Mad Englishmen and dogs
“‘Bath and slept with Gladys,’ runs one entry in the diary. Such Gill family intimacies seem routine, a habit. A few weeks later there are more surprising entries; ‘Expt. [experiment] with dog in eve’ [the rest has been obliterated]. Then, five days later, ‘Bath. Continued experiment with dog after and discovered that a dog will join with a man’”
Fiona MacCarthy quoting the diaries of Eric Gill from November and December of 1929, in her eponymous biography. Gladys was Eric’s sister.
This post is a companion of sorts to the enduringly popular one I did on Adoxoblog about James Joyce and the extremely explicit letters he wrote to the magnificently monickered Nora Barnacle. There’s something quite joyous, delightful and possibly even endearing in the way Joyce talks very dirty and explains his wild fantasies of giving it to his Mrs up the wrong ‘un, with her full and equally enthusiastic consent. There’s a good reason why so many people find the letters so arousing, or funny, or both.
The same cannot be said of what the sculptor and typographer Eric Gill (1882-1940) was up to in roughly the same period, as revealed in Fiona MacCarthy’s biography of him. It involves incest, paedophilia, bestiality and extremely hypocritical claims to Catholic piety, so if these things are triggering to you and the quote above is already more than enough, then be warned that it only gets worse and don’t click to read the whole post. Strong language, upsetting scenes, etc.
Gill’s design influence can still be felt all over the world, and of course even more so in his native Britain. Gill Sans remains well known in all kinds of applications, including the iconic Penguin books typography, as a standard digital font installed on many computers, and in the modern BBC logo. His carvings also still adorn the Deco parts of the BBC’s headquarters at the end of Regent Street in London; a particular irony given the recent revelations that the BBC in the 1970s was a kind of free-wheeling paedotopia where a clique of light entertainment sexual predators were well-known within the corporation and for the most part tolerated because boys will be boys. The sculpture is undeniably lovely– inspired by The Tempest, the carvings of Ariel in turn inspired the title of the BBC’s in-house newsletter– but herein lies part of the problem, once you know what he got up to and how closely his artwork is tied to the sexual abuse of children and animals. As MacCarthy aptly puts it in a Guardian article about working on the biography:
“Having read Gill’s own account of his experimental sexual connections with his dog in a later craft community at Pigotts near High Wycombe, his woodcut The Hound of St Dominic develops some distinctly disconcerting features.”
Magus of Locks: Paracelsus, Renaissance polymath. Magus of Wheels: Pancho Villa, Mexican revolutionary. Magus of Stars: (Sigmund) Freud, psychoanalyst. Magus of Flames: Novalis (Georg von Hardenburg), Romantic/mystical poet and writer.
Le jeu de Marseille is a Surrealist variation on the conventional deck of playing cards. It was created by a group of artistic refugees awaiting evacuation from France in late 1940. The group included André Breton, André Masson and Max Ernst. While they waited in Marseille (hence the name) for their exit visas, one of the ways they took their overactive minds off of the matter at hand– apart from drinking– was to reconfigure the traditional card game using icons more suited to the Surrealist mindset.
The four suits became black locks (representing knowledge), black stars (dreams), red wheels (revolution) and red flames (love). The court cards were transformed into Maguses, Sirens and Geniuses. I don’t know whether it’s odd or deliberate that these people were mostly Frenchmen fleeing the Nazis and yet their replacement for the court is heavy on the Germans.
I think I first read a passing reference to le jeu de Marseille in a book about the structuralist literary micro-genre of Oulippo. As with all of my HD detritus posts, I no longer have much recollection of why I collected as many images of the cards as possible, even though I did it as recently as 2010.
Siren of Locks: Hélène Smith, medium and automatic writer. Siren of Wheels: ?, perhaps Elise von Lämel the Jewish-Austrian philanthropist. Siren of Stars: Alice (Liddell, of Wonderland). Siren of Flames: “The Portuguese Nun”.
In July I visited Orford Ness, the former military testing site on the Suffolk coast. In the 1930s it was one of the places where the technology that became known as RADAR (RAdio Detection And Ranging, now normalised as an actual word, “radar”) was developed, then it was a base for the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment, and finally it was a powerful radio installation responsible until 2012 for broadcasting the BBC World Service to Europe. It’s now owned by the National Trust. Access is severely restricted and visitor numbers are strictly controlled because of the danger from unexploded ordinance, and to protect an extremely rare and fragile habitat of vegetated shingle. It’s also situated on a long spit that has to be accessed by boat. As you’ll see from the pictures, probably the only way to describe it if you’ve not been there is as a kind of temperate maritime desert. I was there on an extremely rare hot, dry and sunny day when you could walk around without being blown over sideways. Not much can live on the Ness permanently. Despite growing up not far away from Orford, and living in the vicinity on and off over the years, the inaccessibility and isolation of the place plus the fact that I don’t have a car had always conspired to keep me away from a place that I found fascinating. Continue Reading
Awkwaaaaaaard… ‘Robert Louis Stevenson and His Wife’ by John Singer Sargent, 1885.
John Singer Sargent painted Robert Louis Stevenson three times, but never so oddly as he did in this picture that also (half) includes Stevenson’s wife, Fanny Van de Grift Osbourne, while decisively excluding and marginalising her. Stevenson wrote of the painting:
“… too eccentric to be exhibited. I am at one extreme corner; my wife, in this wild dress, and looking like a ghost, is at the extreme other end… all this is touched in lovely, with that witty touch of Sargent’s; but of course, it looks dam [sic] queer as a whole.”
Stevenson had also once told a friend that his marriage to Fanny had left him “as limp as a lady’s novel”, and it seems Sargent agreed. He painted Stevenson as an awkward prisoner in his own home, “the caged animal lecturing about the foreign specimen in the corner.”1 Fanny’s view of the painting or of Sargent calling her a “foreign specimen” seems to be unrecorded, but I think it’s safe to guess that her first sight of this painting was probably a bit awkward and left poor Louis with some explaining to do.
The strange case of Mr Stevenson and Mr Hyde
It was around the time of this painting that Stevenson came up with his most famous and enduring work, Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. He apparently did so while delirious and bed-ridden, although most likely not while completely whacked out on drugs as has sometimes been suggested. We’ll probably never know for sure, but it certainly seems that in his delirium Stevenson inadvertently outed himself in ways that Sargent already understood but Stevenson possibly didn’t, otherwise he wouldn’t have allowed Jekyll and Hyde to be published at all. This painting certainly portrays several memorable and salient features of the story: there is schizoid compartmentalisation, visually it recalls the dirty, neglected back door “with no knocker” that only Hyde ever uses (no, Louis, I don’t think you need to be any more obvious), and its staging evokes a sense of profound alienation from domesticated heteronormative life.