Gill produced this large sculpture of St Joan of Arc for his own pleasure. It is Job 1114 in his work ledgers, which reveal that he purchased a piece of Caen stone on 3 April 1930. He did not start to carve the figure of St Joan from the stone until February 1932, finishing the sculpture on 15 March 1932, after a total of sixteen and a half hours spent carving it. Gill packed it and dispatched it to Venice two days later, where it was put on show in the British Pavilion at the Venice Biennale exhibition in June, along with other sculptures by Gill, Frank Dobson and John Skeaping. After Venice, Gill sent it to mixed exhibitions at commercial galleries in London in 1933 and 1934, and to the exhibition of British Art in Industry, at Dorland Hall, London, in January 1935. When Gill exhibited Joan of Arc in London in 1933, he titled the work 'The Victim’. The last time that he sent it to an exhibition was in November 1936, again at the French Gallery, where it was given its original title and priced at £100. However, Gill’s notes record that he actually sold it for £80 in December from that exhibition.
Joan of Arc (c.1412 -1431) was a young peasant woman who had visions and advised the French army to great success. She wore her hair short and adopted men's clothing, and the army provided her armour, a horse, a sword and a banner. When captured by the English, she was tried for witchcraft and burned at the stake at Rouen. Nearly all sculptures of Joan, of which there are many, depict her in armour with a raised sword, but this was not Gill’s way. He chose to present her semi-naked, wearing only a long skirt which clings to her legs. Her long hair falls down her back and her hands are tied behind her and bound to a tree trunk. The only clue to her identity is the way her face and gaze are directed heavenwards, as though communing with God. Her pose, with hands tied behind to a tree trunk, and a gaze fixed on heaven, are also found recycled for a wooden sculpture of a naked St Sebastian, which Gill carved for Winchester School in 1935; another saint prepared to be martyred for their faith.
When Gill exhibited St Joan of Arc in the British Art in Industry exhibition in January 1935, the art critic Philip Hendy singled out the sculpture for praise in his article for the London Mercury: ‘With her hands tied behind her to a tree stump, her legs encumbered by the skirt which is her only drapery, she is the essence of a spirit soaring from the bondage of the earth. Every swell and ripple of her supple, lissom little body is alive and mounting. Yet it is made restful by Gill’s masterly technique, the economy and decision of his cutting, the rhythm of his line, his subtle transitions from smooth to carven surfaces.’
We are very grateful to Dr Judith Collins for preparing this catalogue entry.
'In his carved female figures he gave much prominence to their curvaceous breasts and luxuriant hair, Indian sculptors gave their female figures voluminous breasts, and this may have influenced Gill. [He] was also not afraid to introduce a new sexual candour into his sculpture ... and broke free from the traditional inhibitions in visual art concerning sexual matters'
(J. Collins, loc. cit., p. 33).
'The sculptor, as any other artist, is primarily a herald, and his work heraldic. His business is to achieve in the things he makes the discovery of Beauty and to proclaim it. By the word 'Beauty' I do not mean merely the loveliness of the earth or of living things, but that absolute entity which, like Goodness and Truth is apprehended by conscience'
(E. Gill, Sculpture, An Essay by Eric Gill, reproduced in J. Collins, loc. cit., p. 47).