Saturday, 5 December 2015

Prospero and Ariel

The installation of Eric Gill's sculpture of Prospero and Ariel over the original entrance of Broadcasting House was mired in controversy from the moment it was unveiled in 1933.

The nude Ariel, or at least the size of his "organ",  caused maidens to "blush and youths to pass disparaging remarks", according to the Daily Herald. An unrepentant Gill retorted that he had only followed the Corporation's request: "I am only a servant of the BBC, and if a statue is placed under the responsibility of Sir John Reith and other directors then it must be all right. Supposing I want to erect an immoral statue outside Broadcasting House, I could not do so. Ariel, the boy, is only ten years old. He cannot be offending women, and are men going to be offended? I think not "

Local MP George Gibson Mitcheson passed the sculpture every day on his way home and is reported to have claimed in Parliament that the figures were "objectionable to public morals and decency". Eventually Gill compromised and chiselled a bit of the offending part of Ariel. He did, however, leave behind a hidden memento at the back of the sculpture, the face of a girl that "nobody will find until Broadcasting House falls down". In the event it was uncovered in 2004 when work began on cleaning and remodelling the building.

Referring to the carvings at Broadcasting House in his autobiography Gill viewed them as a "failure". Elaborating on this he said: "I mean simply that I don't much like looking at them. The idea was grand but I was incapable of carrying it out adequately. Prospero and Ariel! Well you think. The Tempest and romance and Shakespeare and all that stuff. Very clever of the BBC to hit on the idea, Ariel and aerial. Ha! Ha!"

As to why he chose to represent them as Father and Son: "I don't know anything about Shakespeare's intentions, but it didn't seem to me to be unduly straining the poem to see in the figure of Prospero much more than that of a clever old magician, or in that of Ariel more than that of a silly fairy. Had not Prospero power over the immortal Gods? At any rate it seemed to be only right and proper that I should see the matter in as bright a light as possible and so I took it upon me to portray God the Father and God the Son. For even if that were not Shakespeare's meaning it ought to be the BBC's".

He was pretty scathing about his fellow artists too: "My sculpturing experiments were, after all, only an extension of my lettercutting into another sphere - but it was a sphere into which the arts and crafts movement of William Morris and his followers had not only never extended, but had fought shy of and turned away from. My friends in the arts and crafts circles rather looked askance at me. I seemed to be deserting their homely fireside and going into brothels and dance-halls. They really are like that; they're terribly strait-laced and prim."

Gill was, and remains, a controversial figure, though his sculptures are much admired and his lasting contribution to typefaces - see Gill Sans etc. - and through to modern-day fonts is undeniable.

Seventy years after his death Gill was back in the news in the wake of the Savile scandal with the Daily Mail, never failing to hop onto any passing bandwagon, calling for the BBC to "remove sculpture of naked boy from outside Broadcasting House". This picked up on some disturbing revelations in a Gill biography, though this had been published some twenty-odd years earlier. Needless to say they still standing, overlooking Portland Place.  

You can hear more about Eric Gill and his work for the BBC when Radio 4 Extra repeats The BBC Tour on Saturday 12 December.   

Autobiography by Eric Gill (Jonathan Cape, 1970)
The Story of Broadcasting House by Mark Hines (Merrell, 2008)
Action Stations by Colin Reid (Robson Books, 1987)

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