Affairs of the art

Eric Gill was one of the most controversial artists of the last century. His wide-ranging talents included the roles of sculptor, architect, typographer, artist, craftsman and philosopher. But he also had a darker side which many of his fellow artists and co-religionists thought sat strangely with his strong Catholic faith. Deputy editor ANTHONY COPPIN, whose study of Gill was sparked through a professional interest in typography, has discovered that the brilliant craftsman had several links w

THE man in the smock and odd hat would have looked somewhat out of place in the small, conservative market town of Garstang in the early 1930s...

But Eric Gill cared little about what people thought of him. He was firmly established as one of the leading figures in the world of international art and design when his sculptural skills brought him to north Lancashire.

It was his work on a classical Greek theme frieze at the art deco Midland Hotel, Morecambe, which brought him into contact with the Garstang area - and the start of a liaison with a local Roman Catholic woman.

How much time Gill spent in Garstang is not known. Indeed many of his visits may have been what might be politely termed "nocturnal rendezvous."

Gill, who had shocked the nation with his often outrageously erotic sculptures and motifs, took a shine to Miss May Reeves, the sister of his friend, Father John-Baptist Reeves, a Dominican, who went on to become editor of the Catholic Herald.

The circumstances under which the two met is unclear, but it is known she was living in Garstang in the early 1930s, and that her brother would have had a hand in the introduction.

May was not quite the sexy little number with who Gill, happily married to his wife Mary since 1904, had previously had dalliances (seemingly with the full knowledge, if not approval, of Mary).

One of Gill's biographers, Fiona McCarthy, describes May Reeves, as "in her 30s, presumed to be a virgin, a large woman with knock knees, very buxom, with nice trim ankles and neat slim waistline."

MacCarthy suggests Gill "must have seen some hidden voluptuousness in her. With his connoisseur's eye he could appreciate the contours defined by the tightly-buttoned high-necked twinsets May Reeves wore habitually."

Gill's diary records how he was originally interested in May's sister Annie and that it was largely a courtship in a car.

Thediary says: "To Garstang for night. May R. came in car to fetch me..."

Whatever the reasons for the mutual attraction it was clearly strong and by the summer of 1933 May had left Garstang to throw in her lot with the Gill household in the Chilt-erns, where Gill, his family and his extended family of fellow artists had set up their commercial base in a farmhouse setting.

There May ran a day school for the Gill family and their friends and neighbours.

She became what MacCarthy calls the "resident mistress, the lover in the house (or as it turned out the lover in the caravan down the garden)." In theory at least her role was to help Gill with woodblocks.

She became known as 'Auntie May' and took on the role of a kind of old-time governess/nanny.

MacCarthy writes: "Her sexual role vis-a-vis Gill was also accepted by the family and his inner circle."

A harem in a staunch Roman Catholic household?

Questioning the set-up, MacCarthy says: "Gill had by then manoeuvred himself into such a position of impregnability that no one, it seems, dared to put that question to him directly.

"His own need for, or at least his enjoyment of, two women on the premises, sometimes both in the same day or night, comes over graphically in his diary entries with their sexual sign language: one x for Mary, xx for May."

Not too surprisingly Gill was an enthusiast for the writings of DH Lawrence, another challenger of the sexual morality of the day.

In addition to May's teaching and sexual roles, she was regularly one of Gill's models for his life drawing sessions. Gill's wife, Mary, who was fully aware that his interest in other women was more than artistic, nevertheless retained a deep love for her husband.

Commenting on May's relationship with the great artist, MacCarthy says: "Her emotional and sexual dependence upon Gill, late arouser of her passions, was intense.

"She was not of an age or an appearance to find substitutes. She could expect no comfort from Mary, who disliked her."

She adds though that Gill's judgements in entrusting the school to herbecame less and less convincing as May - not a patient teacher - took to beating the children about the head with rulers!

Gill's libidinous activities did, eventually get to both Mary and May. In the late 1930s, with the arrival of Daisy, another mistress, even Mrs Gill (by then in her 60s) was beginning to be concerned about the artist's colourful love life, as was May (then in her 40s).

MacCarthy says May "was being made increasingly neurotic by the strains of what had become a quadruple relationship."

May took Gill to task for his interest in Daisy and, according to his diary, "M.R. made me x."

The day after that entry May, the good Catholic lady from Garstang and lover of the great Eric Gill, left for Cornwall!

Within a year Gill was dead, perhaps burnt out by his activism and many enthusiasms.

There is no doubt of Gill's fondness for May, though her inheritance from the artist might be considered to be something of a token.

In a codicil to his will dated 1937 he bequeathed to her one of the nude drawings of her he had sketched in 1933. What became of the drawing is not known.

Part 2, next week.