Eric Gill: Boxers 1913

  • ERIC GILL was one of the most significant sculptors of the early twentieth century. His semi-religious belief in direct stone carving transformed approaches to sculpture for the rest of the century, influencing the approach of artists like Jacob Epstein and Henry Moore. Gill was a Roman Catholic and his religious fervour translated into his work, with direct carving, erotic nudes and Christian iconography coming together in a complex and avant garde mixture. Boxers is a relief carving, made between 15 May and 4 July 1913. The figures project from the stone block, their bodies pushing away from it and into the viewer’s space. The roundedness of their limbs and the depth of relief suggests a skilful manipulation of the stone. When a sculptor makes a relief, they must manage the extent of the projection and temper the risk of a failure in the stone. It is difficult therefore to free the figures from the block, to make them appear separate from it, even as they remain connected to it. This is the feat which Gill achieved in Boxers.

     

    It is significant that Boxers was made by ‘direct carving’. In the nineteenth and early twentieth century, it was commonplace for sculptors to make stone sculpture by modelling. A small-scale wax or clay model was made and then scaled-up into a plaster, which was then copied into stone using a pointing machine. Gill was one of the first to reject this working method, preferring to carve the stone ‘directly’ – in other words, using his own hammer and chisel with the aid of preparatory drawings only. His first direct carving was made in 1909. Boxers, made just four years later, is an early and rare example of this original technique.

  • The sculpture depicts two boys locked in combat. In a letter to Geoffrey Keynes of 31 March 1915, Gill acknowledged the subject as either ‘boxers’ or ‘wrestlers’. Wrestling had popular appeal in the Edwardian years and was also treated by Gill’s contemporary, the sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, who like Gill favoured the direct carving technique. The left-hand figure is digging his elbow into the back of his opponent, who has forced his way on bended knee into the torso of the first figure. This subject perhaps held special relevance to the artist at the time of its making in 1913, when Gill wrote to his mentor William Rothenstein that ‘[t]he war between the flesh and the spirit is a trial at present. If I wanted either of them to win it would be easier but I don’t and that’s what makes it difficult.’ These two irreconcilable pressures in Gill’s life might reasonably be said to underpin the two wrestling figures depicted in this frieze. The composition of Boxers is dynamic, suggesting an interest in Greek models. Indeed, up to this time Gill had primarily depicted the Madonna with Child. Boxers was a divergence into secular subject-matters which required a different range of gestures from Gill’s earlier work. Greek models would have provided him with the attitudes he needed to fulfil his commission. The format of Boxers resembles a metope – the carved stone panels inserted into the frieze of an antique temple. The best known antique metope carvings are the Elgin Marbles that once adorned the Parthenon. Boxers would suggest that Gill was keenly interested in such precedents.

     

    Though Gill repeatedly treated subjects in the nude, including the Virgin Mary, the use of nudity in Boxers is peculiarly fitting to the subject-matter. It has been widely known since Roman times that wrestling in the nude was common practice in certain Greek city states such as Sparta. Gill further embroidered this Mediterranean context, painting the boys’ flesh in red and yellow. The ethnic characteristics of the boys, with their wide oval eyelids and jet-black hair, further suggests an orientalist approach. There is an element of fantasy in their physiognomy which is characteristic of Gill. Boxers also has a notable provenance. It was commissioned from Gill by Count Harry Kessler, an Anglo-German man of culture and a patron of modern art. He never took possession of the work, however, and it remained in Gill’s studio until 1915. At that time it was purchased from the artist by another of his patron friends, Geoffrey Keynes. Keynes made a number of visits to see Gill at Ditchling in 1912 and 1913, on one occasion visiting with the poet Rupert Brooke and later commissioning a Mother and Child subject from him. Gill addressed his letters to ‘my dear Keynes’ and borrowed Keynes’ Mother and Child carving for an exhibition at Goupil Gallery in 1914 – the very place where Keynes first saw Boxers. Keynes acquired the work in April 1915 as a wedding gift for his friend, George Mallory. Mallory was working at Charterhouse at the time though he later became famous for his mountaineering exploits. He eventually lost his life in an attempt to summit Mount Everest in 1922. Boxers was returned to Keynes in 1924, a reminder of both his friend’s marital joy as well as his friend’s tragic end.

  • Though Boxers was first exhibited in an unpainted state at Goupil Gallery in January 1914, Gill eventually painted it in February or March that year. The left figure was in yellow, the right in red, the background in green and the architectural framing in blue. A preparatory work (1913, Harry Ransom Center, Texas) used the same colours and may suggest Gill’s intention to paint it. That it was exhibited at Goupil in an unpainted state would suggest that Gill was in two minds about painting it, however. Indeed, the colouring is a rare treatment in the span of Gill’s career. When enquiring after the work in correspondence from March 1914, Keynes asked if it could be stripped of its colour. In a reply of 31 March, Gill suggested that the paint would be lodged in the pores of the stone and that stripping the stone would leave an uneven finish. All the same, he consented, writing that ‘if necessary I cd. have a try’. After receiving it as a gift, Mallory wrote to Keynes on 29 April 1915 that ‘I am somewhat knocked out at the first moment by the colours - the yellow most particularly’. In time, however, he too sought to strip the work of its colour.

     

    The present appearance of the sculpture, where areas of the surface colour have been removed, is partly the result of Mallory’s intervention. After that initial removal of surface colour, the work was untouched for almost a century. The work was then conserved for Piano Nobile in May 2019 when a layer of dirt was removed to reveal the brilliance of the original paint and the subtlety of Gill’s stone craft. Mallory’s initial removal of surface colour exposed the subtle musculature of the figures, with colour being removed primarily from the figures and not from the architectural surround. The recent conservation further reveals Gill’s nuanced handling of the stone, which has not been so evident since he first exhibited the unpainted relief at Goupil Gallery in 1914. Boxers is a significant work in Gill’s oeuvre. Its recent cleaning brings to attention the artist’s brilliant, even daring combinations of colour with a dynamic and rare secular subject. A Grecian influence underpins the dynamic wrestling pose, an orientalist approach is immediately apparent in the treatment of the figures, and the architectural format of the work intimates an antique temple – a magnificent setting, cognate with the growing ambition that Gill had for his work at this early phase of his career. As well as intimating a troubling and unresolvable struggle within Gill between matters of the spirit and of the flesh, the rich craftsmanship of his direct carving technique gives Boxers a presence that is serene, substantial, and unlike anything else in British stone sculpture of the early twentieth century.

  • Eric Gill, Boxers, 1913

    Eric Gill

    Boxers, 1913 Portland stone with polychromy
    55.8 x 49 x 17 cm
    22 x 19 1/4 x 6 3/4 in