Eric Gill: can we separate the artist from the abuser?
By Rachel Cooke
Last October, I was one of 25 delegates at a “workshop day” at the Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft, a small but beautiful gallery, whose acclaimed spaces are dedicated mostly to displays of work by Eric Gill and the many artists and makers who followed him to the Sussex village after he and his family moved there from London in 1907. Entitled Not Turning a Blind Eye, the purpose of this event was to begin a process that would in time, we were told, lead to the museum dealing “more publicly with the subject of Eric Gill as an abuser”.
I was there at the invitation of the museum’s director, Nathaniel Hepburn, who had read a column I’d once written about the vexed issue of censorship and the arts. Also present were various academics, curators and museum professionals, among them representatives from several major institutions with work by Gill in their own collections – though since all of us agreed to abide by the Chatham House rule I am unable, at this point, to name names.
The atmosphere was friendly and committed, but also subdued. My sense was – I made notes to this effect – that people were slightly uneasy. Perhaps they were worried that, for all their expertise, they did not have the right language to discuss Gill’s behaviour towards his older daughters, Betty and Petra (a sheet we were given on arrival informed us, for instance, that some organisations working in this field believe it is better to use the terminology “a person who has experienced violence” than the words “victim” or “survivor”). Or perhaps they feared how they might sound to others – hard-hearted? Politically incorrect? – were they to be anything less than sombre. Either way, they seemed rather earnest. On the few occasions when nervous laughter did bubble up, it was as if a window had been opened, the room filling briefly with what felt like a blast of clean, fresh air.
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