Eric Gill's gravestone legacy

Eric Gill was one of the most controversial artists of the last century. His wide-ranging talents included the roles of sculptor, architect, typographer, artist, craftsman and philosopher. But he also had a darker side which many of his fellow artists and co-religionists thought sat strangely with his strong Catholic faith. Deputy editor ANTHONY COPPIN, whose study of Gill was sparked through a professional interest in typography, has discovered that the brilliant craftsman had several links with Garstang and district.

THE man in the smock would have looked somewhat out of place in the small, conservative market town of Garstang in the early 1930s...

But Eric Gill cared little about what people thought of him. He was firmly established as one of the leading figures in the world of international art and design when his sculptural skills brought him to north Lancashire.

It was his work on a classical Greek theme frieze at the art deco Midland Hotel, Morecambe, which brought him into contact with the Garstang area - and the start of a liaison with a local Roman Catholic woman.

How much time Gill spent in Garstang is not known. Indeed many of his visits may have been what might be politely termed "nocturnal rendezvous."

Gill, who had shocked the nation with his often outrageously erotic sculptures and motifs, took a shine to Miss May Reeves, the sister of his friend, Father John-Baptist Reeves, a Dominican, who went on to become editor of the Catholic Herald.

The circumstances under which the two met is unclear, but it is known she was living in Garstang in the early 1930s, and that her brother would have had a hand in the introduction.

May was not quite the sexy little number with who Gill, happily married to his wife Mary since 1904, had previously had dalliances (seemingly with the full knowledge, if not approval, of Mary).

One of Gill's biographers, Fiona McCarthy, describes May Reeves, as "in her 30s, presumed to be a virgin, a large woman with knock knees, very buxom, with nice trim ankles and neat slim waistline."

MacCarthy suggests Gill "must have seen some hidden voluptuousness in her. With his connoisseur's eye he could appreciate the contours defined by the tightly-buttoned high-necked twinsets May Reeves wore habitually."

Gill's diary records how he was originally interested in May's sister Annie and that it was largely a courtship in a car.

The diary says: "To Garstang for night. May R. came in car to fetch me..."

Whatever the reasons for the mutual attraction it was clearly strong and by the summer of 1933 May had left Garstang to throw in her lot with the Gill household in the Chilterns, where Gill, his family and his extended family of fellow artists had set up their commercial base in a farmhouse setting.

There May ran a day school for the Gill family and their friends and neighbours.

She became what MacCarthy calls the "resident mistress, the lover in the house (or as it turned out the lover in the caravan down the garden)." In theory at least her role was to help Gill with woodblocks.

She became known as 'Auntie May' and took on the role of a kind of old-time governess/nanny.

MacCarthy writes: "Her sexual role vis-a-vis Gill was also accepted by the family and his inner circle."

A harem in a staunch Roman Catholic household?

Questioning the set-up, MacCarthy says: "Gill had by then manoeuvred himself into such a position of impregnability that no one, it seems, dared to put that question to him directly.

"His own need for, or at least his enjoyment of, two women on the premises, sometimes both in the same day or night, comes over graphically in his diary entries with their sexual sign language: one x for Mary, xx for May."

Not too surprisingly Gill was an enthusiast for the writings of DH Lawrence, another challenger of the sexual morality of the day.

In addition to May's teaching and sexual roles, she was regularly one of Gill's models for his life drawing sessions. Gill's wife, Mary, who was fully aware that his interest in other women was more than artistic, nevertheless retained a deep love for her husband.

Commenting on May's relationship with the great artist, MacCarthy says: "Her emotional and sexual dependence upon Gill, late arouser of her passions, was intense.

"She was not of an age or an appearance to find substitutes. She could expect no comfort from Mary, who disliked her."

She adds though that Gill's judgements in entrusting the school to herbecame less and less convincing as May - not a patient teacher - took to beating the children about the head with rulers!

Gill's libidinous activities did, eventually get to both Mary and May. In the late 1930s, with the arrival of Daisy, another mistress, even Mrs Gill (by then in her 60s) was beginning to be concerned about the artist's colourful love life, as was May (then in her 40s).

MacCarthy says May "was being made increasingly neurotic by the strains of what had become a quadruple relationship."

May took Gill to task for his interest in Daisy and, according to his diary, "M.R. made me x."

The day after that entry May, the good Catholic lady from Garstang and lover of the great Eric Gill, left for Cornwall!

Within a year Gill was dead, perhaps burnt out by his activism and many enthusiasms.

There is no doubt of Gill's fondness for May, though her inheritance from the artist might be considered to be something of a token.

In a codicil to his will dated 1937 he bequeathed to her one of the nude drawings of her he had sketched in 1933. What became of the drawing is not known.

 

Part two, below.

 

****

 
A COUNTRY graveyard near Garstang contains a secret which will fascinate lovers of the history of art, sculpture and typography. The cemetery contains one of the few examples of controversial craftsman Eric Gill's sculptural works in this part of the country. Yet the headstone, like the story of Gill's love affair in the 1930s with Garstang teacher May Reeves featured last week, is virtually unknown. In the second of his two-part feature on Gill's local legacy deputy editor Anthony Coppin reports....

A SPIDER jerkily traces her way over the web she has woven across the carving of the crucified Christ on the weather-beaten headstone of Jose-ph and Mary.

The gossamer covering of the horrific yet sanctified scene at Golgotha immediately heightens the sense of the gothic…

But brush away the cobweb and the remains of dry lichen roots, study the headstone's carving and typography more closely, and artistry of a different era than gothic will come into view.

Rather than the mock mediaeval and traditional style headstones on the graves surrounding it, the memorial marking the last resting place of Joseph and Mary Reeves is distinctly different.

The Catholic couple buried there are almost certainly the parents of May Reeves, the Garstang woman who became Eric Gill's lover in the early 1930s.

Gill, married since 1904, was already a friend of May's brother Father John-Baptist Reeves, and had taken a shine to her sister Annie before starting an adulterous relationship with May at the same time as he was working on sculptures and murals at the art deco Midland Hotel, Morecambe.

The Gill headstone has been "discovered" by Moreca-mbe historian Peter Wade, during his research into Gill's Lancashire links.

Peter's find was aided by a reference in "Eric Gill: The Sculpture" by Judith Collins (The Herbert Press).

The book lists all Gill's known works, including a description of a Gill-carved headstone for a Mary Reeves lodged with Gill's papers at the Clarke Library at the University of California, Los Angeles.

It says the headstone is at a cemetery in Garstang. Peter discovered, with the help of Father David Elder, priest at Garstang's SS Mary and Michaels RC Church, that the reference was inaccurate.

Further research with the help of Lancashire Library and 1927 back copies of a newspaper death notice for Mary Reeves revealed her grave was at St Thomas the Apostle Roman Catholic Church, Claughton on Brock.

As Gill is believed to have met May Reeves in the early 1930s a puzzle remains as to why he would have been asked to work on this particular headstone in 1927.

Peter conjectures that one possibility is that Gill's ecclesiastical or commercial links could have played a part.

Gill had worked on an altarpiece for Rossall School, visiting the school near Fleetwood in 1928 to see it set up.

He may have become friendly with the Reeves family around that time, and have been asked by them to create the headstone after Mary died.

A stronger possibility is that the headstone was created after Joseph's death in 1932. It is likely that the headstone, naming both parents was a loving tribute from the Reeves' children to their mother and father, using the creative talents of their internationally renowned sculptor friend.

Few, if any, parishioners at Claughton are aware of the hidden Gill gem in their church's cemetery, or the story of the love liaison with which it is inextricably linked.

Seventy years of rain and wind have done their best to weather the headstone, but a discerning eye with a bit of knowledge of Gill's artistic style and typography will be able to detect the appealing, simple lines of the Christ on the cross carving and the functional yet attractive typeface (quite different from his more famous Gill Sans) on the inscription to Mary and Joseph.

Claughton parish priest Father Stephen Cross was unaware of the Gill connection in the graveyard until being informed about it last month by Morecambe historian Peter Wade and The Courier during our shared research for this article.

Father Cross said there was no reference to the headstone or its famous creator in a booklet on the history of the church published 10 years ago.

He added while the well-tended graveyard did get many visitors of relatives of people buried there he had not seen anyone visiting the Reeves grave.

Peter believes the "discovery" of the headstone could lead to the isolated cemetery becoming a point of a pilgrimage for fans of the controversial craftsman, whose sexual activities and often erotic artistry, were regarded by many of his fellow Catholics as being at odds with his religious profession.

Peter said: "There are many people interested in Gill's work and I am sure the headstone at Claughton on Brock, to which little attention has been paid over the years, will be of considerable interest to them."

He added: "I hope this puts Claughton on Brock on the artistic and cultural map of Britain."

Peter, who has lectured in art deco for Lancaster City Council and Lancaster University, and published historical booklets on the subject, intends to incorporate references to Gill's Claughton headstone in future lectures and publications.

The other Gill link with Garstang - which is possibly a teasing hint about his affair with May or at least an obvious reference by Gill to the area - can still be seen at the Midland hotel, Morecambe.

The hotel contains several Gill works, including the wonderfully ornate seahorses on the exterior, a carved frieze and a large map of Lancashire and the Lake District.

The map features motifs of 1930s-style ocean liners in Morecambe Bay, and a steam train running along the main west coast railway line.

Hidden in tiny lettering in the smoke from the train, at a point geographically in the Garstang or Claughton area are the words "Tarnside Refuge."

The question puzzling historian Peter Wade is, what is, or maybe was Tarnside Refuge?

Is it the name of a house, perhaps the home of the Reeves family?

Why was it a refuge - perhaps because Gill found refuge there in the bosom of his beloved May?

Peter said: "On the actual map it is in very small lettering. I am sure it is a personal thing for himself and has some connection with May Reeves."

But he adds it is one of the many mysteries which remain unanswered about Gill and his Garstang connections.

 

These articles originally appeared in The Garstang Courier in September 2004.