A Quarter Gill: Twenty Five Nudes by Eric Gill

This summer, the artworks of artists Eric Gill and Robert Gibbings make up the sum parts of an exhibition titled Black White Grey: The Life & Work of Eric Gill & Robert Gibbings at the University of Otago in New Zealand. The exhibition draws several parallels between Eric Gill and Robert Gibbings: both were artists influenced by religion from a young age and members of the Society of Wood Engravers (founded 1920), producing a prolific number of wood-engravings between them. The exhibition is most interested in their book designs, including a collaborative partnership between 1925 and 1931. As part of the exhibition, the University’s Special Collections Library copy of Eric Gill’s book Twenty-Five Nudes (1938) is on display for the benefit of enthusiasts of the sculptor, stone cutter, engraver and typographer’s work down under. But if the other side of the world seems too far a distance to travel for an exhibition, a rare reprint of Twenty-Five Nudes from 1951 by publishers J.M. Dent & Sons is among GSA Library’s recently added digitised titles on the Internet Archive.

Arguably the more prolific of the two, and undoubtedly the more controversial, Eric Gill (1882-1940) produced many sculptures, wood engravings and line illustrations during his lifetime. It is, perhaps, his typefaces (Perpetua and Gill Sans) for which he is most celebrated. In An Essay on Typography (1936), Gill set out a manifesto on typography that famously argues ‘a good piece of lettering is as beautiful a thing to see as any sculpture or painted picture’. This treatise on the beauty of craftsmanship during an industrial age most closely assimilates Gill with the Arts and Crafts movement yet, remarkably, the typeface Gill Sans continues to be a popular choice for book designers today.

The Library’s copy of Twenty-five Nudes (1951) retains its scarce red and buff-coloured paper dust-jacket, showing Eric Gill’s ‘EG’ initialised monogram on the front with the beautiful detailing of three nude females on the back replicating the title page design. Aside from the simple, refined beauty of all 25 wood engravings, one detail is Gill’s design of a historiated initial for the introduction which declares the use of drawing ‘for its own sake’. In the drawing process, Gill claims that ‘The proper study of mankind is man, and this study is supposed to be chiefly a matter of having a good look’. Rather than being held up as examples of accomplished drawings, Gill’s expressive lines are instead intended to propel the reader to reconsider the craftsmanship of individual drawings as finished pieces of art rather than as a means to an end in the artistic process.

We Happy Few: An Anthology (1946) Published by The Golden Cockerel Press https://capitadiscovery.co.uk/gsa/items/80716 Image c/o Rooke Books http://www.rookebooks.com
Example of a woodcut by John O’Connor (1913-2004) that appears in We Happy Few: An Anthology (1946) published by The Golden Cockerel Press

Robert Gibbings (1889-1958) was owner of The Golden Cockerel Press (1920-1961) and published some limited edition books – usually featuring the original wood illustrations – through this major imprint. The press is largely credited with having made a significant contribution to the revival of the British tradition of wood engraving.



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