Gill, Eric Rowton (1882-1940)


Father Thomas Walker, the parish priest of St. Peter’s Church in Gorleston in the late 1930s, had previously served at High Wycombe, where he had developed a friendship with Eric Gill. It was agreed that Gill would design the new church for Gorleston with the aid of a High Wycombe architect, Edmund Farrell. The church was the only ecclesiastical building designed by Gill. Gill detested that churches had become larger and larger and the altars more elaborate and splendid. He felt that these developments separated the people from God. He insisted that the altar should be placed in the centre of a church with the congregation on all four sides, so that they would be more intimately involved with the celebration of the Mass. Likewise, he stated that the choir, the organ, the stained glass windows, the paintings and the statues all had no place in a church. Therefore, at Gorleston he designed a cruciform church with simple furnishings and a central altar. The only windows in the church at the east and west end and at the ends of the transepts would be glazed with plain glass. The tower was supported on crossing arches. Arches are used throughout the church, with no lintels spanning doors or windows. Also the arcades and the porch are arches springing directly from the sub-floor, not supported on pillars, as is usual in churches. Gill also designed the sculpture over the porch. The holy water stoops, the piscina, altar (with its lettering around the base) and baptismal font were made in Gill’s High Wycombe workshop. The foundation stone demonstrates the high class work of Gill’s lettering. 

Work commenced on the church in 1938, and was completed before the outbreak of the Second World War. It was built in brick. Gill visited the project dressed in his monk’s tunic. He insisted that local workmen and artisans (H. R. Middleton and Company) were used on the project. This church is seen, by some, as Gill’s most important work of his later years. The church guide quotes Fiona MacCarthy’s biography of Gill: he seized on the project as a long-awaited opportunity to put into practice a multitude of related ideas about building, preaching, singing, church history, world politics, all burgeoning out from the elementary question: what is a church? 

Eric Gill was born in 1882 in Brighton, Sussex. He was a controversial figure, with his well-known religious views and his subject matter being seen as at odds with his sexual behaviour and his erotic art. 

His first public success was Mother and Child in 1912. In 1913, he was awarded the commission for sculpting the Stations of the Cross in Westminster Cathedral. Gill was commissioned to produce a war memorial for Leeds University. In 1928 to 1929, Gill carved three of the eight relief sculptures on the theme of winds for the headquarters of the London Electric Railway. In 1932, Gill produced a group of sculptures, Prospero and Ariel, and others for Broadcasting House, London. He produced seven bas-relief panels for the facade of the People’s Palace at the University of London, opened in 1936. In 1937, he designed the background of the first George VI stamp series. In 1938, Gill produced The Creation of Adam, three bas-reliefs in stone for the Palace of Nations at the League of Nations in Geneva. 

In 1925, he designed the Perpetua typeface (Typeface). This was followed by the Gill Sans typeface (Typeface) in 1927 to 1930. This was based on the Sans Serif lettering originally designed for the London Underground by Johnston. Gill had collaborated with Edward Johnston in the early design of the underground typeface, but had dropped out of the project before it was completed. Penguin Books, uses the typeface Gill Sans for the book titles and their Pelican imprint. In the 1990s, the British Broadcasting Company adopted Gill Sans for many of its on-screen television graphics. 

Eric Gill was perhaps the greatest English artist-craftsman of the 20th Century: a typographer and letter-cutter of genius and a master in the art of sculpture and wood-engraving. Yet, for all the profound religious commitment in much of his art, his sculptures and drawings are often also untamed celebrations of sexuality and the female body. 

Interior of St. Peter’s Church