Beautiful Handwriting

Arianne Shahvisi

About six miles from my house, across the chalk Downs, is the village of Ditchling, which in the early twentieth century was home to the artists and artisans of the Arts and Crafts Movement. Central among them was the sculptor, printmaker and typeface designer Eric Gill, who is now known to have sexually abused his daughters. A selection of his work is displayed in the Ditchling Museum of Art and Craft, though the curators acknowledge the difficulties of knowing what to do with it.

Gill’s sculpture of Prospero and Ariel stands above the entrance of Broadcasting House, the headquarters of the BBC. Last week a man scaled the building and hacked at the statues with a chisel for two hours before he was stopped. Another man stood at ground level and livestreamed a tirade about paedophilia. Shayan Sardarizadeh, who reports on disinformation for BBC Monitoring, noted that the statue has long been ‘an obsession for British QAnon, “save our children”, “satanic ritual abuse” and other conspiracy groups’.

A few days earlier, the Colston Four had been cleared by a jury for their involvement in the toppling, rolling and dunking of the statue of Edward Colston in Bristol in 2020. I don’t care much for Gill’s work, but there’s an easy difference between his sculpture of Shakespearean characters and Colston’s likeness glowering over a city centre. Colston is famous only because of his part in the slave trade. A statue in his honour thereby honours that institution. Bringing down the statue repudiates colonialism. Gill is best known for his art, and also happens to have been an atrocious person. No monument should be raised to honour him, but his statues of other things are just that: statues of other things. That doesn’t mean they should stay, but it means the problem is harder.

Part of the difficulty is how to subtract Gill from his work. A wood engraving of a young woman with long hair, kneeling down naked in a tub, entitled Girl in Bath: II, is a likeness of his daughter, Petra, whom he sexually abused. It isn’t easy to look at Hound of St Dominic, a woodcut of a dog holding a flaming torch in its mouth, without thinking of the fact that Gill fucked his dog. Even for works whose subjects are further removed from his trespasses, there are other barriers to appreciation. Intrusive thoughts of the smoothing hands of the sculptor tend to ruin more or less all his work, wherever it ends up.

The Cambridge historian David Abulafia wrote an article in the Telegraph criticising the Colston Four verdict. His central point was that removing Colston’s statue (or one of Cromwell or Churchill, which he fears will be next) amounts to these figures being ‘excised’ from history. He uses the words ‘woke’ and ‘mob’. And he finishes with the worry that public squeamishness about the way people make their fortunes might scare them off philanthropy.

It’s a thin argument. There are no public statues of Hitler in the UK, though there are few people more present in our history. The actions of the Colston protesters have done more to immortalise Colston than his statue ever did. Through them, he has been granted a second, more honest run at fame. The act of bringing down a statue is itself a moment in history.

Figuring out what to do with monuments requires careful thought about what they mean and who they harm. Statues honouring egregious people tell airbrushed tales to the world; their toppling provides marginal notes on less rosy truths. Removing them is not an expurgation of history, it’s the insertion of other voices into the record, voices that have long been ignored. The more of that we can encourage, the richer the history we will leave to those who follow us.

Priyamvada Gopal, the author of Insurgent Empire, who teaches English at Cambridge, tweeted of Abulafia’s piece: ‘Few undergrads produce work this weak after the first week or so.’ She also noted that Abulafia’s description of the broadcaster David Olusoga (who spoke at the trial of the Colston Four) as ‘eloquent’ could sound dismissive: a way of trivialising the content of his important work in criticising Britain’s highly propagandised telling of history by focusing on the style of Olusoga’s delivery. (The philosopher Paul Grice famously wrote that a teacher might indirectly imply the weakness of a student by writing a reference consisting of the words: ‘He has beautiful handwriting.’) In some contexts, ‘eloquent’, like ‘articulate’, is used to mean ‘not bad for a Black person’.

In 2007, Joe Biden described Barack Obama as ‘the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy’. Sometimes compliments are just compliments, but sometimes they reveal what a person expects of someone like that. It’s quite probable that Abulafia gave the word ‘eloquent’ little thought – he says he intended it to be read at face value – but Gopal is a professor of English and a scholar of race; paying attention to the context of language is her job.

Gopal is now facing vicious attacks across the right-wing press. It isn’t the first time she has been dragged in this way. When she criticised the slogan ‘white lives matter’ in 2020, she was accused in the Daily Mail of ‘attempting to incite an aggressive and potentially violent race war’. The paper eventually apologised for misrepresenting her (as ever, in a tucked-away one-inch column) and paid damages, but by that point she’d been exposed to months of death and rape threats.

Those who wish to defend statues of dead white men on free speech grounds invariably undermine their case by failing to support that right for living people, especially those with marginal identities who say things they don’t like. Free speech isn’t just about who can speak, or whose statue stands or falls; it’s about who chooses not to speak because the consequences aren’t worth it, and who disappears from history without being heard at all.


  • 18 January 2022 at 1:03am
    Simon Wood says:
    As a white man who is not far off being dead - I am more grey than white - I'd like to put in a good word for the typeface Gill Sans. It is pure and simple, both concealing and revealing that smock-wearing, almost fascistic or socialistic urgency that Gill promoted. But it's a great typeface.

    As for his Stations of the Cross in Westminster (Catholic) Cathedral, the last time I saw them made me realise that - and this was a shock - I DON'T REALLY LIKE ERIC GILL. This, for me, was like swearing in church. At the same time I realised that I don't really like the equally breathy and urgent Gerard Manley Hopkins who everyone gushes over.

    When I saw David Bowie in the Colston Hall in the 1970s I realised I didn't really like David Bowie - which is a terrible thing to say - and I had no idea who Colston was. At least we can still see his forbidding statue in the museum along with all the other killer fossils and whatnot - to see what a slave owner looks like.

    I don't at all like the bust of Nelson Mandela, Madiba, by the Royal Festival Hall. What on earth were they thinking?

    So the past is complex but the future is simple. Please let it be set in Gill Sans.

  • 18 January 2022 at 9:00pm
    Rowena Hiscox says:
    Oh goody – another battle in the culture wars. Another chance for privileged leftists to air their vicarious identity-based grievances, and for even more privileged rightists to distract people from their real problems by rallying them in defence of something entirely worthless. I've managed to avoid finding out what the centrists are saying about it, but I expect they're asking if it's OK to feel OK about feeling uncomfortable about feeling concerned over whether something or other could be unacceptable.

    The rest of us will merely sigh, twirl our fingers around our heads and hope that no civilians get hurt (I too am rather fond of Gill Sans, so please don't cancel it). Is it still OK to twirl your finger around your head? Is it still OK to ask if it's still OK to twirl your finger around your head? Forget it, I'll ask Twitter.

    • 25 January 2022 at 3:59pm
      Rory Allen says: @ Rowena Hiscox
      Did you read the article as far as this paragraph: "Gopal is now facing vicious attacks across the right-wing press. It isn’t the first time she has been dragged in this way. When she criticised the slogan ‘white lives matter’ in 2020, she was accused in the Daily Mail of ‘attempting to incite an aggressive and potentially violent race war’. The paper eventually apologised for misrepresenting her (as ever, in a tucked-away one-inch column) and paid damages, but by that point she’d been exposed to months of death and rape threats."

      I am not sure which of your categories I belong to, but I know that eating people is wrong, and so is making death and rape threats. I'm not sure what personally to do about this, but sighing and twirling our fingers somehow doesn't seem quite enough. As for hoping no civilians get hurt, it's a bit late for that since the murders of Jo Cox and David Amess. Violence inspired by hatred has perhaps never quite gone away, but it is certainly back now and showing its fangs.

  • 18 January 2022 at 11:34pm
    Higgs Boatswain says:
    Was Eric Gill really an 'atrocious person'? His daughters didn't seem to think so (his dog, unfortunately, has left no opinion on record), and nor did his biographer Fiona McCarthy, who made the sensational revelations about the artist's sex-life in her celebrated 1989 biography. What McCarthy did suggest was that Gill's virtues (and perhaps his artistic genius) were inseparable from his vices and crimes - that both arose out of the strange, sometimes absurd tension in his life and work between the sexual and the spiritual.

    Unfortunately, I don't think our culture is grown-up enough (or perhaps I should say child-like enough) to live with the ambiguity that an appreciation of Gill's bizarre genius demands. The idea that people can do terrible, damaging, inexplicable things and yet not necessarily be 'atrocious people' (much less bad artists)- neither the rabid right nor the righteous left seems to be able to live with this sort of discomfiting complexity. NOOSE ALL PAEDOS is still a catch-cry that all right-thinking patriots can cheerfully rally behind. Which is why Gill's strange, amazing, uncomfortable artworks will inevitably be removed from public sight (if not destroyed by the new iconoclasts) and replaced with something inoffensive and completely undemanding.

    • 22 January 2022 at 1:24pm
      Delaide says: @ Higgs Boatswain
      Hello! He sexually abused his daughters. I don’t want to use his dammed typeface or have anything to do with him.

  • 19 January 2022 at 7:42am
    steve kay says:
    I am white and male and no longer young. I have lived for a long time not far from Capel y Finn. To claim that nobody knew about Gill''s behaviour until Fiona MacCarthy told them may be true for the metropolitan classes but is not so elsewhere. Jokes about sheep shagging in the Black Mountains may be notorious, but Gill's shagging of dogs and goats was closer to being well known and infamous. . Gill thought that it was a good idea to sodomise your fourteen year old daughter because it minimised the risk of underage incestuous pregnancy. He left a family legacy of mental illness and suicides. His behaviour had nothing to do with sexual or personal liberation, it was closer to Jim Jones than Edward Carpenter.

    Statues may not have the power of speech, but their messages and baggage is considerable. Gill's work on display should have interpretive material explaining that his creativity was accompanied by irredeemable behaviour. Being famous is no longer sufficient reason for a statue. Otherwise Hay might have a statue of Major Armstrong, who had given stalwart service during WW1 and was an respected and active Mason. Or Abergavenny erect a statue of William de Broase, famous to this day even if the Christmas Day incident was not quite what the Baby Jesus might have wanted.

    To hope for artwork to be put in the context of its creation and historic significance does not make one an iconoclast. Lest I am accused of iconoclasm, I will move on and try to find, or recreate, the lost act VI of Shelley's Cenci, in which the pope decides that despite Francesco's unfortunate history of violent incest and murder, a major Apennine nobleman should be remembered, and therefore a statue cast and erected.

  • 20 January 2022 at 12:43am
    Graucho says:
    So are we allowed to perform Wagner's works or not?

  • 22 January 2022 at 9:08pm
    Tracy Hodson says:
    I will state my position on this issue in personal terms, something I wouldn't normally do.

    My stepfather abused me and my sister (and our mother) horrendously for many years. He also designed and built many beautiful houses. There should never be a statue of him anywhere, but those houses absolutely should stand.

    Destroying work made by objectionable people is a fool's errand. The argument for doing so implies that we all now must excavate the personal lives of thousands of historical artists and then vet them. Who should do this thankless job, and what should the standards be? Should we hold some sort of posthumous trial for each artist?

    Human beings are deeply and relentlessly imperfect. There's nothing we can do about that. We have to accept it, and live with the contradiction of loving a piece of art while despising its maker. Most of the time we know nothing about them anyway. I'm not sure i needed to know about Gills and his dog, and I'm quite sure that none of the people living in the houses my stepfather built need to know about my sister and me.

  • 23 January 2022 at 3:50pm
    Ted Sheehy says:
    Could I put in a word for dememorialising Edmund Spenser in Poet’s Corner? Thanks.

    ref: his “View of the Present State of Ireland”.

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