What is it about artists that causes them to behave badly? A case in point is Eric Gill, the great sculptor and calligrapher. He is the subject of an exhibition, Eric Gill: The Body, running until September at the Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft.
The museum addresses the scandal about Gill head-on. It informs visitors that Ditchling in East Sussex was “a place of great innovation and creativity for the artist, but also the village in which he sexually abused two of his teenage daughters”.
At Ditchling, Gill and his pupil David Jones set up the Guild of St Joseph and St Dominic, their ideal Catholic arts and crafts community. According to Gill’s biographer Fiona MacCarthy, he became a Catholic in 1913 because he was seeking a stricter moral authority; the Church of England was too easygoing.
He needed it, because his voracious sexual behaviour (which also included a long-term affair with his sister, general adultery and “experiments” with his dog) was already well entrenched by then.
He recorded it all in his diaries, at one point writing: “This must stop.” As a lay Dominican, he took to wearing the girdle of chastity. “Much good it did him,” said a friend.
Outwardly Gill was pursuing his ideal of an integrated life of devout simplicity, set apart from the mechanised modern world, in which “life and work and love and the bringing up of a family and clothes and social virtues and food and houses and games and songs and books should all be in the soup together”.
His image as a craftsman-saint – one visitor to Ditchling reported actually seeing a halo around his head – was startlingly at variance with the private reality which MacCarthy, in her brilliant 1989 biography, describes as “sexual anarchy”. He was not a hypocrite, she insists: Gill simply “took the rules on board … then allowed himself to break them”.
Nor was he a monster. The picture is more complicated than that. His daughter Petra said she was unharmed by her father’s attentions. She lived a happy life, married the engraver and former Trappist monk Denis Tegetmeier, had six children, and died aged 92.
What would you put in their place if you took down his beautiful Stations of the Cross at Westminster Cathedral, as some campaigners have demanded? Which artist’s life is free of blemish?
Artists are undoubtedly prone to selfishness – think of self-seeking “geniuses” like Dylan Thomas. His wife, Caitlin, remembered how she “would fill the bath for him and put out his sweets – dolly mixtures, boiled sweets, humbugs – and pickled onions and savoury things in little saucers, which I used to lay across the soap tray, always with a bottle of fizzy lemonade beside the bath”.
Augustus John was another one. I have just read a very sad new book, The Good Bohemian (edited by Rebecca John and Michael Holroyd). It’s the letters of Augustus John’s wife, Ida, starting in the 1890s. They trace the story of her doomed life in a ménage à trois with the artist and his lover, a mysterious art-world groupie called Dorelia.
Ida worships John. With his earrings and fondness for gypsies, he seems to her a romantic rebel. But he treats her with casual selfishness. He coaxes her to invite Dorelia to join them at their house in Essex, with a caravan and a horse in the garden, plus cats, canaries, piebald pigs and a parrot that swears in Romany.
She bears John’s children, one after another; then, so too does Dorelia. Ida’s parents are appalled, though they stick with her, and Augustus makes Ida’s mother laugh. Her young sister Ursula calls the arrangement “unclean”. Ida puts on a brave face, but glimpses of depression and tension break through; a postscript to one of her letters says simply: “Men must play & women must weep.”
She turns defensive about all the medicine she’s taking – phenacetin and laudanum, and cautions a friend: “[Do] not bother me any more to know ‘where Dorelia sleeps’. You know we are not a conventional family.”
One of the most poignant letters is an update on the imminent arrival of her fifth child in March 1907. It begins: “Dear Mum, No news!” and requests toys, “bricks and strong trains or motor cars”. On the 9th she gives birth to a son, Henry. By the 14th she is dead, aged 30, of puerperal fever and peritonitis.
Augustus John was Ida’s “child genius”, “a horrid beast & a lazy wretch & a sky blue angel & an eagle of the ranges”. His creative gifts, and his charm, gave him special status, a licence to do whatever he wanted, however hurtful.
Kingsley Amis knew about this. “All artists are egotists,” he observed. “Hereabouts someone often pleads that the egotism is needed to get the art into being and is therefore worthwhile, though the relevant wives and husbands are not often consulted on this point.”
Andrew M Brown is obituaries editor of the Daily Telegraph
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