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.”