she explained, ‘endless curiosity about sex’. His bed companions were not only family but domestic helpers and even (to my astonishment when I heard about it) the teacher who ran the school at Pigotts.”

Then this by Lottie Hoare, published in the Independent.

“When Fiona MacCarthy’s biography Eric Gill (1989) revealed from the evidence of Gill’s diaries, his sexual relations with his two eldest daughters Petra remained unflappable in the face of media furore. She made it clear that her own attitude to sex had not been harmed. The sisters had never been made to feel shame.”

[The illustrations are: top-Gill portrait of Petra, 1922; Gill study of Petra in a bath, 1923; and a photo taken at Ditchling with Gill, centre, and Petra to his left.)

By John Pitt

Artist and Creative

19 replies on “Eric Gill, incest and Petra Tegetmeier”

her own attitude to sex may not have been harmed, but is that to say what gill did to his daughters was okay? does her not having been harmed still make him a good person, because from my own experience of researching him, i think that knowing his private life, has ruined all enjoyment i could have got from his work.

does knowledge of the artists private life, change your opinion of the artists works, or just him?

For me, everything that came from him is tainted with his evil. I feel queasy just looking at anything he did.

“Does this make him, in the terms of the British tabloid press, ‘a monster’?”

Who cares what the British press think? Gill’s motives and actions were reprehensible. He would have been imprisoned had he been caught back then. Acting upon his lust was NEVER justifiable and never will be. The only likely reason Petra appeared “undamaged by the experience” was because her father had groomed her and conditioned her like so many paedophiles do. I’ve always been a fan of his work, but Gill’s personal life was abhorrent. Sex with your own children. No amount of argument will make what Gill did in any way acceptable. So, yes, Gill was a monster without any uncertainty.

He came to Catholicism later in life. Did he curtail his behavior after converting to Catholicism?

He didn’t ‘have sex’ with his own daughters, he sexually abused them. There is a big difference, even if grooming made it seem ‘okay’ to them. You come across as a peadophile apologist by the way. The man was a monster, and there is simply no getting away from that. No one was safe from him, no matter how ‘kindly’ he might have dressed up the abuse. I was sexually molested as a child by a trusted relative, and try every day to live my life as though it hasn’t affected me, but as life has gone on I’ve realised how deeply it changed and affected my life from that early age. The only difference between me and Petra is that talking about it in her day wasn’t done, and that is why she would have taken to the grave her true feelings on the subject. Pride, and a need to not readdress the past would have meant she no doubt put an extremely brave face on it. Abuse has been proven to be damaging…it even has been proven to change parts of the brain so that there is a heightened awareness about safety to the point of paranoia. Please don’t play it down for your own agenda.

Thanks Emma for your comment. I agree absolutely and I hope others will read your post. Eric Gill was a monster. Full stop.

He was featured on a television programme last night and his biographer, Fiona MacCarthy made a big thing about separating the art from the man and what a great artist he was. This was a man who repeatedly sodomised his own daughters. Maccarthy has the moral sense of a wood louse.

I did not see the programme but from what you say I agree. Gill was an abuser. There can be no apology.

Is it possible that TV programme may be in the internet? Can you send me a link if so. Many thanks. John

Petra’s abuse was revealed in her 80s. My own experience of familial sexual abuse (see note in last paragraph) is that it is far easier to genuinely be, or appear to be, self-possessed or impassive with the distance of time. Especially when the abuser is dead. The elderly and middle-aged women that I know of who in their latter years acknowledged instances of sexually abuse, date-rape or rape, had gone on with their lives and pushed it out of their minds, because especially then, there was no alternative. The widespread view was “least said, soonest mended”. To raise it with family or outside the home meant you were likely to become persona non grata. People simply didn’t want to know.

If Petra had been asked how she would have felt if it was one of her four daughters or two sons being used for Gill’s sexual curiosity and pleasure, then I think it would give a better inkling of her true feelings or understanding of the situation with hindsight – rather than appearing “unflappable” or “not at all embarrassed” to the reporters or commentators cited.

Eric Gill sounds was opportunistic sexual abuser who maltreated his vulnerable and trusting daughters purely to satisfy his own narcissistic gratification. Petra acknowledges by her responses (above) that she was isolated and in a household dominated by her father’s own interests and sense of self-importance above all others. He impoverished and neglected his children, moving them to an isolated locale, to further his own sense of self-importance. While his women dealt with the drudgery of keeping the household fed and warm. No doubt he made certain to not inform his daughters of the taboo attached to his behaviour lest they question it. Uninformed and trapped unawares, they were sexually and psychologically abused. She may not have recollected shame over 60 years later, but I am sure she felt exploited – and horror at the thought of the same thing happening to her own children. I pity her… this is her legacy now. As for Eric Gill, he deserves his sullied reputation.

(It should be noted her that a quarter of girls and up to one eighth of boys are likely to experience a form of child sexual abuse in Western societies. It is thought to be probably higher in the Mid East, Africa, South America and Far East, because of more retrogressive religious and social norms, poverty, higher levels of child exploitation, and lower recognition levels of human rights.)

Thank you for your considered and reasoned response. I qualified as a social worker a few years ago and now work in child protection in Australia (typography being one of my outside passions). This country set up a Royal Commission on institutional child sexual abuse (see here which has brought to light the horrors and tragedies of young people (now middle age and older adults) who were assaulted while, often, in the care of the ‘church’. Only this week a former Marist Brother was jailed for his crimes ( Yet as a social worker I am still presented with awful stories of children who have been abused, often by family members. Do not give up the cause. Thank you.

Reading about gill reminds me of the leaders of cults like Jim Jones who killed his congregation in jungles of south America . He too indulged in sexual abuse of women children . It seems to me that eric gill was a very disturbed individual . He had incestuous relations with two sisters then abused two of his three daughters . He was no doubt an accomplished artist and in some of his work you can see how his obsession with sex is expressed in his work . He was obviously very disturbed mentally and more than likely came from generational abuse where it was normalised . It’s hard to look at some of his work and not wonder at how obsessed he was with sex and the human pens . I wonder if he could have been helped with psychotherapy to overcome his perversions if he had acknowledged his problems or been forced to accept help . A very frightening man in that he used his undoubted talent as an artist and the power it gave him to coerce groom use abuse his daughters and no doubt many others around him ……a narcissisiic sexual predator with his own cult following .

Any father who conducts and forensically records the sexual experiments he carried out on his daughters (and family dog) is a sexual deviant. The dependant children of such a parent, children who cant refuse taking part, have no choice but to cope or die. This man seems to have been a narcissistic egocentric deviant. That knowledge is always at the forefront of my mind when viewing his work which, frankly, I can live without and not feel my cultural life is diminished

Thank you Kay. Your observations are accurate and it is to be hoped that cultural history will be rewritten.

So what that Petra did not feel shame and later had a good life? She survived and coped with abuse. That doesn’t make non consensual sex with one’s own child harmless. I’m disgusted that The Guardian would imply that molesting your daughter is okay if she turns out fine. I’m horrified they describe child abuse as initiation into sexual mysteries. Petra thought getting screwed by her dad was normal. That doesn’t make it okay nor harmless, it just means she didn’t know she deserved better.

Gill exposed his penis to visiting children and house servants. He had sex with them. These were not people with equal power, not people who could consent. Petra writes some visiting girls would hide upstairs when they came to her house. She thought it was because she wore homemade clothes when she was a kid. No, they were probably hiding from the pedo who wrote about showing his dick to kids. One such girl later wrote this put her off marriage.

Abusers groom children to think abuse is normal and loving. They hide and they isolate. They often don’t need to use physical force because their target is already at a huge power disadvantage and wants to trust and obey them. The children often have emotional attachment to their abusers, especially parents. Children need attachment and abusers twist and use this. Petra is entitled to process her experience however she wants but The Guardian should not have written about abuse as though it were just fine. I hope Petra’s children were not molested when she brought them to visit Gill but I’ll be surprised if they weren’t. Abused kids still want to love and trust their abusers sometimes because they have a need for connection. That doesn’t make the abuse nor a continued relationship healthy nor good. Some survivors minimize or forget fear or pain or betrayal so they can cope. That doesn’t make abuse okay.

I know this post is nine years old. We still allow abusers to hide. We still refer to grooming and abuse as a “relationship” instead of abuse. We still are blind to harm if there isn’t obvious physical violence. We still expect survivors to pray at stations of the cross carved by an abuser because art trumps human suffering. We still exhibit erotic prints of Petra made by her molester when she was not an adult. A photo on a computer would get someone arrested for distributing images of abuse and exploitation but Petra says she’s fine now and her abuser’s a famous artist so it’s totes okay.

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