When Eric Gill moved to Ditchling in 1907 he had already established a thriving business in cutting stone inscriptions in his workshop in Hammersmith. He brought with him his assistant Joseph Cribb. He bought the house Sopers on the High Street and had his workshop there until he moved to Hopkins Crank on Ditchling Common in 1913. While he lived at Sopers Gill developed new skills, learning to make wood engravings and to carve sculptures. His letter cutting business continued to expand, and at the same time new commissions were gained for sculpture and engravings.
Gill’s sculpture represented a new beginning for sculpture in Britain, because he utilised his skills as a letter cutter to revive the art of making sculpture by direct carving. When Gill made his first sculpture in 1909, most sculpture was modelled, then cast by a foundry or carved by stone masons from the artist’s model. A similar return to direct carving was being pioneered at the same time in France by the Romanian sculptor Brancusi. Gill’s carving technique directly influenced the work of Jacob Epstein (who came to Ditchling to learn about carving from Gill during 1910-11), and indirectly Henri Gaudier-Breska, Frank Dobson, Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore. In 1911 he successfully exhibited his sculptures in London and by 1914 had been chosen for a prestigious commission: the Stations of the Cross at the Roman Catholic Westminster Cathedral. This commission reflected Gill’s conversion in 1913 to Roman Catholicism. As well as bringing new commissions his new faith became central to his whole philosophy of work.
Gill lived and worked on Ditchling Common until 1924. He completed the Westminster Cathedral Stations in 1918. Public commissions continued to be given to him, particularly the need for War Memorials following the end of the first World War. As well as sculpture and letter cutting Gill’s skills as a wood engraver was increasingly in demand, as he began to illustrate books for the newly established St Dominic’s Press. His friend Hilary Pepler, founder of the Press, also provided Gill with the opportunity to publish short pamphlets on sculpture, religion, politics and morality. With Pepler and others, Gill established the Guild of St. Joseph and St Dominic (see page 000), a community of artists and craftworkers on Ditchling Common which was to survive until the 1980s.
By 1924, when Gill left Ditchling Common to move to Capel-y-Ffin, near Abagavenny, in Wales, he had developed the full range of skills he was to practice throughout the rest of his life and had established himself as a well-known and respected artist. And through his work with Pepler had furthered his interest in the creation of books, to be extended into his work on typography and the establishment of his own press a few years later.
Although his later visits to Ditchling were infrequent and social, his work continued to be made there by his assistant Joseph Cribb who carved occasional pieces of Gill’s work in his workshop on Ditchling Common until Gill’s death in 1940. His 17 years in Ditchling had enabled him to develop himself and his work and when he left he left behind him a rich and lasting heritage of devotion to making beautiful objects by hand.
Eric Gill’s work can be still be seen in Ditchling, in the Museum are examples of his letter cutting, sculpture, wood engraving and writings. His lettering can be seen on several monuments in St Margaret’s churchyard. His Ditchling homes, Sopers on the High Street and Hopkin’s Crank on the Common, are still to be seen, both marked with plaques carved by his nephew the sculptor and letter cutter John Skelton.