14 November 2015

In search of Eric Gill’s stonework in
the colleges and streets of Cambridge

Eric Gill’s bold relief lettering carved in the Ham Hill stone above the front entrance to Westcott House in Jesus Lane, Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Patrick Comerford

Eric Gill (1882-1940) has been described as the colossus of inter-war drawing, printmaking, stone-carving and lettering design. He worked as a calligrapher, letter-cutter and monumental mason, and later he became a well-known sculptor and letter carver, and gives his name to the typeface Gill Sans.

Earlier this week [11 November 2015], I was writing about Gill and his War Memorial in Trumpington, a village on the edges of Cambridge. Now, each day over the past three days or so, I have passed under Gill’s bold relief lettering in the Ham Hill stone of the front entrance to Westcott House in Jesus Lane. I have been have been there this week at a residential meeting of the trustees of Us, the Anglican mission agency formerly known as USPG (the United Society for the Propagation of the Gospel).

Cambridge has been described as a feast of the stone-cut lettering and carving from Gill’s chisel of Gill. During the week, I have heard about the location a number of his other works in Cambridge, and so I went in search of some of them.

Eric Gill’s plaque commemorating Henry Arthur Morgan in the Chapel of Jesus College, Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Across the road from Westcott House on Jesus Lane, there are at least two works by Eric Gill in Jesus College.

One is a fine plaque in the north wall of the chancel in the chapel commemorating the Revd Dr Henry Arthur Morgan, a former student, fellow, tutor (1863-1885) and then Master of Jesus College (1885-1912), who died in 1912.

Morgan’s energy and enterprise were primarily responsible for the 19th century transformation of Jesus College. He was quick to recognise the growing demand for university education among the expanding Victorian professional and middle classes. Both Cambridge and Oxford were slow and reluctant in responding by widening their curriculum and allowing more teaching posts to be held by married lay academics rather than celibate Anglican priests.

Morgan made the best of the opportunities presented by the spacious grounds of Jesus College and its increasing wealth from railway developments and the way Cambridge was spreading into the surrounding that had been inherited by Jesus College.

By 1871, Morgan had quadrupled the number of students, and doubled the accommodation available for them. By 1881 there were seven times as many students as there had been 20 years earlier, many attracted by Jesus College’s sporting reputation and fame.

Eric Gill’s coat-of-arms of Bishop Leonard White-Thomson in Jesus College, Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Behind the chapel, Cloister Court leads into Chapel Court, where Gill carved over the Angel Archway the strikingly sensual coat-of-arms of Leonard White-Thomson (1863-1933), who as Bishop of Ely (1924-1933) was the Visitor of Jesus College.

This work, Deus Providebit, is named after the bishop’s motto carved with Gill’s unmistakable lettering, and dates from 1930, three years before Bishop White-Thomson died. Appropriately, the bishop’s arms are supported by two angels, but their naked posture now draws attention to the questions raised in recent years about Gill’s lifestyle.

Eric Gill’s coat-of-arms of Bishop John Fisher in Saint John’s College, Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

A short walk away, in Saint John’s College, the coat of arms of Bishop John Fisher forms the keystone of the archway that leads from Chapel Court into North Court. They were designed and carved by Eric Gill, and feature prominently in Sir Edward Maufe’s design of Chapel Court, North Court and the Forecourt.

Once again, however, they are supported by two naked angels, whose pubescent bodies should have raised further questions about Gill’s sexual obsessions.

Eric Gill’s carving of the symbol of Saint John on the keystone of the central arch of the Chapel Court cloister in Saint John’s College, Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Further works by Eric Gill can be seen around the courts of Saint John’s. They include his now slightly-blackened carving of the poison chalice with the serpent, the symbol of Saint John on the keystone of the central arch of the Chapel Court cloister, and the eagle and marguerite carved on the keystone of the central arch leading from the Forecourt.

The eagle represents Saint John the Divine, who gives his name to Saint John’s College, and the daisy or marguerite is an heraldic pun on the name of Lady Margaret Beaufort, the founder of both Saint John’s College and Christ’s College. Bishop John Fisher was her executor, and statues of these founding figure stand on each side of the entrance to the chapel.

Eric Gill’s ‘Crocodile’ on the Mond Building in Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Perhaps Gill’s best known work in Cambridge is his Crocodile on the Mond Building, which I reached on Thursday afternoon through the Old Cavendish Arch on Free School Lane, behind Saint Bene’t’s Church and Corpus Christi College. The Crocodile is said to have been the nickname of the physicist Lord Rutherford (1871-1937), who was director of the original Cavendish Laboratory when it stood on this site. Rutherford received the Nobel Prize in 1908 for his work on radioactivity and later became known as the Father of Nuclear Physics.

The preening eye can pick out the initials EG in the jaws of Gill’s Crocodile on the Mond Building (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

The crocodile was commissioned by the Nobel physicist Pyotr Kapitsa (1894-1984), who worked for over 10 years with Rutherford in the Cavendish Laboratory and was the first director of the Mond Laboratory (1930–1934). Gill seldom signed his work, but looking carefully in the fading twilight at his crocodile on the Mond Laboratory I could see in the bricks as it opens its smiling jaws that it is swallowing a monogram of Gill’s delicately traced initials, EG.

A blackened stone under an oriel window in Downing Street has Gill’s first-ever stone-cut inscription (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Further on, Downing Street leads from Emmanuel College to Pembroke Street. On the facade of the Zoological Laboratory, under an oriel window facing down Tennis Court Road, a blackened stone is carved with Gill’s first-ever stone-cut inscription, dating from 1903.

It is so high and so blackened that it is difficult to read Louis Pasteur’s words: Dans les champs de l’observation le hasard ne favorise que les esprits prepares, “Where observation is concerned, chance favours only the prepared mind.”

Louis Pasteur’s words are so blackened that it is difficult to read Gill’s first-ever stone-cut inscription, dating from 1903 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

There are other works by Gill to see in Cambridge. In the Roman Catholic Chaplaincy at Fisher House, there is a fine stone in memory of Percy Hetherington Fitzgerald (1834-1925), the Irish critic, journalist and sculptor, whose work includes the statue of Samuel Johnson in The Strand, London, and the statue of James Boswell to the Market Square in Lichfield.

Fitzgerald was from Dundalk, Co Louth, and the biographer of Charles Dickens. He was buried in Glasnevin, Dublin, following a Funeral Mass in Westminster Cathedral. His bequests included £5,000 to the Cambridge University Catholic Association.

I did not get to see Gill’s memorial, unveiled a year after Fitzgerald’s death, but the inscription in Roman lettering on Hoptonwood reads: In plan; et per petuam memoriam PERCY FITZGERALD, A.D. VIII KAL. DEC. MCMXXV. Defuncti quo legante Reverendissimis autem dominis Archiepiscopo Cardinali IV es tni o nasteriensi Episcopo Northantoniensi Episcopo Pellensi cum Guidone Ellis aclministrantibus pecuniae Amplissimae hujus sodalitatis Catholicae Cantabrigiensium necessitatibus subvenerunt Pro cujus anima requiem qui legis precator.

A circular pond in Newnham College is said to commemorate the benefaction of Henry Sidgwick. And in the garden of a private house in Cambridge some years ago, Eric Marland, the Cambridge-based letter carver, claims to have discovered or rediscovered a supposedly lost Gill ashtray, weighing 60 kg or more – heavy enough to stop it being moved.

Perhaps there are even more works by Gill to find in Cambridge. But I may have to wait until next year before I return and find them.

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