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Clustered around a crossroads with a church, two pubs, a tea room and an estate agent, Ditchling is a typical East Sussex village. Atypically, though, it boasts its own silversmith, Pruden & Smith, and its own museum, the newly relaunched Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft. The two establishments are not unconnected. A case in the museum is devoted to the work of Dunstan Pruden, grandfather of the present silversmith – but unlike the shop window in the village, it displays church plate.
Grandpa Pruden was a member of the religious community of craftspeople established at Ditchling during the First World War by the stone-carver and letterer Eric Gill, the calligrapher Edward Johnston and the printer Hilary Pepler, later joined by the artist-poet David Jones, the engraver (and sometime Tablet cartoonist) Philip Hagreen and the weaver Valentine KilBride. Like Gill himself, most of the group were converts to Catholicism, and in 1921 they were formally constituted as the Guild of St Joseph and St Dominic under the combined patronage of a craftsman and a preacher.
Born of preaching stock – his father was a Protestant minister and three of his siblings were missionaries – Gill brought reformist zeal to the Ditchling project. As a socialist formerly given to sporting a red tie and socks around London, he sympathised with the politics of William Morris but not with his taste in decoration. While sharing the Arts and Crafts ideal of a return to medieval working practices, he preached the Modernist aesthetic of form following function. The plain Gill Sans typeface he designed in the late 1920s after leaving Ditchling is still in widespread use – with minor digitisation – today. So are the block letters designed by Edward Johnston for the London Underground in 1916. Seeing the familiar enamel sign reading “WAY OUT BROMPTON ROAD” in a museum case, I wondered how many of the rush-hour crowds pouring past on their way to Knightsbridge ever dreamt that this iconic piece of modern urban signage originated in a Catholic community on the South Downs?
When Gill first moved to Ditchling village in 1907 with his young family and 15-year-old apprentice Joseph Cribb, he was a letter-carver and monumental mason in search of a country lifestyle. It was not until 1909 that he discovered sculpture, and not until 1913 that he found Catholicism and with it an answer to the perennial question, “What is art for?”. “The affirmation of an absolute value is a religious affirmation,” he later argued in Christianity and Art, concluding: “If we want art we must again get religion.”
Get religion the Ditchling community did. By 1922 there were 41 Catholics living and working in the cottages and workshops around the newly constructed chapel on Ditchling Common. The rhythms of the working day were rung out by the bell that summoned guild members to prayers and now hangs in the main gallery over a case of objects from the chapel. Beside it are the handwritten rules of the guild, beginning with Rule 1: “That all work is ordained to God and should be divine worship.”
The ideal of holy poverty espoused by the guild was demanding but, to outsiders, idyllic. The young Tom Burns, later editor of The Tablet, dossed in a hayloft when visiting with Augustus John’s son Henry as a schoolboy from Stonyhurst. One impressionable visitor thought he saw a nimbus hovering around Eric Gill’s head at dinner; another was shocked to see the artist light his pipe from a taper burning under an icon of the Virgin. This mix of the earthy and the spiritual was typical of Gill. It was part of a lifelong, over-literal crusade to integrate flesh and spirit, waged through Welfare Handbooks published by the St Dominic’s Press with idiosyncratic titles like Missions, or Sheepfolds & Shambles by A. Sheep.
Gill’s was a personal religion that craved the certainty of rules to which he could prove the exception. The man who once claimed God as “the great consumer of custard” – in support of his theory that divine necessity was the only justification for a thing’s existence – was also the artist who introduced a dangerously erotic dimension to Christian imagery. The small pewter icon Divine Lovers (1923) showing an embracing couple crowned with haloes dates from four years after the completion of Gill’s Stations of the Cross for Westminster Cathedral. It reproduces the pose of the copulating couple in the sexually explicit 1910 carving Ecstasy (for which the artist had a more vernacular title).
Revelations in Fiona MacCarthy’s 1989 biography of Gill’s sexual relations with his daughters knocked the artist off his pedestal, and now is a difficult time to reinstate him. The relaunched museum deals with the problem by downplaying both his sexuality and his Catholicism, focusing – as its new name makes clear – on the art + craft. The plus sign replacing the usual ampersand is a subliminal reminder of the centrality of religion in the Ditchling project: engraved into the window glass, it reverts to spiritual type when it mingles with the stone memorials in the churchyard outside. High ceilings, Gothic-shaped screens and black zinc cladding in the new extensions to the old museum’s Victorian school buildings strike a subtle note of spirituality, while the new entrance through an eighteenth-century cart lodge hints at the other half of the guild equation, the simple life. The aim of the architects, Adam Richards, was to recreate the feel of a “sacred workshop”, culminating in a chapel-like space where the guild’s original Stanhope printing press takes the place of the altar.
Gill, who once compared the architecture of St Peter’s contemptuously to the Ritz Palace Hotel, would have approved of the honest-to-goodness functionality of the redesign. But he would have been astonished, as I was, to read the new museum leaflet and see that all mention of Catholicism has been suppressed. In a society that claims to celebrate multiculturalism, is the C-word really so unmentionable? It should be included at least as a warning to visiting atheists, who may be shocked by the number of religious artefacts.