Eric Gill was born in Brighton and grew up in Chichester. In 1900 he began his career as a draughtsman in an architect’s office in London. In the evenings he studied masonry and lettering at the Central School of Arts and Crafts, the lettering classes taught by Edward Johnston. In 1905 Gill and Johnston moved with their families to the Arts & Crafts community in Hammersmith (a location that had proved a catalyst to previous Arts and Crafts inhabitants, including William Morris) where they also met Douglas (later Hilary) Pepler and Gill set up as an ‘inscription carver and calligrapher’.
Gill moved with his young family to Ditchling in 1907. Initially they lived in Sopers in the High Street until 1913, but then moved to Hopkins Crank on Ditchling Common in 1913 to set up a community of like-minded artists and craftspeople, and to develop experiments with self-sufficiency.
At the same time Gill and Pepler converted to Roman Catholicism. In 1914 he was commissioned to carve the Stations of the Cross at Westminster Cathedral, work which was considered important enough to exempt him from war service until its completion in 1918. He joined the Third Order of St Dominic in 1920 and, alongside Pepler and Desmond Chute, founded The Guild of St Joseph & St Dominic on the Common, which was formally constituted in 1921.
Gill gradually established himself as an eminent sculptor and wood-engraver during his time in Ditchling. He worked with Pepler in setting up St Dominic’s Press, whose work is currently celebrated in the museum’s exhibition ‘The Book Beautiful: William Morris, Hilary Pepler and the Private Press Story‘. Gill’s growing popularity soon resulted in frequent visitors and guests to Ditchling Common; eventually he became frustrated with the attention and acclaim he was receiving, and after disagreements with Pepler he resigned from the Guild in 1924. He left Ditchling the same year and ‘fled to Wales’, as he described it, to an abandoned monastery in Capel-y-ffin, and developed his typefaces Perpetua, Gill Sans, Solus, Aries and Joanna for the type foundry Monotype during the late 1920s.
Gill moved once more from Capel to Piggots in Hertfordshire in 1928. He died in 1940 aged 58 and is buried near his last home.
Gill’s sexual abuse of his daughters Betty and Petra came to light in Fiona McCarthy’s 1989 biography, which drew on his diaries as a source. Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft’s exhibition ‘Eric Gill: The Body‘ will take place 29 April – 3 September 2017; it includes a selection of his sculptures, drawings and carvings depicting the human body, and will ask audiences if the knowledge of his biography affects how we view his work.