Eric Gill, A.R.A. (1882-1940)
Eric Gill, A.R.A. (1882-1940)


Eric Gill, A.R.A. (1882-1940)
Portland stone relief with colour
22 in. (55.9 cm.) high
Carved between 15 May and 3 July 1913, painted by the artist between 1914 and 1915.
Acquired from the artist by Geoffrey Langdon Keynes in March 1915 and gifted as a wedding present to Mr and Mrs George Mallory.
After George Mallory's death on Mount Everest in 1924 it was returned to Geoffrey Langdon Keynes by Ruth Mallory, and by descent to the present owner.
The artist's ledger, 1913, Job 488.
Private correspondence from George Mallory to Geoffrey Langdon Keynes, 29 April 1915.
G. Keynes, Gates of Memory, Oxford, 1981, pp. 97,120, 122.
S. Compton, exhibition catalogue, British Art in the 20th Century: The Modern Movement, London, Royal Academy, 1987, p. 411, no. 90, as 'Boys Boxing'.
J. Collins, Eric Gill The Sculpture: A Catalogue Raisonné, London, 1992, nos. 21-23.
J. Collins (ed.), exhibition catalogue, Eric Gill, London, Barbican Art Gallery, 1992, p. 80, no. 21, illustrated.
J. Collins, Eric Gill The Sculpture: A Catalogue Raisonné, London, 1998, pp. 28, 85, no. 42, illustrated.
R. Cork, exhibition catalogue, Wild Thing: Epstein, Gaudier-Brzeska, Gill, London, Royal Academy, 2009, pp. 78-79, no. 33, illustrated.
London, Goupil Gallery, Eric Gill, January 1914, no. 3 (priced at £42.0.0).
London, Whitechapel Gallery, British Sculpture in the Twentieth Century, September - November 1981, no. 50, ex-catalogue.
London, Royal Academy, British Art in the 20th Century: The Modern Movement, January - April 1987, no. 90, as 'Boys Boxing'.
London, Barbican Art Gallery, Eric Gill, November 1992 - February 1993, no. 21: this exhibition travelled to Newtown Powys, Oriel 31, February - April 1993; and Leeds, City Art Gallery, April - June 1993.
London, Royal Academy, Wild Thing: Epstein, Gaudier-Brzeska, Gill, October 2009 - January 2010, no. 33.

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William Porter
William Porter

Lot Essay

Eric Gill has rightly been called the greatest English artist-craftsman of the 20th Century. He refused to curtail his interests and he worked, with great fertility, across a spread of activities, all underpinned by his desire to abolish the separation between the artist and the craftsman and to uphold the value of the hand-made, which he regarded as a bastion against the degrading effects of industrialisation.

Having begun his career apprenticed to the architect, W.D. Caroë, who ran a successful Anglican church practice in Westminster, he regretted the gap he observed, between gentlemen architects and artisan builders. Already wanting more creative integration, he took himself off to evening classes in masonry at Westminster Technical Institute and calligraphy classes delivered by Edward Johnston at Central School of Arts and Crafts. In 1906 he set up as a master mason, doing inscriptions in stone for tombstones and memorial tablets, his lettering skills also leading him into the world of typography, fine printing and wood-engraving. In this way he caught the attention of the German patron Count Harry Kessler (1880-1937), a connoisseur of print. On hearing that in 1909 Gill, now aged 27, had begun to sculpt, Kessler arranged for Gill to be apprenticed to the famous French sculptor Aristide Maillol at Marly-le-Roi and identified a nearby house where the Gill family could live.

No such move took place, but Gill did visit Malliol and quickly realised that their methods were incompatible: Maillol worked by means of modelling, then handed his sculptures over to a skilled labourer for translation into another medium by means of a mechanical pointing machine. Gill, on the other hand was committed to direct carving which involved no division of labour: the artist retained full manual responsibility for the work from start to finish. He afterwards explained to Kessler: ‘I want to have only so much to do with modelling as is necessary for that kind of client who wants to know what he’s going to get before he gets it (E. Gill, quoted in R. Cork, exhibition catalogue, Wild Thing: Epstein, Gaudier-Brzeska, Gill, London, Royal Academy, 2009, p. 78). He also insisted that the inspiration which comes from carving is entirely different to that which comes from working with clay.

Gill developed surprisingly fast as a sculptor, spurred on to some extent by his friendship with Jacob Epstein. The two men discovered their shared allegiance to hand carving and a liking for the primitive and archaic. At one point they conceived an ambition to create a kind of 20th Century Stonehenge. This proved abortive, as did another project, chiefly generated by Jacques Raverat and his wife Gwen (née Darwin), in which Gill and Stanley Spencer would join them in the illustration of the Four Gospels. However, a great stir was created when Gill’s first exhibition carvings went on show in January 1911 at the Chenil Gallery in Chelsea. Most of these carvings were small and three dealt with the Madonna and Child in a touchingly original way. Far from being stately and aloof, the naked Madonna props up the child with one hand and proffers her breast with her other hand. Gill’s tender empathy with these works impressed Roger Fry, while The Times art critic Arthur Clutton-Brock praised their ‘simplicity and force’. Two relief carvings were acquired by the Contemporary Art Society, and Gill’s sculptures found further admirers in Kessler, Wyndham Lewis and William Rothenstein. In 1912 Roger Fry included seven sculptures by Gill in the Second Post-Impressionist Exhibition, thereby recognising the innovatory nature of his work. One of these was Gill’s The Virgin (1911-12), with her head tilted back and held in position by her raised arms and hands, tucked behind her head. The avoidance of detail and dependence on essential shapes made this a post-impressionist work. Fry positioned it in front of one of the most radical pictures in the exhibition, Matisse’s Dance I.

Boxers, created in 1913, belongs to a different stage in Gill’s career. Again, we find a notable departure from academic sculpture of the late Victorian and Edwardian period, but here expressive distortion is only lightly used in its handling of the human figure. Instead, we sense Gill looking back at past traditions. An initial pencil-and-watercolour sketch for this work shows the two protagonists wearing boxing gloves. In a larger pencil-and-grey-wash study, much closer to the final work, the gloves have been abandoned and around the edge of the drawing float studies of clenched fists, which form an important ingredient in the overall composition (both drawings are illustrated in R. Cork, Wild Thing, p. 78). The removal of the boxing-gloves gives the design a more archaic feel. Boys fighting is a very old theme and here it becomes something of a rite. The two figures are locked together in a tangle of diagonal thrusts, created by bodies, arms and legs. Yet a sense of intimacy, or erotic play, is woven into the ostensible aggression, with one boy seeming to drop his head on the other boy’s shoulder. Taken as a whole, the image communicates an unexpected delicacy and tenderness.

Gill saw himself as an inheritor of the long tradition of religious art and made an especial study of medieval art at Chichester, York, Wells and Chartres. It has also been observed that in Boxers, Gill treats the relief like a metope from a Greek temple. The fierce knot creating by the fighting is situated in a plain architectural frame, a format similar to that which he used when he began work, this same year, on the first of his ‘Stations of the Cross’ for Westminster Cathedral. In one trial panel for the Fifth Station of the Cross, now in the Harry Ransom Center, in the University of Texas at Austin, Richard Cork finds strong links with the Boxers relief (see R. Cork, Wild Thing, p. 93).

In Gill’s ledgers, which are held in the William Andrews Clark Memorial Library, at the University of California in Los Angeles, Boxers is listed as Job 488. It is possible that Kessler initially commissioned Boxers. A note in Gill’s diaries (also housed in the Clark Library) from 15 May 1913 reads, ‘Kessler, Acrobats and Boxers’. Judith Collins, in her Catalogue Raisonné of Gill’s sculpture, deduces from this that Kessler may have instigated work on both subjects, even though neither of them ended up in his collection. Gill exhibited Boxers in January 1914, in the Goupil Gallery. It did not sell, perhaps because of it having been over-priced, as Gill later inferred, when it caught the attention of Geoffrey Keynes.

Gill had extensive connections with Cambridge figures, having sold work to the economist Maynard Keynes in 1912, and enjoyed friendship with his brother Geoffrey. In his autobiography Gates of Memory, Geoffrey Keynes assumes that he first met Gill at the home of Francis and Frances Cornford in Cambridge, Gill having made a carved inscription for the house built for these newly-weds, in 1909, in Conduit Head Road, by Frances’s uncle, Francis Darwin. Keynes was in the habit of making walks on the South Downs at weekends and in this way he later visited Gill at Ditchling. He was aware that his friend Rupert Brooke had acquired around 1912 a small image of a mother and child by Gill, and Keynes, on one visit, asked Gill if he might request a similar but larger version. Gill undertook this, again in a simple and unaffected manner, very different to the stylisation that he later developed.

Keynes also put on record in his autobiography, that when he first saw Boxers in Gill’s studio, it had been there for some time, and Gill, ‘in a fit of boredom … had painted the figures in bright colours, one red, the other yellow, with a dark blue background’ (G. Keynes, The Gates of Memory, London, 1982, p.120). The practice of colouring sculpture looks back to medieval times. Keynes, however, asked if the paint could be removed, as he wanted to buy Boxers. Gill gave an honest reply in March 1915, and also touched on the issue of price: ‘I doubt if the paint would come off v. satisfactorily. It would be sure to stick in the pores of the stone a great deal. However if necessary I cd. have a try. About the price. I don’t know what to ask. War is war & I must snatch at any chance of selling things – besides I’d like you to have the stone. At the Goupil Exhibition, it was priced at £42 but that was absurd. What wd. you think of £20? Let me know. I wd. consider any offer from you’ (ibid., pp. 121-122).

Gill’s letter to Keynes is evidence of their friendship, which proved lasting. Keynes was, however, not buying Boxers for himself but as a wedding present for his friend George Mallory, who in 1914, had married Ruth Turner. On receiving the work Mallory, was also rather startled by the colour and wrote to Keynes:

‘It has been standing before me against the wall now for several days – on my big oak table that Geoffrey Lupton made. I was somewhat knocked out at the first moment by the colours – the yellow more particularly; but I no longer have any doubts about that. I am continually delighted. There is an extraordinary boy feeling about these two – they’re alive and they’re somehow just right. My word! Gill knows a thing or two about sculpting! I like my boxers better than anything I’ve seen by him; thank you many times over’ (Letter from George Mallory to Geoffrey Keynes, 29 April 1915, Keynes private records).

Having just learnt of Rupert Brooke’s death, his letter immediately moves on to the shock and pain caused by this event. After the Armistice Mallory decided to scrape as much of the paint as he could from the figures, but left the background colours and hair untouched. ‘We both liked the result,’ Keynes recorded, ‘though it was perhaps an act of vandalism’ (op. cit., p. 122).

Mallory, as is well known, was a passionate mountaineer. While lecturing for the Cambridge University Extramural Studies Department, he was given leave to join the June 1924 Everest expedition but died, along with Andrew Irvine. Both men were widely mourned as national heroes. Keynes’s final reference to Boxers in his autobiography reads: ‘After the tragedy of Everest Ruth Mallory had no place for the heavy stone and returned it to me’.

We are very grateful to Frances Spalding for preparing this catalogue entry.

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