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.
eric gill History of Lettering Thoughts on lettering

On the other side of fame: a life more ordinary: MacDonald Gill, younger brother of Eric

This blog would not have been written (at least not yet) had I not had cause to pull a Ward Lock & Co guide to London from my bookshelf. It is the 42nd edition and while undated must be around the early 1920s. 

While looking for a reference (to Rodin’s The Burghers of Calais sculpture in Victoria Gardens), I came across a London Underground map tipped in. In the bottom left corner is the name MacDonald Gill (look closely at the image lower down – the lettering is all by hand). What, I thought, who is this, having forgotten all I once knew on the Gill clan.

MacDonald (also Max) was himself a letterer, craftsman and rather ‘ordinary’. This from Fiona MacCarthy’s biography (Faber and Faber, 1989, but quoting from the paperback edition of 1990, p255): ‘He too had a reputation as a letterer, had been a member of the War Graves Commission Committee and designed a standard headstone for the British Army dead of the First World War. He had specialised in decorative graphics…Compared with Eric he operated on the artistic middle ground. He was the sort of artist his father understood. Moreover, he was married (though not happily) to the daughter of a canon, whom he left eventually for the daughter of Edward Johnston. Eric’s father made it clear, from early days, that he would like it if Eric could be more ordinary, more like Max’.

And so a man’s life is written.

This picture of him is taken from that same book, dated 1930. (The extract is also the only decent mention of the man, and I have found nothing else in my collection of Gill, so far – I’d be pleased to hear from readers if they know more about Max.)

Separately, it is clear how revolutionary Pick’s map was when it was published in 1931.

PS – thanks to Michael Barker for alerting me to the fact Max was a younger brother of Eric – born 6 Oct 1884, to EG’s 22 Feb 1882. The index in McCarthy’s 1990 pbk edition is in error, but I should have taken more care.

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.)

eric gill

Shocking World of Eric Gill! Shocking! Shocked!

In 1989 Fiona MacCarthy’s biography of Gill was published. It became immediately notorious in the British press for highlighting some of Gill’s sexual preferences, as well as incest with his daughters. This cover is from the magazine to the Independent newspaper, then one of the best papers in the UK. Sadly it has sunk to nothing more than a tabloid gossip sheet. The drawing  is a self-portrait and comes in a letter he wrote to daughter Betty from Army camp, August 1915.

As MacCarthy writes in the article: “Sexual energy spilled over into everything he [Gill] touched.” She records that Gill kept meticulous diaries and it is only in these that the real Gill is revealed, since his Autobiography is, she says, ‘charmingly misleading’.

A full copy of the Independent article is available as a PDF on request.