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eric gill lettering, typography, alphabets, stonework Thoughts on lettering

Fiona MacCarthy vale

I was saddened to hear the news of FM’s passing,  not that I met her face-to-face.

Eric Gill and Fiona MacCarthy
Paperback version of Eric Gill by Fiona MacCarthy

I bought a copy of the Gill biography when it was issued in paperback in 1990. [The hardback came out a year earlier and was reprinted three times.]

However, I can record a connection with FM, through correspondence in May 1990, which are included within the biography just pulled from my library shelves.

She was living at The Round Building, Sheffield and I had sent a letter to her publishers, Faber&Faber in London about some project I was then conceiving. [I do not have my letter sent.]  I never took up her advice – though I may have written to Michael Richey, as she gave his address. I will report back.

Letter from Fiona MacCarthy
Letters received, typewritten, from Fiona MacCarthy in response to my letter.
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eric gill Thoughts on lettering

In honour of a decade: a legacy begins

In November 2020 this blog celebrates a decade. I’m aware that in recent years I’ve not been as active as before – perhaps this is age or is it laziness? Probably a combination of both.

However.

However, over the coming months I will add to the collection as well as re-post some articles I consider still hold up interest. If you disagree, let me know. This is the age of communication and commentary and interactivity after all.

So the first is….my visit to Pigotts.  An interesting choice given my abhorrence and moral disgust of the man, yet these are pictures you will find no where else. And taken on a Pentax ME Super with Ilford HP5 film.

Yes, I was naive and I cannot offer apologies enough to his victims – his family and the many others who were lured into posing for him. Eric Gill was a serial paedophile. Period.

Do not use or recommend Gill Sans or any other of his typefaces. Period.

 

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eric gill Thoughts on lettering typographers

‘The great thing about printing is it should be invisible’ – Beatrice Warde

Beatrice Warde was, by all accounts, a formidable woman. Typographic expert, friend and lover of Stanley Morison, a woman in a man’s world, Beatrice gave it as she saw it.

beatrice warde woodcut EG
Beatrice Warde woodcut by Eric Gill, 1926 [second state]
beatrice wardeBorn in the USA in 1900 [her mum was a literary critic, dad a composer], she moved to Europe to pursue her typographic career after learning her trade from Henry Lewis Bullen.

Now there’s another story. Mr Bullen [1857-1938] was born here in Australia [Ballarat], before emigrating to the States in 1875, ending up creating one of the greatest typographic libraries for the American Type Founders Co. [This is now with Columbia University.]

Back to Beatrice. She posed for Eric Gill [was one of his 25 Nudes, though which of the rather stylised cuts is unclear], caused Stanley to end his marriage, he spent the rest of his life in celibacy [being Catholic] and she became champion of the ‘traditionalist’ form.

John Dreyfus wrote this of Beatrice in the Penrose Annual [1970]: ‘She was a strikingly handsome woman…If she had wished, she could easily have built up her

beatrice warde by eric gill
Beatrice Warde in characteristic portrait by Eric Gill

reputation on charm alone. But her mind was too questing and honest to avoid intellectual problems. She thought out everything for herself and never lacked the courage to do what she thought needful’. There writes a man. [By the by, the 1970 Penrose  has a cover design by David Kindersley.]

If you’d like to listen to Beatrice, speaking in Adelaide, Australia in 1959, go here to the amazing Typeradio [I found it through the equally amazing Eye magazine].

PS – anyone want to write a biography of Beatrice? It’s well overdue.

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eric gill Thoughts on lettering

Eric Gill: artist and abuser

I have written at some length on this blog over the years about the man known as Eric Gill. [See here and here and here for example – there are others too.] I am motivated to add to the already swollen record by an article in The Observer of London by Rachel Cook headlined Eric Gill: can we separate the artist from the abuser? I recommend you follow this link and read the (very long) essay.

To clear up one point. Cooke writes: ‘Eric Gill, long dead and widely considered to be one of the greatest and most influential British artists of the 20th century…’.

Who considers this statement to be true? What is the source for this assertion? Gill was and never will be considered ‘one of the greatest and most influential British artists of the 20th century’. In my opinion, Gill was a sculptor of repetitive talents; however, Gill was a fine letter-carver and useful typographer.

He was also a paedophile, as I have stated in the past. My conflict is that I was heavily influenced by his work as a stonemason, letter-carver and for a long period of time actually sourced his material and went on a sort of pilgrimage to Pigotts [see here].

I will not be able to visit the new exhibition at Ditchling – for those in the UK who can please do and please comment here on your thoughts/reactions. Many artists, perhaps the majority, do, as one observes at the end of Cooke’s essay, have a  ‘…libidinous drive…’ and this charges their work – think of Lucian Freud for instance. But this is no excuse for the man Gill.

In Gill’s singular case I argue that, no, it is not possible to separate artist from abuser, neither should we. Yes, there needs to be full transparency in the Ditchling exhibition; and yes, young adults, do need to be told of his incestuous relationships and be told his daughters, and others, were victims (please don’t dodge this by using the politically correct ‘those who experienced abuse’) of his abuse.

Your comments welcome.

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eric gill Thoughts on lettering typographers

In Conversation with Eric Gill

I present a piece of fiction written two years ago. On re-reading I have concerns about the ending, but I leave it without self-censorship: that is what I wrote then, so be it. This blog has made it quite clear my view on Gill and his legacy in light of sexual abuse of children, noting that most sexual abuse happens within the confines of the family unit. Gill was a serial abuser, of that there can be no doubt. [See here for a previous blog on my view of this man.]

In conversation with Eric Gill, Catholic Englishman

It is mid afternoon, that time when you push through the hours in anticipation of the end of the working day. But when you don’t work there is no relief against the empty hours.  I sit alone in one of those concrete shelters on the promenade local councils were once so fond of erecting: a civic contribution to the general wellbeing of the community, a public sanctuary protected from the weather. Protected too from observation, where clandestine rendevous can be arranged. Spies, maybe, to exchange secrets (how thrilling); lovers to furtively enjoy one another (how erotic); older couples to sit silently starring out to sea, their minds blank to the inadequacy of their relationship even if their hands are joined (how melancholy).  A shame then that each shelter has a sharp smell of urine and is decorated, if that’s the word, with spray can graffiti. Tags, that’s the word I was searching for. Am I losing it, my wits not as sharp, my synapses – a word I can remember having heard it on the radio this morning – not firing so easily? I am as old as Dante and, I think, my best could be behind me now.

Of the shelters along the sea front I prefer this one since it’s the furthest from town. Too far for families with young children, too distant for the old and infirm for whom this part of the coast attracts with the same hidden force a magnet does metal, and beyond the range of visitors whose time limits them to those gaudy pleasures clustered about the now abandoned and derelict pier: fish and chip shops, shell fish counters, ice cream parlours, candy floss; arcades pumping out music and bedazzling the eye with flashing lights; shops selling last year’s desirables at knockdown prices; and, amid all this trash, a pub dating to the seventeenth century and still displaying its architectural heritage for anyone caring to observe, yet preferring to hide its charms behind contemporary adornments: always-on-TVs broadcasting sport, juke boxes, ‘eat as much as you can’ buffet. These places entice and capture most of those who might choose instead to walk the mile or so to my hiding place, and for the few who do make it this far (locals exercising either themselves or their dogs, in rare cases doing both simultaneously) the sight of me brooding alone is sufficient to cause them to quicken their step, to call their pet to heel, to turn quickly in case our eyes might meet. It’s as if I carry a sign of unwelcome or there is in the air a pestilence that compels strangers to flee. Or perhaps it is just the sharp smell of urine that makes them scamper.

Yet today will be unlike every other day for today I will meet Eric. We met yesterday when our paths crossed, quite literally, at the train station though the more I think about it the less I believe it was chance. For what is chance but our laziness to recognise a pattern in all that happens in our lives. He had emerged from the footplate amid steam rising from the boiler. He was laughing and clearly in high spirits, cracking a final joke with the fireman with whom he had shared the journey. He had the demeanour of a boy and seemed to skip away from the locomotive with a lightness of foot that is without care or consequence. I watched as he adjusted his glasses, removed the cloth flat cap he was wearing, slapped it against his thigh to remove any lingering soot ash, replaced it and nodded to young couple passing just then, his eyes fixed, one might say penetrating the woman’s clothing as in his mind he began to sketch her naked. He was, after all, an artist. I think she understood for she looked behind to receive his smiling invitation. Eric, I thought, you are no different from what I imagine you to have been. As the woman’s male friend dragged her away (she complaining) his attention turned to me. ‘Are you really going to say something?’ I thought. His course was set. It was inevitable we met.

Eric Gill, he said.

I know.

You know me?

I was once a fan of yours.

Fan?

I mean I was once a letter carver like you.

You made a living at it?

Not really.

Then you cannot call yourself…

I don’t.

What are you?

What am I?

Are you deaf? What is your occupation?’

I do many things.

Any of them well?

I think so.

What? What in particular do you do well?

I listen.

That’s it?

Isn’t that enough?

You are asking me that?

Who are you to judge?

Considering this he lit a cigarette.

I will see you tomorrow, he said and walked away.

I watched until he vanished amid a circle of dancing children.

*

I smell the cigarette before I see him.

You’re late, I say.

He sits close, our thighs almost touching, and crosses his legs. He wears something like a kilt and grey woollen socks come just below the knee. He adjusts them, a band behind the turndown needing to be slackened. In the burnished shine of his brown leather shoes I see clouds reflected. The cigarette smoulders at the end of a long mottled Bakelite holder. He looks out to sea then closes his eyes.

Do you believe them? he asks.

Without hesitation or reflection I answer. It is what I have waited to say.

What you did was vile. It was unconscienceable. I don’t know how you were able to live with yourself knowing you had violated your own. If then it was not a crime, today you would be sent away and, good riddance, Mr Gill.

But was it unholy? His eyes are open now.

How can you hide behind false gods?

I am off track already, my long-prepared assault on his reputation has been easily parried. It’s like he was expecting it all along, had determined to take me on at the outset without the distraction of introductions or well-mannered small talk.

My dear child, he begins. Everything we do is holy. Everything I did was promoted by that desire also to be truthful.

You fucked your own daughters, I shout.

There is no need to be vulgar. Intercourse is a beautiful partnership.

Not with your own.

Why ever not? I am surprised how orthodox you are. These taboos you speak of have been placed there by institutions keen to clamp our spirits.

I am becoming angrier. I force myself to calm down, take a moment to draw a deep breath.

Even your own fucked up religion does not tolerate incest.

Not incest, he counters, his voice rising an octave. No! It was not incest.

Then what is it?

A partnership mutually agreeable, he answers.

It sounds rehearsed as does what follows.

There was never dissent. After I had drawn and sketched her we lay together.

Then you took her every which way you liked.

I pause to allow the words find their level, attach to memories I sense are flooding his mind.

You took her and you knew she would never protest, call out, scream, tell her mother.

Mary knew, he says and his eyelids close.

Open them, I shout.

I stare at him. He focuses on mine, his glasses now reflecting the shit grey sea. Way above us a seagull cries. There is almost a thin smile of triumph moving across his face. I want to hit him but he is a shade from another place so my words must do duty.

You…you…

I hesitate. I have long thought of this moment, triumphant in my moral justification, imagining him squirming at the end of a well placed, one might say clinical demonstration of reasoned judgement. I had considered my words, prepared a mental script. I was incisive in my preparations. I’d make him seek mercy as the magnitude of his sins were revealed. But now with him here by me I cannot. My mind is blank. Everything has been deleted. This man is Eric Gill and I can’t continue for at another time I cherished him, loved him like my father even if he was dead. I feel I should apologise for my outburst. He leans forward, takes my right hand in both of his, pulls me closer.

Dear child, he says gently. Be angry. You are right. I did wrong. I was a bad man, a bad father, a bad husband to my wife. Know this though: What I did harmed no one. It was God’s gift.

 

The End – so to speak…

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eric gill Thoughts on lettering

Eric Gill and the curse of the sub-editor

A friend from London, UK, writes: “I noticed Station number X had a pair of dice (the Romans were gambling for Christ’s clothes) but that Gill did not have the correct configuration of the numbers on the die. Gill did not know that the opposite sides of the dice always add up to seven. Five is opposite to two, six is opposite to one, and four is opposite three. Ooops. The curse of the sub-editor strikes again.”

Station X at Westminster Abbey, London, UK
Station X at Westminster Cathedral, London, UK

 

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eric gill

Graham Greene on Eric Gill

Graham Greene (1904-1991) was a novelist, critic and Catholic. I read much of his work when I was younger, though not now.

Graham Greene on Eric Gill
Graham Greene on Eric Gill

I came across this volume The Lost Childhood and other essays (Eyre & Spottiswoode, London, 1951, 2nd impression) at a bookshop the other week. Pulling it from among its companions I flicked through quickly and was astonished to find an essay Greene had written on Gill. The essay is not dated or sourced (though I guess it may have first appeared in The Tablet as this is one of the periodicals noted in Acknowledgements).

You can read the entire essay (it covers but two and a bit pages) for yourself as I am reproducing it below.

Greene is dismissive of Gill, calling him ‘an artist not of the first rank’ and refers to his ‘fervent little articles on sex’. Greene may have had no idea of Gill’s perversities though he writes: ‘Eric Gill, with his beard and his biretta, his enormous outspokenness, his amorous gusto, trailing his family across the breadth of England with his chickens, cats, dogs, goats, ducks, and geese, belonged only distantly to this untraditional tradition [‘a carefully arranged disregard of conformity to national ways of thought and behaviour’]; he was an intruder – a disturbing intruder among the eccentrics’.

Maybe, after all, Greene had a whiff of the real Gill.

[This is my 401st post.]

 

Graham Greene on Eric Gill
Graham Greene on Eric Gill
Graham Greene on Eric Gill
Graham Greene on Eric Gill
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eric gill

Gill & Gill: a film

People still remain fascinated by Gill. WordPress stats reveal the posts I have written about him are the most frequently visited. As many of you know I abhor the man Eric Gill after years spent in shameful admiration of his letter carving. Were EG alive today he would face prosecution for, among other offences, child sexual abuse and incest.

That aside, recently I had an email from Louis-Jack Horton-Stephens who is making a film about two Gills – one typographers have heard, the other a guy by the name of Jack who climbed the stones his namesake carved.

Louis-Jack writes: ‘The film is a visual essay entitled ‘Gill & Gill‘ that explores humanity’s relationship with stone by juxtaposing two masters of their craft: one of rock climbing, the other of letter cutting. The film looks at the way these two very different practices, united by a common material, share basic principles such as: creativity, problem solving, dedication, muscle memory and balance. Through this unusual comparison I believe that we can come to better understand the artistry in both crafts, and in so doing reflect on humanity’s relationship with the material world.’

Louis-Jack is seeking funds to make and complete his film. If you are interested in knowing more please follow this link

 

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eric gill History of Lettering

‘Letters are things, not pictures of things’

So is quoted Eric Gill by Jan Van Krimpen, as noted in Warren Chappell’s A Short History of the Printed Word, which, for those who do not know, is a primer to Updike’s Printing Types. Okay – enough name dropping.

SHPW ChappellPut Gill’s statement (and at this juncture I do not have a source from Gill’s extensive bibliography) in context and dwell awhile on it. Chappell writes: ‘In late 1957 [blogger’s aside: coincidentally the year of my birth: read what y0u will into that – Sibelius passed that year bye the bye], the year before his death, Van Krimpen and I exchanged views on punch-cutting. He wrote that his own engraver, Helmuth Raedisch, with whom he had worked for 30 years, “has grown, alas, more and more polished”. I regretted that our postal colloquy could not have continued, for it seemed to me he must have recognised that his own tight style of working allowed little opportunity for a punch-cutter to make his particular contribution. Van Krimpen quoted Gill: “Letters are things, not pictures of things,” and it is exactly that distinction that has been sorely tried today, time and time again.’

Interested in punch-cutting? Go here for a previous blog on Edward Prince.

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lettering, typography, alphabets, stonework Thoughts on lettering typography

Robert Harling: a note

This post begins with the discovery of a copy of Image: 5  from a secondhand bookseller in Sydney, Australia last month. Robert HarlingThe issue was devoted to English wood engraving and contains many fine examples of the craft. But I Robert Harling_0001am less interested in that than in the man who edited the journal (and before that Alphabet & Image) – Robert Harling (1910 – 2008). Obituaries at the time of his passing make note of his relationship with Ian Fleming, both men sharing a passion for life and literature: Fleming secured, if that’s the right word, a job for Harling in the second world war, later using him as a character in one of his novels (The Spy Who Loved Me). Harling also turned his hand to fiction publishing several novels based on what was then Fleet Street, the centre of the newspaper industry in the UK. Later he worked with the renowned Sunday Times editor Harold Evans.

But it’s Harling as a typographer that I wish to write. He knew Eric Gill, visiting him at Pigotts (see here for a blog on that place) and commissioning articles for the precursor to Alphabet & Image, Typography. Robert Harling_0003Hence, he was a perfect fit to write that wonderful book The Letter Forms And Type Designs Of Eric Gill, published in 1976, an expanded version of pieces published first in Alphabet & Image. 

Not that Harling was an uncritical devotee. In an article printed in The Penrose Annual XXXIX (1937) he writes of Gill’s Kayo: ‘Kayo is a dismal type. In the hands of a skilful typographer it could probably be made to do a good-hearted, gargantuan job very well. In the hands of jobbing printers scattered throughout England it will be just plain MURDER. The type was originally named Double Elefans, which had a very pleasant touch of the lampoon about it. The new name, Kayo, is too horribly truthful. It will be popular from John o’Groat’s to Land’s End, but it will be a return to the popularity of the types of Thorne and Thorowgood in that grim mid-nineteenth century. Typographical historians of 2000 AD (which isn’t, after all, so very far away) will find this odd outburst in Mr Gill’s career, and will spend much time in attempting to track down this sad psychological state of his during 1936.’

Harling also designed three typefaces: Playbill, Chisel and Tea Chest Robert Harling_0004while his passion for architecture and design led him to edit  House & Garden from 1957 to 1993. A remarkable man. rsa-harling