“Letters are things, not pictures of things.” – Eric Gill
Known for the commercially successful and classic typefaces, “Gill Sans” and “Perpetua”, Eric Arthur Rowton Gill was also a successful sculptor, engraver, illustrator, and essayist. Gill was born Februrary 22, 1882 in Brighton, Sussex. He died November 17, 1940.
Gill spent two years in an art school in Chichester and in 1899 was articled to a London architect; in 1902 he turned to letter carving after studying in his spare time at the new Central School of Arts and Crafts with Edward Johnston, a pioneer in the revival of lettering. From then until 1910, he worked as a carver of tombstones, although by 1909 he had turned to figure sculpture. “Mother and Child” (1912) brought him public notice. Sometime after his marriage to Ethel Moore, Gill and his family moved to an artist’s community in Ditchling, Sussex where he continued to expand his artistic endeavours to include sculpture, printing, and typography.
After 1912 his success as a sculptor was established, and he inspired an English revival of direct carving in stone rather than using preparatory clay models. He carved the “Stations of the Cross” for Westminster Cathedral (1914–18), London; these bas-reliefs and his famous torso “Mankind” (1928) were cut in Hoptonwood stone, which he helped make fashionable in the 1920s and ‘30s. Other major commissions included the relief “Prospero and Ariel” over the main entrance of Broadcasting House, London (1931), and the three bas-reliefs entitled “The Creation of Adam” (1935–38) in the lobby of the council hall of the Palace of Nations at Geneva. The illustration above is at the BBC London Broadcasting House, depicting “Ariel between Wisdom and Gaiety” (1932); Ariel listening to voice and music, and seemingly broadcasting the music to the world through his outstretched arms.
In 1914 he met typographer Stanley Morison. He and Douglas Pepler founded St. Dominic’s Press in 1915. Gill contributed wood engravings and lettering for the press and also began his provocative writings on the relationship of religion to the workman and to art. By 1924 Gill was in Wales where he soon produced the Perpetua font for Morison and the Monotype Corporation, based on the classic Roman lettering of the Trajan column. Gill Sans followed in 1928. It was based on lettering by Edward Johnston who designed signage for the London Underground. Soon after he moved once again, this time to Pigotts outside London where in the early 1930s he set up a private printing press ‘Hague and Gill’ in his home, with his son-in-law René Hague.
Published in his own press in 1931, Gill’s controversial “An Essay on Typography” combined views on typography with his personal view of morality, industrialism, creativity, and craftsmanship. In Gill’s mind there was a distinct line between the work of the individual (fine craftsmanship) and the mechanised, assembly line work of the industrial age, which mass-produces objects for widespread consumption. The book is also of interest for the quirkiness of its typesetting, with this feature noted by many reviewers.
Among Gill’s views on typography was his objection to fully-justified text. He felt that the even line lengths weren’t enough to make up for the uneven word and character spacing necessary to create those matched up line lengths. Other typefaces by Eric Gill are, Golden Cockerel Roman (1929), Perpetua Greek (1929) Solus (1929), Joanna (1930), Aries (1932), Gill Floriated Capitals (1932), Bunyan (1934), Jubilee (= Cunard 1934), Pilgrim (1953).
In addition to his type designs and sculptures, Gill is known for his contributions to book design and illustration, most notably “The Four Gospels”, which he illustrated beautifully. A deeply religious man, Gill nevertheless led a somewhat unconventional and alternative, often monastic lifestyle, including taking on many lovers and producing erotic engravings. However, he is still best remembered for his contributions to the arts and design. Gill was made an associate of the Royal Academy in 1937 and of the Royal Society of British Sculptors in 1938. His books include “Christianity and Art” (1927), “Work and Property” (1937), and “Autobiography” (1940).