Eric Gill & his applied arts
Posted on April 22, 2016
We talk a lot in our office about the applied arts and the ways in which different branches of arts intersect, overlap and inspire each other. Having early in my life dabbled in many different artistic pursuits, I always felt guilty about it–convinced it was some proof of my inability to commit to one pursuit–I changed mediums and disciplines with the sincere hope that someday I would find the right artistic path and stay with it forever. As I grow older, and I probably should have understood this earlier, I realize that the line between different artist pursuits does not have to be a rigid one. Different disciplines of art and design compliment and expand each other in exciting ways. A great example of this is through the brilliant work of one of an English typeface designer by the name of Eric Gill.
One of my favorite typefaces Gill is Gill Sans. To many people, it may look like a fairly common modern san serif font–but there is something different about the forms of the Gill Sans; some quality which makes the clean and modern letter forms somehow traditional and timeless. This could be because the design took its influence not only from the 1916 London Underground font by Edward Johnston, but also from Roman inscriptions and classic serif typefaces; thus, making this classic typeface both modern and classical at the same time. From its introduction it was an instant classic and remains so today.
Already a fan of his type design–18 fonts in all, including Perpetua and Joanna, I was unaware that when he designed Gill Sans he was already well known as a sign-painter, sculptor, woodcutter, and a writer; as well as, being somewhat of controversial figure for his sculptures and woodcuts that were both religious and in some cases, erotic. One of the characteristics I like best about Gill’s type designs is that the letter-forms have such sculptural weightiness and proportions which I can only imagine were influenced by his amazing work with sculpture.
Gill joined the Roman Catholic Church in 1913 and worked extensively on religious commissions. He said in 1928, “All the best art is religious. Religious means according to the rule of God. All art that is godly, that is, made without concern for worldly advantage, is religious. The great religions of the world have always resulted in great artistic creation because they have helped to set man free from himself–have provided a discipline under which men can work and in which commerce is subordinated.”
In conjunction with his strong religious works, he created a body of work–often for his own pleasure–revolving around love between people, man & woman, mother and child. Influenced by Indian sculptures, including those depicting acts of love, these works seem to be trying to break out of the stone that holds them–reminding me of the way that humans try to break free of the constraints of the body in the pursuit of the spiritual.
In addition to sculpture, Gill did many woodblock prints and illustrated many texts and manuscripts.
Another interesting project Gill designed was the interiors for The Midland Hotel on the British coast. First opened in 1933, the art deco seaside destination was designed by Oliver Hill. In addition to the interiors, Gill created a stained glass ceiling window and iconic seahorses for the front of the facade.
The time feels right for me to write about Eric Gill. My grandfather just recently passed away at the age of 93, and I am preparing to celebrate his life with my family. Like Gill, he worked in many artistic mediums–architect, painter, boat designer, actor, writer, and many other things over the course of his long life. I feel inspired anew to resist the pressure to specialize in creative pursuits and revel in continually exploring with whatever I feel inspired by–knowing that the lessons learned in each medium change and expand that which is finally created and–in the case of Eric Gill–only makes the work stronger, timeless and elemental.