4.2 Catholicism

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When Gill moved to Ditchling in 1907, it appealed to him as a rural retreat from the world. He was interested in developing a life that united all aspects of work, art and family. To this could be added spirituality. As the son of a non-conformist minister, religion was an established part of his life, one that he was seeking to develop and incorporate into his emerging philosophy.

Of significance, was his meeting with Ananda Coomaraswamy, a Sri Lankan Tamil metaphysician and philosopher of Indian art who was an early interpreter of Indian culture to the West. Coomaraswamy was instrumental in Gill developing ideas about the close relationship between the spiritual and the erotic, also he learned the aphorism he would often use, “An artist is not a special kind of person, but every man is a special kind of artist.

Still, Gill sought greater understanding of spirituality, and on a working visit to Mont César, a French Benedictine Monastery, he began to see greater spiritual possibilities within the Catholic faith. He was particularly impressed by his discourses with one Farther Anselm and listening to plainchant. From this basis he entered into discussions with various religious figures before taking instruction from Canon Connelly at Brighton. On Saturday 22 February 1913, he and his wife, Ethel, were received into the Catholic Church. From Gill’s point of view, he thought he was inventing a new metaphysic and found that it was already part of Catholicism. This idea he identifies as being the notion that ‘Man was the consciousness of God’.

At all events, soon after, his great friend from Hammersmith, Douglas Pepler followed him, in his taking the new Christian name of Hilary. It is worth recalling that following the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1832, the Victorian era saw a revival of interest in pre-Reformation religious practice and belief, reflected in such intellectual developments such as Gothic Revival in Architecture and the Oxford Movement in the church of England. The notion that the Catholic Church had valid claims to being closer to the early church led to a great many conversions in the late Victorian and Edwardian eras. This appeal would have been keenly felt by an artist such as Gill, for whom the recovery of simplicity in life and art was an important ambition.

As with most things Gill took up, he threw himself into the life of the church with great enthusiasm. He became friends with social theorist Farther Vincent McNabb who introduced both Gill and Pepler to the Dominican order; meanwhile Gill’s acolyte, Desmond Chute, gave them the idea of becoming tertiaries. Chute himself was already a Franciscan tertiary and explained the system to Gill, being of the world but at the same time committed to a religious order.

The first five tertiaries from Ditchling were Eric and Mary Gill, Desmond Chute (who clearly had switched allegiance) and Herbert Shove; they were meeting regularly as a chapter by the summer of 1920. Joseph Cribb soon joined them, and Gill was the first prior.

In describing the first days of the Guild of St Joseph and St Dominic on Ditchling Common, Fiona MacCarthy writes: ‘The seriousness of endeavour mixed with high-spirited excitement at the novelty of things, almost a sense of daring, comes over very strongly in the minutes of the early Tertiary meetings. It was a self-consciously arduous programme. This saying of the office in public, systematically, by Tertiaries was in fact unusual. It has no equivalent in the history of the Dominicans in England. No one ever before, as far as one can see, lived a lay tertiary life with the commitment of Gill and Pepler’s community in Ditchling.’

When the Guild was formed, the importance of the Catholic faith was reflected in the requirement that all members, apprentices and employees should be Catholics and that all full members should be Dominican Tertiaries. The following rules also appeared in the constitution:

  • That all work is ordained to God and should be Divine worship.
    As human life is ordained to God so must human work be. We cannot serve God and Mammon, but we can love God and our neighbour. The love of God means that work must be done according to an absolute standard of reasonableness; the love of our neighbour means that work must be done according to an absolute standard of serviceableness. Good quality is therefore twofold, work must be good in itself and good for use. (From ‘Actus Sequitur Esse’,The Game, Sept.,1921).
  • That the principle of individual human responsibility being a fundamental of Catholic doctrine and this principle involving the principle of ownership, workmen should own their own tools, their workshops and the product of their work.

The Chapel and daily prayers added to the quasi-monastic routine of the Guild which, though diluted over time, was maintained to the end.