Workshop traditions and the making of sculpture in the early twentieth century: Eric Gill, assistants and assistance between 1909 and 1940
Dr Jon Wood (external supervisor, Henry Moore Institute, Leeds)
This project will dispel the myths written about the making of sculpture in early twentieth century Britain. Although it was a period of complex practical and theoretical innovation, histories have tended to be over-simplified, focussing on the idea of direct carving as an autonomous and isolated process. Eric Gill was a key figure in this period, attempting to redefine the nature of sculpture in relation to ideas of authenticity and truth to materials. However, his self-created persona as an isolated craftsman and art-world exile has precluded balanced accounts of his work, as has the absence of any detailed study of his working methods.
My study maps the complexities of sculptural practice lying behind the ideologies of modernist production. I aim to interrogate the myths that have developed around the notion of direct carving (for the current debate see Curtis, 2003 and 2008), and to advance understanding of Gill’s sculptural production. I will develop a new model of sculptural research that creates a detailed mapping of Gill’s workshop practices and professional relationships. Existing literature, mostly biographical (e.g. Speight, 1966, MacCarthy, 1989), focuses on Gill as a self-imposed outsider from the art world. Collins (1992, 1998) and Yorke (1981) present the only critical analyses, referencing Gill’s early career relationships with Jacob Epstein, Roger Fry and others, but maintaining the idea of Gill as a subsequently isolated craftsman. My innovative methodological model will highlight contradictions between his public and historical persona, and focus on the practical realities of his sculpture production and his centrality to professional and artistic networks.
My project uses unpublished and largely unresearched, and significantly some previously unknown, archive material on Gill, his workshops and assistants to analyse his day-to-day sculptural practice and his professional connections. I will interrogate two key periods of Gill’s career, 1910-1915 and 1927-1932. The first period marks his emergence as a sculptor in terms of production, exhibitions and networks. The second highlights his status as an established sculptor and his work on high-profile public commissions. Examination of contemporary critical accounts, Gill’s essays and those of fellow theorists provide further contextual information for my analysis.
In creating a complete picture of how and why Gill produced his sculpture during two different periods of his career, I will analyse both continuities and changes in his methods, and contradictions between his written words and the practical reality of his activities. In developing this analysis I will also examine the continuities in the practice of making sculpture during the early twentieth century to dispel the perception of a radical shift to direct carving.