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Eric Gill, incest and Petra Tegetmeier

December 20, 2010

UPDATE – February 4 2011.

There is something not right in this post. It has, I notice, been generating a number of views and it is only justified if I update my view. Yes, Gill can be classified as having committed incest. Yes, he also had bestial sex. As such he would be condemned in our world. And, indeed, had it been known what he was doing to his own children in the 1920s I don’t think any right minded person would have given him comfort, me certainly. I don’t give him comfort now. Let me make that clear. I do not bypass these events and say, “well, he was a fine typographer, a good stone carver, a passable sculptor so let it be”. Do we give him the benefit, do we, like Catholics, which he was, pass this by? No. So we have to acknowledge the fact and respond in our own way. I would much appreciate comment on this: what do you think?

This is the text of the original post – please read in light of above.

STARTS

I’ve been mulling this question over for some weeks now in my mind since an earlier post. Clearly Gill had sex with his own daughters – it is well documented. Does this make him, in the terms of the British tabloid press, ‘a monster’?

No.

I finally came across what I had been searching for today – the obituary for Petra Tegetmeir. She died on January 1, 1999, age 92. By the accounts written she lived a full, happy and rich life. This is by Patrick Nuttgens from the Guardian. (Nuttgens a stained glass craftsman lived near Gill in Pigotts.)

“Gill introduced Betty [older sister] and Petra to the mysteries of sex and recorded the occasions in his diaries. A remarkable aspect of those liaisons with Petra is that she seems not only to have been undamaged by the experience, but to have become the most calm, reflective and straightforward wife and mother. When I asked her about it shortly before her 90th birthday, she assured me that she was not at all embarrassed – ‘We just took it for granted’. She agreed that had she gone to school [the children were taught at home by their father] she might have learned how unconventional her father’s behaviour was. He had, she explained, ‘endless curiosity about sex’. His bed companions were not only family but domestic helpers and even (to my astonishment when I heard about it) the teacher who ran the school at Pigotts.”

Then this by Lottie Hoare, published in the Independent.

“When Fiona MacCarthy’s biography Eric Gill (1989) revealed from the evidence of Gill’s diaries, his sexual relations with his two eldest daughters Petra remained unflappable in the face of media furore. She made it clear that her own attitude to sex had not been harmed. The sisters had never been made to feel shame.”

[The illustrations are: top-Gill portrait of Petra, 1922; Gill study of Petra in a bath, 1923; and a photo taken at Ditchling with Gill, centre, and Petra to his left.)

12 Comments leave one →
  1. eleisha permalink
    May 2, 2011 3:01 am

    her own attitude to sex may not have been harmed, but is that to say what gill did to his daughters was okay? does her not having been harmed still make him a good person, because from my own experience of researching him, i think that knowing his private life, has ruined all enjoyment i could have got from his work.

    does knowledge of the artists private life, change your opinion of the artists works, or just him?

    • john pitt permalink*
      May 2, 2011 8:20 am

      Thank you for your comment. I quite agree with you.

  2. November 7, 2013 8:30 pm

    “Does this make him, in the terms of the British tabloid press, ‘a monster’?”

    Who cares what the British press think? Gill’s motives and actions were reprehensible. He would have been imprisoned had he been caught back then. Acting upon his lust was NEVER justifiable and never will be. The only likely reason Petra appeared “undamaged by the experience” was because her father had groomed her and conditioned her like so many paedophiles do. I’ve always been a fan of his work, but Gill’s personal life was abhorrent. Sex with your own children. No amount of argument will make what Gill did in any way acceptable. So, yes, Gill was a monster without any uncertainty.

  3. Barbara S permalink
    May 17, 2015 12:45 am

    He came to Catholicism later in life. Did he curtail his behavior after converting to Catholicism?

    • john pitt permalink*
      May 18, 2015 7:41 pm

      Hi Barbara – I regret not.

  4. Emma permalink
    May 28, 2015 6:25 pm

    He didn’t ‘have sex’ with his own daughters, he sexually abused them. There is a big difference, even if grooming made it seem ‘okay’ to them. You come across as a peadophile apologist by the way. The man was a monster, and there is simply no getting away from that. No one was safe from him, no matter how ‘kindly’ he might have dressed up the abuse. I was sexually molested as a child by a trusted relative, and try every day to live my life as though it hasn’t affected me, but as life has gone on I’ve realised how deeply it changed and affected my life from that early age. The only difference between me and Petra is that talking about it in her day wasn’t done, and that is why she would have taken to the grave her true feelings on the subject. Pride, and a need to not readdress the past would have meant she no doubt put an extremely brave face on it. Abuse has been proven to be damaging…it even has been proven to change parts of the brain so that there is a heightened awareness about safety to the point of paranoia. Please don’t play it down for your own agenda.

    • john pitt permalink*
      May 28, 2015 8:01 pm

      Thanks Emma for your comment. I agree absolutely and I hope others will read your post. Eric Gill was a monster. Full stop.

  5. June 17, 2015 3:59 am

    He was featured on a television programme last night and his biographer, Fiona MacCarthy made a big thing about separating the art from the man and what a great artist he was. This was a man who repeatedly sodomised his own daughters. Maccarthy has the moral sense of a wood louse.

    • john pitt permalink*
      June 17, 2015 8:52 pm

      I did not see the programme but from what you say I agree. Gill was an abuser. There can be no apology.

    • john pitt permalink*
      June 19, 2015 11:12 am

      Is it possible that TV programme may be in the internet? Can you send me a link if so. Many thanks. John

  6. K Hubert permalink
    June 17, 2015 9:42 pm

    Petra’s abuse was revealed in her 80s. My own experience of familial sexual abuse (see note in last paragraph) is that it is far easier to genuinely be, or appear to be, self-possessed or impassive with the distance of time. Especially when the abuser is dead. The elderly and middle-aged women that I know of who in their latter years acknowledged instances of sexually abuse, date-rape or rape, had gone on with their lives and pushed it out of their minds, because especially then, there was no alternative. The widespread view was “least said, soonest mended”. To raise it with family or outside the home meant you were likely to become persona non grata. People simply didn’t want to know.

    If Petra had been asked how she would have felt if it was one of her four daughters or two sons being used for Gill’s sexual curiosity and pleasure, then I think it would give a better inkling of her true feelings or understanding of the situation with hindsight – rather than appearing “unflappable” or “not at all embarrassed” to the reporters or commentators cited.

    Eric Gill sounds was opportunistic sexual abuser who maltreated his vulnerable and trusting daughters purely to satisfy his own narcissistic gratification. Petra acknowledges by her responses (above) that she was isolated and in a household dominated by her father’s own interests and sense of self-importance above all others. He impoverished and neglected his children, moving them to an isolated locale, to further his own sense of self-importance. While his women dealt with the drudgery of keeping the household fed and warm. No doubt he made certain to not inform his daughters of the taboo attached to his behaviour lest they question it. Uninformed and trapped unawares, they were sexually and psychologically abused. She may not have recollected shame over 60 years later, but I am sure she felt exploited – and horror at the thought of the same thing happening to her own children. I pity her… this is her legacy now. As for Eric Gill, he deserves his sullied reputation.

    (It should be noted her that a quarter of girls and up to one eighth of boys are likely to experience a form of child sexual abuse in Western societies. It is thought to be probably higher in the Mid East, Africa, South America and Far East, because of more retrogressive religious and social norms, poverty, higher levels of child exploitation, and lower recognition levels of human rights.)

    • john pitt permalink*
      June 19, 2015 11:11 am

      Thank you for your considered and reasoned response. I qualified as a social worker a few years ago and now work in child protection in Australia (typography being one of my outside passions). This country set up a Royal Commission on institutional child sexual abuse (see here https://www.childabuseroyalcommission.gov.au) which has brought to light the horrors and tragedies of young people (now middle age and older adults) who were assaulted while, often, in the care of the ‘church’. Only this week a former Marist Brother was jailed for his crimes (http://www.brokenrites.org.au/drupal/node/342). Yet as a social worker I am still presented with awful stories of children who have been abused, often by family members. Do not give up the cause. Thank you.

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