By Nia Thandapani
I always enter the V&A from the tunnel entrance. As I ascend the steps to ground level and sunlight, a single imposing sculpture is positioned so that the V created by the strip lighting meets at the groin of a towering female nude. The giant headless woman kneels. No feet, no arms, no head. The powerful impact of the form lies, it seems, not in an imagined ability to rise up and walk out of the gallery, a towering giant, but rather simply her larger than life torso: neck, shoulders, back, breasts, stomach, groin, thighs.
This is not an unusual nude form, and indeed just behind it is a male nude, similarly decapitated. And there are plenty more nudes in the V&A. You can dine next to a disrobed woman attempting to cover herself with draped cloth, just around the corner in the cafe. But there is a key difference for me, when I stand in the presence of this particular form, which renders this far more troubling. This sculpture was made by Eric Gill.
Gill was an English sculptor, stone carver, typographer, and it would later be revealed, sexual abuser of his two daughters. Often characterised as an eccentric, Gill was a prolific artist, sculpting the giant Prospero and young naked Ariel, towering over the front entrance of the BBC broadcasting house, purportedly in only his painter’s smock, flashing passers by below. For graphic designers like myself he is inescapable, having designed the ever-present typeface Gill Sans, now synonymous with the nostalgic Keep Calm and Carry On, Britain at war aesthetic.
In 1907 Gill moved his family to Ditchling in Sussex, and it is here that he orchestrated a norm of family life; the sexual abuse of his daughters.
Apparently unknown during his lifetime, Gill’s abusive behaviour was revealed in 1989 in the biography Eric Gill, after author Fiona MacCarthy discovered detailed entries in Gill’s diary. Since then those involved in Gill’s work have notably resisted this reframing of the man and artist, perhaps for fear that this will come to define him above and beyond the establishment’s previous deification.
Girl in Bath
The V&A owns a number of Gill’s works which are accompanied by surprisingly little biographical context on Gill’s life. This is particularly so of ‘wood engraving – Girl in Bath’, modelled on Gill’s daughter Petra, then fourteen, during the period in which Gill’s abuse took place. For such a notable British artist’s work it is surprising that the V&A’s copy of this object has not been properly digitised whilst the Tate and The National Gallery’s copy are.
If we are to deal with Gill’s art for what it is then Girl in Bath is a good place to start. Girl in Bath is the literal objectification of a young woman who was consumable and abusable. It is a trace of this reality and as such is the materiality of that abuse. Nothing remains of the action, but Gill himself was keenly materialising his abusive role through his diaries, measurements of his daughter’s bodies, and the size of his own penis, and such drawings as Girl in Bath.
Petra claimed not to have been a victim of abuse, and this is her claim alone to make. Everyone else must, at the very least, hold Gill to the judgment that would have been levied on him at the time, not dissimilar to ours today. He would have been imprisoned.
Writing for The Guardian in 2006, MacCarthy’s characterisation of Gill’s abuse as ‘sexual adventures and experiments’ and Girl in Bath as ‘those delicate, delicious portraits of the teenage Petra’ are deeply telling of how hard it has been to re-address how we understand Gill.(1) In this article MacCarthy criticised what she called ‘contemporary hysterical responses’ to Gill’s life. A phrasing which feels not only troublingly gendered – how often do we hear men characterised as hysterical? – but also I would argue nonsensical. We are always looking through a contemporary lens to understand the past. This is what makes MacCarthy’s biography, written in 1989, telling of its time, and contemporary responses to Gill in 2019, such as the one I write now, telling of ours. Such changing responses don’t invalidate those what came before. Instead, they help us understand the relevance of history in the times we live.
What MacCarthy notably is not arguing for is the separation of the man from his art, the tired refrain often used to distance loved artworks made by problematic men, Picasso being another obvious example. Rather, MacCarthy argues that it is precisely the context of Gill’s life, which includes his abuse, that makes him interesting. Similarly what the V&A know is that it is precisely the fact that Gill, and no one else, that made his artworks, which make them historically and economically valuable. And so perhaps we see their dilemma in critiquing that which they hold dear.
In 2017 Ditchling Museum held a meeting of practitioners interacting with Gill’s work. The museum was in the planning stages of an exhibition in which it aimed to tackle the more difficult aspects of Gill’s life, ‘head on’.(2) Guardian journalist Rachel Cooke was present and noted the tentative atmosphere of the group, as they began to explore how to approach the man and artist.
The lack of recontextualising Gill for public consumption therefore, is not for a lack of trying. The ripple effect of this exhibition and meeting is almost imperceptible within other museums, and so we have to assume that the scenario we find ourselves in, ie. still no mention of Gill’s abuse in the presentation of his work, is a conscious decision by the museums which hold his work. A lack of action is perhaps not even most problematic. The Tate bought the Gill sculpture entitled ‘fucking’ in 1982. On acquisition, his crude, carnal choice of language was dropped for the more palatable and religiously inflected ‘ecstasy’, and the title has not changed since.
Gill and the V&A
Perhaps one reason that the ‘separate the man from the art’ debate refuses to disappear is that it gets to the heart of what a museum or gallery does. The V&A plays a protective, conservatory role for its collection, housing a number of national collections. It is a benchmark of value, communicating the artistic, aesthetic, and cultural values of Britain. The full narrative of Gill’s life poses a threat to the works belonging to the museum and the way in which they are valued, aesthetically, historically and economically.
The museum is also an educational space, ‘a world class visitor and learning experience’(3). A reframing of Gill would mediate new understandings of the collection. So what does the lack of contextualisation of Gill, whilst at the same time forefronting his work in the gallery space, say about the museum’s approach to audience, and providing them with the information that might prompt them to work through the questions the museum itself is grappling with?
The V&A is one of many museums in this position and its approach has ramifications for many others across the UK. The V&A needs to act now.
Another powerful refrain that plagues debates around the anti-monument movement, and which is also relevant here, is that of censorship. The idea that such an overwhelming and public critique of Gill might lead towards the censorship of art, is a potentially paralysing argument. But critique does not equal censorship. Greater context and interpretation should be the goal here, and conversely has the potential to increase visibility. Gill’s work and story has the potential to tell powerful and important stories for our time.
Many museums are inviting their public to consider the collection through frames of race, gender and sexuality. There is a criticality to these new interpretations which would well be applied to the Gill collection.
These uncomfortable truths in the V&A collection, and the story of British art and design need to be acknowledged and openly critiqued. We need new ways of contextualising Gill, that are not defensive but instead unpack how he, like so many men who abuse their power, fed this back into his work. We might ask how knowing Gill’s abuse changes our feelings towards looking at his work. How we might curate or/and display it. We might think about how this knowledge changes our understanding and value of the materiality of the work.
There are a number of ways in which the V&A could sensibly and considerately introduce greater context around Gill’s work. Alternative guides to the V&A collection are sorely needed, ones which will inevitably ask more questions than they can answer at present. This would be a brave move in authentic criticality. Coupled with more context on the V&A website, this would help us to understand how the V&A positions itself and would acknowledge that they too are grappling with difficult questions of how to frame and understand Gill’s work now. At the very least the entry for Girl in Bath, on Search the Collection, should consciously acknowledge his daughter as the life model and link readers to material which contextualises this piece.
Resisting an overwhelming redefinition of Gill as an artist-abuser, MacCarthy notes instead ‘the multifaceted life of a multi-talented and absorbingly interesting man’. MacCarthy challenges us to find other artists with a clean record that could take his place. She’s absolutely right of course, there are many more artists who have abused their power and position. And this is precisely why it is important to tell these stories.
We desperately need a new language for talking about Gill which engages with changing approaches to how we think about responsibility and holding people accountable for their actions. One in which we stop championing ‘great’ artists at all costs. Just as Gill’s vision stood out as a moment of shift in the history of British sculpture, we need a new and momentous shift in our own vision and how we contextualise his work and the work of other abusive artists.
What does the V&A’s continued silence on Gill tell its public? The gallery as it stands is simply playing a waiting game. I believe Gill’s abuse will come to define his work. The gallery can either be at the front of this important shift or become the subject of it.
Fiona MacCarthy, ‘Written in Stone’, The Guardian, (2006), www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2006/jul/22/art.art
Rachel Cooke, Eric Gill: Can we separate the artist from the abuser?’. The Observer, (2017), www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2017/apr/09/eric-gill-the-body-ditchling-exhibition-rachel-cooke
- ‘Our Mission’, V&A Museum Website, https://www.vam.ac.uk/info/about-us (Accessed 15 April 2019)
- Mankind (1927–28) by Eric Gill, at the V&A Museum. Image: Authors own.
- Girl in Bath: I (1922) by Eric Gill, at Tate Britain, https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/gill-girl-in-bath-i-p08088