Even by turn-of-the-19th-century standards, Eric Gill was a very complex man.
Born in Brighton, England, in 1882, Gill — the son of a nonconformist minister — was apprenticed to a London architect in 1899.
He left his apprenticeship in 1903 to pursue a career as a letter-carver and sign-writer. He married and moved to an artist’s community in Ditchling, Sussex, in 1906, where he began producing stone sculptures, including sculptures for the BBC building in London and stations of the cross for the Westminster Cathedral.
Throughout the course of his life, Gill set up three self-sufficient religious communities where, surrounded by his retinue, he worked as a sculptor, wood-engraver and type-designer.
He also wrote constantly and prodigiously on his favorite topics: social reform; the integration of the body and spirit; the evils of industrialization; and the importance of the working man.
He converted to Catholicism in 1913; this influenced his sculpture and writings.
But perhaps he is most famously known for designing typefaces. Gill invented 11 different typefaces, including his most well-known, Gill Sans.
University Libraries recently acquired a collection of hundreds of Gill artifacts in several boxes, including books, drawings, alphabets, rubbings, correspondence and woodblocks.
“The Department of Special Collections has been collecting books and archival materials in support of research in visual communication and the history of the book since the early 1960s,” said Erin Davis, curator of rare books at the library.
“This collection is a perfect fit — it has a clear focus on one of the most influential type designers of the 20th century, and it documents his many activities in depth and in a number of formats, including woodblocks, sketches, proofs and correspondence.”
Some highlights of the collection include:
- An early calligraphic alphabet written by Gill in 1906. This is an early example that shows the influence of Edward Johnston, a designer with whom Gill studied at the London Central School of Arts and Crafts in 1901.
- A recipe for brewing beer, in Gill’s handwriting. The recipe appeared in an early work of St. Dominic’s Press.
- A rubbing from one of Gill’s inscriptions that was carved in stone.
- Original drawings for wood engravings, including several for the Golden Cockerel edition of The Constant Mistress.
- A large drawing for a headstone, to be carved in stone.
- A letter from Gill to his son, Gordian, in which he comments on his son’s handwriting and gives him “a few useful rules” for writing, such as “go slow” and “write upright or sloping forwards (but not backward).”
“Gill was a prolific writer,” Davis said, “and having such an extensive collection of his works on social reform, industrialization, religion and the theory of art is important.
“These unique documents, along with a number of original drawings for stone carvings and wood engravings, provide opportunities for original research, and they also reveal a very personal portrait of the artist.”
The collection was previously owned by Charles Gould, a book collector from Pasadena, Calif., who spent some 70 years collecting books, ephemera and materials used in the printing process by several major English and American private presses.
This isn’t the first time University Libraries has acquired a portion of Gould’s collection — in 2000, University Libraries acquired the remarkable Triple Crown Collection, which represents the entire output of the three legendary presses of the English arts and crafts movement: the Kelmscott, Doves and Ashendene presses.
In addition to holdings from those three, Gould had important collections from the Grabhorn, Arion and Peter Pauper presses.
Gill died Nov. 17, 1940, of lung cancer in Uxbridge, England. He had gained international recognition for his art and sculpture, much of which is still exhibited, and his Gill Sans font is still considered one of the most influential and successful modern typefaces.