The inevitable start of any history of the Guild of St Joseph and St Dominic is the figure of Eric Gill. He was born in Brighton in 1882, the son of an Anglican clergyman. For his first employment, he became a trainee architect in London with the firm of W.D. Caroe, but soon decided that this gave insufficient outlet to his creative powers, and he enrolled for evening classes in practical masonry and calligraphy. His calligraphy tutor was Edward Johnston of the Central School of Arts and Crafts, and it was this meeting that was to change his life. Johnston was an important figure in the Arts & Crafts movements, playing a leading part in the revival of lettering that had been pioneered by William Morris. Under Johnson’s influence, Gill became a specialist letter cutter.
Johnson himself was a resident of the Arts & Crafts enclave of Hammersmith, and this is where Gill moved in 1905. It was William Morris who had first established the Arts & Crafts and socialist connection when he took a lease on a riverside house in 1878, which he called Kelmscott House, and founded the Kelmscott Press nearby. Morris died in 1896, but his daughter May, still lived there in 1905, as did the celebrated printer Emery Walker, the metalworker Edward Spenser and numerous other lesser-known figures from the arts and political worlds. These including a civil servant and social theorist called Douglas Pepler who soon formed a strong bond with Gill and Johnson; these three were to spend many evenings debating and developing ideas about the arts and life.
Gill himself lived a little way from the Terrace, which was the epicentre of the arts community; he was however able to rent a stable building opposite the front of the terrace (now numbered 7a) and it was there that established his first stonemason’s workshop. Soon he needed an assistant and was introduced by Emery Walker to the 14-year-old Joseph Cribb and took him on as an apprentice. Meanwhile, the intellectual life of Hammersmith was having an immense impact on Gill; he was active in Fabian Society circles and became acquainted with Arthur Penty who was to become a key figure in the development of the set of ideas that came to be called Distributism.
Eventually though, in what was to be a pattern of his life, Gill tired of his life in Hammersmith and urban life generally. He decided to move to a rural setting and chose Ditchling, close to his childhood home of Brighton. There he would re-establish his workshop, continuing with Joseph Cribb as his apprentice. In Hammersmith, he had developed his ideas and was approaching his maturity as an artist; he had also made contract with almost every important figure in the arts world and was seen as a rising star. It would however be elsewhere that was to see the flowering of his unique talent.
Pepler meanwhile continued to live and develop his ideas in Hammersmith, while keeping in regular contact with Gill. One major initiative that he was involved in was founding the Hampshire House Club in 1907, a working men’s club in Hammersmith with a strong political and didactic agenda. When war broke out, the organisation was used as a basis to organise workshop facilities for refugee Belgian craftsmen in a structure not unlike what the Guild was to become. Indeed, lessons learnt from this experience were to inform the way the Guild was set up.
- Hammersmith Terrace and its residents – https://www.emerywalker.org.uk/hammersmith-terrace
- William Morris Museum – https://williammorrissociety.org/our-museum/