Eric Gill: can we separate the artist from the abuser?

Eric Gill was one of the great British artists of the 20th century – and a sexual abuser of his own daughters. A new exhibition at Ditchling asks: how far should an artist’s life affect our judgment of their work?

Last October, I was one of 25 delegates at a “workshop day” at the Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft, a small but beautiful gallery, whose acclaimed spaces are dedicated mostly to displays of work by Eric Gill and the many artists and makers who followed him to the Sussex village after he and his family moved there from London in 1907. Entitled Not Turning a Blind Eye, the purpose of this event was to begin a process that would in time, we were told, lead to the museum dealing “more publicly with the subject of Eric Gill as an abuser”.

I was there at the invitation of the museum’s director, Nathaniel Hepburn, who had read a column I’d once written about the vexed issue of censorship and the arts. Also present were various academics, curators and museum professionals, among them representatives from several major institutions with work by Gill in their own collections – though since all of us agreed to abide by the Chatham House rule I am unable, at this point, to name names.

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