Eric Gill

Ecstasy

1910–1

On display at Tate Britain

Artist
Eric Gill 1882–1940
Medium
Hoptonwood stone
Dimensions
Object: 1372 x 457 x 228 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition
Purchased 1982
Reference
T03477

Display caption

Gill wanted to return to ‘direct carving’ of stone and worked on this relief over a period of seven months. He was influenced by the graceful, simplified forms of carved, medieval religious sculptures in Europe and India. Some Indian temple sculpture showed embracing couples and British artists such as Gill became more informed about such sculpture through the India Society, founded in 1910. Gill did not exhibit this work, selling it in 1912 to Edward Warren, who already owned a version of Rodin’s The Kiss.

Gallery label, February 2016

Catalogue entry

T03477 Ecstasy 1910–11

Portland stone 54 × 18 × 9 (1372 × 457 × 228)
Inscribed with monogram of an eye on a hand on r. edge
Purchased from Mrs D. Webber (Grant-in-Aid) 1982
Prov: Probably purchased from the artist in 1912 by Edward Perry Warren, Lewes; H.A. Thomas, sold Sotheby's, 9 March 1949 (158), bt Leger, from whom purchased by Mrs Webber in 1954
Lit: Walter Shewring, ed., Letters of Eric Gill, 1947, p. 46; Robert Speaight, The Life of Eric Gill, 1966, p.53; Richard Cork, Art Beyond the Gallery in Early 20th Century England, 1985, p.92, repr. p.95

The title ‘Ecstasy’ is not recorded before the Sotheby sale of 1949, and is unlikely to be the artist's own.

The sculpture can be identified with a carving listed by the artist in his diaries as ‘They’, on which he worked from August 1910 to January 1911 (and perhaps slightly later). The evidence for this is:

a. it is in style an early carving, comparable to the frontal female nude in the relief ‘A Roland for an Oliver’ 1910 (University of Hull Art Collection)

b. only the early carvings are signed with the monogram of an eye on the palm of a hand

c. there is a slight drawing by Gill for this group (at the British Museum, in a folder ‘Love drawings, etc’) dated 1910, although this date seems to have been added later. The heads are positioned differently, and it is squared for transfer to a larger sheet

d. in the record book for 1 January 1911, Gill refers a sculpture as ‘“They” group “fucking”.’ No other such subject is known by him from that date, apart from the small relief inscribed ‘Votes for Women’, which would not have taken so much time to carve

e. the provenance from E.P. Warren's purchase in 1912 is probable. The artist's daughter, Mrs Petra Tegetmeier, does not recall ever seeing the relief in the studio, which confirms that it left his possession early.

Gill's record books also list a small version of ‘They’, which was probably a model in clay.

The sculpture is mentioned in letters written by Roger Fry to Gill in February 1911 (in the William Andrews Clark Memorial Library, University of California, Los Angeles). Fry acquired for himself two sculptures by Gill. The earlier of these is a ‘Cupid’, which he had received by September 1910. The second, referred to by Gill as a ‘Statue of the Virgin’, was a full size half nude, and was sketched in November 1910 and carved between February and June 1911, and is now in the Dutch Garden, Holland Park. Fry was further involved with Gill as he acted on behalf of the Contemporary Art Society to purchase his two reliefs exhibited at the Chenil Gallery in January 1911, ‘A Crucifix’ (N03563) and ‘A Roland for an Oliver’ (University of Hull Art Collection). Fry's letter to Gill of 18 February 1911, quoted in Robert Speaight (loc.cit.) is about the latter relief, and not one of the sculptures he owned: ‘We have had to stand a pretty racket over your reliefs. I'll tell you about it when we meet. Also how I want you to do away with the gilding of the necklace on Her. It is a false note I think...’

Gill wrote that these reliefs were a pair (see entry on N03563), and although they were not exhibited together it appears from Fry's letters that Gill thought of them as a series with the Tate Gallery's ‘Ecstasy’. He sent Fry a photograph of this latter sculpture just finished, to which Fry responded in a letter of 15 February 1911:

The last thing is the best of all. I find it strangely beautiful and noble. I think it is wonderful that you have gone so straight - not influenced in the least by all the associated ideas mostly impertinent that have gathered round the act in the turbid course of human life. This is real religious art. I long to see the thing itself. I hope you'll have it better photographed and let me have some.

Fry wrote again on 18 February:

The more I look at Them the more I like it. You have to me at all counts said all that you wanted and it ought to be put up in a public place. It can't be till we're much more civilized in the real sense. Do send me some photos of it. I want to send one to Ed Carpenter who will welcome it immensely.

The capital letter suggests that Gill called this group ‘Them’, as in his diary for 1 January 1911 where he lists it as ‘They’. Fry's reference to ‘A Roland for an Oliver’ as ‘Her’ implies that least in conversation Gill linked these three sculptures together.

A ‘relief group (Man and Woman embracing)’ was offered by Gill to E.P. Warren on 23 April 1912 for £60 (Walter Shewring, loc.cit.). Warren was an American who lived in Lewes, not far from Gill's studio at Ditchling, who collected classical works of art and modern sculptures by Rodin and Dalou. In 1904 he took delivery of Rodin's marble ‘Kiss’ (N06228) which he had commissioned as a replica from the artist four years before. Gill's carving is not listed in the sale catalogue of Warren's collection in 1929, and the evidence that he did acquire it is that its vendor at Sotheby's in 1949 was H.A. Thomas, who was presumably Warren's heir H. Asa Thomas (the Sotheby records of this sale are lost).

With Rodin's ‘Kiss’ and this Gill, Warren owned two of the most sexually explicit modern sculptures, although neither had been commissioned by him in the first place. Such subjects were important to Gill in his career both as a sculptor and graphic artist. Augustus John wrote to his patron John Quinn in New York on 10 February 1911 that Gill had ‘recently started doing figures’, and was ‘impressed by the importance of copulation’, probably referring to this sculpture. The group is startling for its date, and was influenced by Indian art, which Gill then admired. For Gill there was also a religious aspect to lovers, although this is not made apparent in this sculpture. He made several engravings of the same group in the 1920s, and in some the figures have haloes and are titled ‘Divine Lovers’. The carved reliefs of 1910, ‘A Crucifix’ (N03563) and ‘A Roland for an Oliver’ he considered a pair, in which the body of Christ was paralleled by that of the woman.

The relief ‘The Lovers’ by Walter Ritchie made of carved bricks (1976, Delapré Park, Northampton) is very similar to ‘Ecstasy’, but was taken from one of Gill's later prints of this subject.

The relief was accidentally damaged in the top left corner before acquisition by the Tate Gallery, and the back of the woman’s head and the man’s left wrist are missing.


Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1982-84: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions, London 1986

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