18 January 2022

Gill stands – but attacks on statues make us smaller, meaner and uglier


BBC bashing is something of a national pastime (just ask Nadine Dorries), but it found new expression last week when a protester scaled Broadcasting House to knock chunks off a statue with a hammer.

The perpetrator apparently objected to the depiction of Shakespeare’s Prospero and Ariel because the artist who created it, Eric Gill, was a paedophile.

This marks a new front in the war on statues – but not perhaps the one we expected. While many feared that fashionable protester movements would move from targeting statues of colonial figures like Cecil Rhodes and Edward Colston to treasured national heroes like Churchill, instead we are seeing an attack on an artist. The fact this latest incident seems to have been the work of a lone zealot, not sympathetic ‘activists’, gives us an opportunity to put ideology to one side for a moment and start thinking of statues as more than just political symbols.

Until now that’s something the art world has seemed peculiarly reluctant to do. Simon Schama, for example, wrote sympathetically about the felling of Bristol’s Colston statue, ‘It is more usually statues, lording it over civic space, which shut off debate through their invitation to reverence. It’s often only when statues are threatened that they are noticed’. In other words public art doesn’t make you think and hardly anyone even bothers looking at it anyway so what’s the point? What a sad repudiation of the entire discipline of art history.

The art critic Waldemar Januszczak also opined in a podcast that ‘in 99% of cases iconoclasm isn’t right,’ but that Colston was an example of the 1% where it’s OK. How convenient. 

What I find curious about these responses from people you might expect to defend art is the determined refusal to consider the aesthetic merits of these statues. Art derives its meaning and effect from the interplay of subject, setting, cultural context and creator – and to privilege just one of these is to only see part of the picture.

Perhaps it’s easy enough to dismiss Colston – the artist John Cassidy doesn’t enjoy much of a reputation today, and aggrandising slavers is hardly a popular pursuit. But Eric Gill is a different matter.

He was, without question, one of the most significant British artists of the 20th Century. He’s deeply embedded in our visual culture and in our institutions. It’s not just his sculptures, which presaged modernism and influenced Henry Moore with their raw, animalistic beauty – his influence extends into the Arts and Crafts movement, architecture and graphic design. He designed war memorials, including at the British Museum, Victoria and Albert Museum, New College and the town of Trumpington. He made devotional art, including the Stations of the Cross at Westminster Cathedral, which are meaningful to many Catholics. His elegant typeface Gill Sans will be familiar to anyone who’s ever seen an orange Penguin Classic, ridden the London Underground or seen a corporate communication from the BBC before October last year. 

He also had sex with his own daughters, his sisters and his dog.

So what to do with an artist whose actions were abhorrent but whose work is important?

Januszczak says elsewhere that, ‘It is not Gill’s badness as a man that limits his achievement. It’s his badness as an artist’. The implication being that an artist’s contribution to the culture can be held in a moral balance against their failings as a person – so great art can outweigh great evil.

The difficulty here is of course that art is subjective. There’s an argument to be made that Gill’s art is of a quality and significance that enables us to look beyond his abuse. That’s something about which reasonable people can disagree. But if vandals are successful in their calls for controversial art to be removed from public view such debates will be impossible – simply put, you can’t assess how good or bad art is if you can’t see it.

Trying to separate an artist from their work is, in any case, a fool’s errand. Gill clearly poured his perverse desires into his work, not least Ecstasy – currently on prominent display at Tate Britain – a sexually explicit depiction of his sister, with whom he was having an incestuous affair. Likewise, the knowledge that Caravaggio was a murderer adds to the violent realism of his work.

Wagner was an antisemite, Picasso was a misogynist, Philip Larkin was a racist. You’d have to be a peculiar sort of philistine to claim that the world would be better off without them.

Yes, different artists engage our sensitivities in different ways, and the meaning of a work changes over time. Caravaggio died centuries ago so his paintings are hardly a standing insult, whereas many people today think that Britain’s imperial history is. These are difficult questions that invite nuance, not hammer blows.

Martha Gill, Eric’s great-great niece, gave an interesting insight into how his own family feel about their disgraced relative. ‘What’s it like having a monster in the family tree?’ she wrote in The Sunday Times, ‘Gill died in 1940. If enough time passes, it’s like having another anecdote’. She went on to make the case that, ‘After years of occupying a rarefied position on the outskirts of most people’s lives, producing muted emotions as if from behind a glass case, art has returned to a place in the culture where it is engaging us viscerally. Art should provoke deep feeling — even outrage. That’s what it’s for.’ 

It’s an appealing argument, and certainly a more forgiving assessment of Gill’s legacy than you might expect from a direct descendent of those he abused. But it still rests on the idea that the most important thing about a work of art is how contemporary audiences feel about it. And doesn’t that, at least to a degree, undermine the flicker of feeling that everyone who cares about art hears somewhere deep in their heart – that the objects we love have an intrinsic value that stretches across the centuries?

The quieter emotions art can elicit are just as important. A moment’s contemplation in front of one of Gill’s war memorials, for example. Or the amusement at seeing the equestrian statue of Wellington outside Glasgow’s Gallery of Modern Art with a traffic cone on his head. There, the public have overcome what Schama calls their ‘reverence’ and made the Iron Duke a symbol of the city and its people – albeit not the symbol that was originally intended. Royal Exchange Square would be a less lovely place without it. 

Happily it does not seem that there is any realistic chance of Gill getting expunged from history – the BBC has made clear it does not intend to remove Prospero and Ariel. But the episode does illustrate how any statue can now become a target – not just for its political content, but for its artistic form. And it’s not just mallet-wielding criminals pursuing this agenda, but also headline-seeking politicians like Sadiq Khan, whose ‘Commission for Diversity in the Public Realm’ intends to interrogate every statue in London for possible offence.

This too is an assault on art. Roger Scruton said ‘beauty is an end in itself. We reach beauty through setting our interests aside and letting the world dawn on us… Through beauty, art cleans the world of our self-obsession’. Attacking statues is perhaps the ultimate form of self obsession – it’s promoting the values of your own age and political affiliations above everyone that has gone before, and it denies future generations the chance to make their own judgments. It’s the opposite of beauty – and it will leave Britain a smaller, meaner, uglier place.

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Alys Denby is Deputy Editor of CapX