2.2 Early years in Ditchling – 1907 to 1919

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When Gill moved to Ditchling in 1907, he acquired a house called Sopers in the heart of the village. The village was already home to several artists including painter Frank Brangwyn and weaver, Ethel Mairet, so, like Hammersmith, it was already something of an Arts & Crafts centre. His workshop at Sopers was opening in Spring 1908, but he still spent much time in London keeping up with his friends and contacts in the artistic community. Initially he had concentrated on lettering, but in 1909 he decided to become a sculptor. He also acquired new philosopher friends, in the sculptor Jacob Epstein and Ananda Coomaraswarmy, an expert in the arts and crafts of India. Indeed, from Epstein he acquired the important commission to design the lettering on Oscar Wilde’s tomb, Joseph Cribb carrying out the work itself.

In May 1912 there was another significant development in Gill’s life when he stayed at the Benedictine Monastery of Mont César. This awakened an interest in the Catholic Faith which led to his to his being received into the church in February 1913. Soon afterwards, he left Sopers and Ditchling village behind, acquiring a farm house called Hopkin’s Crank, about two miles away, on the edge of Ditchling Common. It was a further retreat into rural life, now embracing the idea of holy poverty. It was around this time that he received the commission that was to establish his reputation, that for the Stations of the Cross at Westminster Cathedral.

Sopers in Ditchling Village where first Gill and then Pepler lived

Throughout his time in Ditchling, Gill had kept in touch with Johnston and Pepler and, when Johnson was advised by his Doctor in 1912 to move to the country, he naturally sought out a location near Gill and moved to Ditching High Street. Pepler soon after followed ‘the prophet Johnson into the wilds’ buying Gill’s old residence of Sopers and taking up the craft of printing using an eighteenth century Stanhope Press in Gill’s old workshop. In 1916, Johnston and Pepler, moved to Hallett’s farm on the edge of the common and the three friends were able to revive their Hammersmith debates and conversations. It was about this time that they started the occasional journal, The Game, the title of which reflected the playful and joyous mood of those years.

An entirely new dimension was added to the enterprise in 1917 with the arrival in the area of Fr Vincent McNabb, an influential Dominican Monk. Described, perhaps unfairly, as a ‘thirteenth century Monk alive in the twentieth century’, his ardent Catholicism and interest in social justice fired the imagination of both Gill and the Quaker, Pepler who became a Catholic soon after. Johnston’s interest was also aroused, but he was unable to take the ultimate step of conversion, and this was to lead to his falling away from the others. On 29 July 1918, Pepler and Gill together with Gill’s wife, Commander Herbert Shove (a local resident) and  Desmond Chute (a student of Gill’s),  became Dominican Tertiaries, in a sense, lay members of the Order. They were soon joined by Joseph Cribb, Gill’s former apprentice, now assistant. In 1919 Pepler sold Halletts to Commander Shove and acquired Fragbarrow Farm, very close to Hopkins Crank. Johnson meanwhile returned to the village, now a little estranged following his friends’ conversion to Catholicism.

Gill’s and Pepler’s ideas continued to grow. In his book, The Servile State, Hilaire Belloc had argued for a decentralised society, proposing a return to private property in ownership of tools, workshops and land. Belloc was joined in his enthusiasm by GK Chesterton and Arthur Penty. McNabb was an ardent proponent of these ideas, and had convinced both Pepler and Gill of the rightness of the cause of rejecting of both state socialism and capitalism, instead advocating a widespread distribution of the ownership of the means of production. Arthur Penty had written about ways in which these ideas could be advanced by a revival of the medieval guild system, whereby self-employed craftsman could come together under the oversight of a shared organisation without sacrificing much of their independence. To this thinking, Gill added his Catholicism, largely influenced by Fr. McNabb and the vision by 1920, the vision was ready to be implemented.

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