Eric Gill

Prospero and Ariel


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Not on display
Eric Gill 1882–1940
Caen stone
Object: 1320 x 450 x 420 mm, 160 kg
Purchased 1935

Display caption

In 1929 the BBC commissioned Gill to decorate their new headquarters at Broadcasting House, just north of Oxford Circus in London. This is a model for the group above the main entrance. In Shakespeare’s play, The Tempest, the sorceror, Prospero, reigns over a magical island, served by an airy sprite named Ariel. Ariel provided a useful symbol for radio’s communication across the airwaves. Gill said that ‘the figures... are as much God the Father and God the Son as they are Shakespeare’s characters’. The linear style of Prospero’s hair and drapery is very close to that of Medieval carving.

Gallery label, August 2004

Catalogue entry

Not inscribed.
Caen stone, 50×18×14 (127×46×36).
Purchased from the Leicester Galleries (Clarke Fund) 1935.
Exh: Leicester Galleries, April 1935 (175).
Lit: Autobiography, 1940, pp.248–9; Letters, 1947, pp.245, 256, 369–70.
Repr: Illustrated London News, 30 October 1931, p.519 (with other models for Broadcasting House); Apollo, XVII, 1933, p.224, as the group on Broadcasting House.

A model one-third size of the group above the main door of Broadcasting House. Herbert Read first approached Gill about this commission in October 1929. In a letter of 15 February 1931 Gill referred to being in the thick of making designs for the B.B.C. (Letters, 1947, p.256); he exhibited drawings for four different designs for this group at the French Gallery, November 1933 (30, 40 and 43). The drawing on stone of the approved design was done in March–April and the carving was begun in May and finished in August 1931, according to extracts from his diary supplied by his brother Evan Gill.

The theme of Prospero and Ariel set by the B.B.C. did not appeal to Gill, and he wrote in his Autobiography: ‘I took it upon me to portray God the Father and God the Son. For even if that were not Shakespeare's meaning it ought to be the B.B.C.'s.’ The stigmata appear in the Tate Gallery and the B.B.C. Group. Philip Hagreen wrote (letter of 21 September 1951) that he saw the sketch for ‘Prospero and Ariel’ at Pigotts when it was finished but without the wounds: ‘Later I visited E.G. on the scaffolding at Broadcasting House when he had almost finished the big carving. He talked about many aspects of the work. Amongst other things, he told me that though he was commissioned to represent Prospero & Ariel as a symbol of the B.B.C.'s activity, he was thinking of the subject as God the Father sending forth the Word....Some time later, I saw the carving with the wounds - in some exhibition in London - & I assumed that it was the same that I had seen at Pigotts.’ The complex nature of the artist's symbolic intention is further elucidated in a letter to The Listener, 2 December 1936: ‘...such a group must be taken in a spiritual manner. In my view the figures at Broadcasting House are as much God the Father and God the Son as they are Shakespeare's characters, and so it is quite appropriate that the group at the French Gallery should be either Joseph and Jesus or Abraham and Isaac, for all these things are different views of the same thing’ (Letters, 1947, p.370). The group referred to as ‘Abraham and Isaac’ is a third and later version, which was exhibited at the French Gallery, November 1936 (1), and was probably carved during that year (letter from Walter Shewring, 1 September 1957). The proportions of the figures are different, those of father and son rather than of magician and sprite. It was sold to America c. 1938.

Published in:
Mary Chamot, Dennis Farr and Martin Butlin, The Modern British Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture, London 1964, I

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