An incident of vandalism in London this week has reignited public debate over how to reassess the legacy of a famous artist and a known abuser. On Tuesday night, a man attacked an Eric Gill statue installed outside the BBC headquarters in central London. The suspect spent four hours hitting the sculpture with a hammer while a second man filmed the incident. Both have since been arrested but as of now, no charges have been filed.
Gill, one of the leading British sculptors and typographers of the 20th century, detailed his sexual abuse of two of his teenage daughters and the family’s dog in diaries discovered after his death in 1940. Curators have since struggled with how to reconcile the immorality of the artist with his pervasive influence in England. Gill Sans is one of the most widely used British typefaces, and his sculptures are housed in major institutions, including the Tate, Victoria and Albert, and British Museum.
The BBC statue was commissioned by Sir John Reith, then director-general of the news agency, in the early 1930s, and features representations of Prospero and Ariel from Shakespeare’s Tempest. Ariel, a spirit in service to the magician, is depicted as a naked child. Campaigners have called on the BBC to remove the sculpture for decades. The broadcaster, however, has no plans to remove the statue following the latest attack. In a statement, the company said, “When the statue was commissioned, Ariel—as the spirit of the air—was seen as an appropriate symbol for the new dawn of broadcasting.”
It continued: “The BBC doesn’t condone the views or actions of Eric Gill. Clearly there are debates about whether you can separate the work of an artist from the art itself. We think the right thing to do is for people to have those discussions. We don’t think the right approach is to damage the artwork itself.”
Katie Razzall, culture editor for BBC news, tweeted a video of the incident, writing: “Outside BBC right now a man is trying to smash up Eric Gill statue while another man live streams talking about paedophiles. Gill’s horrific crimes are well known. But is this the way?”
Gill also created popular devotional art during his lifetime, and his sculptures still adorn Westminster Cathedral. In 1998, campaigners from Ministers and Clergy Sexual Abuse Survivors sought to remove Gill’s Stations of the Cross from the church. Meanwhile, a plinth erected to recognize his work on a World War I memorial in the village of Ditching, where he lived with his family from 1906 to 1924, enraged residents who knew the artist’s biography.
Recent exhibitions have tried to reexamine Gill’s art in the context of his abuse. In 2017, the Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft staged “Eric Gill: The Body,” which took as its basis the question: “Is it possible to enjoy Gill’s art when we know about his abuse?” The show centered on his studies of the human figure and featured depictions of his daughters’ naked forms. In 2021, the museum released a statement expanding its stance on the artist: “The trustees operate within these two positions: we absolutely condemn Eric Gill’s abuse of his daughters with no attempt to hide, excuse, normalise or minimise, yet we also have a duty to protect, display and interpret the art work we hold in our collections.”