LONDON - Eric Gill is known today mainly for the elegant typefaces he created in the later part of his career, most notably Gill Sans, which can be found on almost every computer in the world. Yet Gill was much more than a talented typographer. He was a sculptor, draftsman, printmaker, designer, poet, polemicist and radical thinker – the remarkable collection of books, prints, drawings and sculptures by Gill from the collection of magazine publisher Felix Dennis (offered in the English Literature, History, Children's Books and Illustrations sale in London) reveal he was one of the most influential figures in British art in the first half of the 20th century.
Eric Gill, a Group of Postcards and Photographs Relating to Eric Gill. Estimate £200–300.
It was Gill who taught Jacob Epstein how to carve, and inspired Henri Gaudier-Brzeska to pursue a career as a sculptor – and these artists in turn inspired the likes of Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth to take up direct carving in the quest for artistic truth. Unlike many ‘modernist primitives’ in the early years of the century, Gill did not look to African art, instead delighting in the sensual forms and overt eroticism of Indian temple sculpture, which instantly rendered his work controversial.
Gill's real achievement, however, is his allying of the modern and the exotic with an ancient and English vernacular. For all their Eastern promise, his work is deeply tied to a tradition that runs from medieval Nottingham alabasters through to the work of the Romantic artist-poet William Blake, a visionary with whom Gill has much in common: two men who saw the divine in the everyday and tried through their art and life to make heaven on earth.
Speaking of his remarkable collection of books, prints, drawings and sculptures by Gill, Felix Dennis, himself a man of letters with a colourful reputation, wrote: “I have been lucky enough, over the years, to amass one of the largest collections of his work still in private hands. He may have led a reprehensible private life (in truth, there is no ‘may’ about it, he most certainly did!), but as a sculptor, wood engraver, illustrator and typographer, he stands very high in the recent history of the creative arts in Britain.”
Eric Gill, Lettering (Eric Gill). Estimate £4,000–6,000.
As one of the editors and designers of the underground magazine Oz in the late 1960s, Dennis was tried for 'Conspiracy to deprave and corrupt the Morals of the Young of the Realm,' which resulted in him being thrown in jail. After his release – achieved in no small part by protest from John Lennon and legal representation from John Mortimer – he made it his life-long aim to succeed as a publisher, steering between the lines, but always supporting freedom of expression.
The works by Eric Gill that Felix Dennis collected demonstrate not only the wide range of Gill's artistry but also his social, political and spiritual beliefs; his deep love of the printed word (as both text and image); and his love of beauty as a value that is transcendent of time and place. As such, they not only represent the genius of Gill, they also perfectly encapsulate Felix Dennis’s own unalloyed passion for art and life.
Simon Hucker is a specialist in the Modern and Post-war British Art department, Sotheby’s London.
LEAD IMAGE: Eric Gill, Design for a Sculpture for the League of Nations, 1935. Estimate £3,000–5,000.