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Artists and poets in the twentieth century: Ditchling

800 years of Dominican books

The sculptor, letter-cutter, and engraver Eric Gill (1882–1940) converted to Roman Catholicism in 1913. A year later he met the Dominican priest Fr Vincent McNabb at a luncheon hosted by André Raffalovich. McNabb, a powerful Catholic apologist at Hyde Park Corner, was also a distributist. He shared Gill’s critique of industrial society as corrupting of human culture. Like Gill, he valued manual crafts and work on the land. For his part, Gill was drawn to the Dominican stress on truth, rational order, and the goodness of creation. He also sensed the need for ascetic restraint of a powerful sensual appetite.

Fr. McNabb became a frequent visitor to the artistic community that grew up around Gill’s house and workshop at Ditchling in Sussex. With the printer Douglas Pepler (1878–1951), Gill became a visitor at the friars’ priory at Hawkesyard, near Rugeley in Staffordshire. It was there in 1916 that McNabb received Pepler into the Catholic Church. Pepler said of the priory after one visit, ‘I seemed to be in the power house of the Christian Church’. In 1918 four members of the Ditchling community became Dominican Tertiaries (lay affiliates of the Order): Eric Gill and his wife Mary; Douglas Pepler (who now took the name Hilary); and Desmond Chute. Others would become lay Dominicans in later years.

Inspired by the medieval guilds, Gill, Chute, Pepler and Joseph Cribb (Gill’s former apprentice and now assistant), formed the Guild of Saints Joseph and Dominic in 1920. Their constitutions acknowledged the ‘Dominican Order [as] their most explicit teachers’. In accordance with distributist ideas of individual responsibility, members owned their own tools and workshops. Methods of working and the tools used were to be judged by ‘the good of the work and the freedom of the workman’. The guild’s crafts were originally sculpture and letter-cutting, wood-engraving, carpentry, and printing.

Members often collaborated in the production of booklets published by Pepler at what from 1919 became the St Dominic’s Press. Pepler wrote that ‘the work of the printer, as all work, should be done for the glory of God.’ The printer ‘serves the maker of words, and the maker of words serves – or should serve – the Word Which became Flesh’. In 1923 the Press produced an English edition of Maritain’s 1920 book, Art et Scolastique, translated by Fr John O’Connor with Gill’s assistance as The Philosophy of Art. Gill agreed with much of Maritain’s Thomistic understanding of art and aesthetics.

Chute left Ditchling late in 1921 to study for the priesthood but remained a Dominican Tertiary. Pepler and Gill fell out dramatically in 1924. Gill resigned from the Guild in July of that year and left Ditchling for Capel-y-ffin in the Black Mountains. Others however remained, including Joseph Cribb whom McNabb commissioned in 1928 to carve stations of the cross for Hawkesyard Priory. New members joined the guild, including two weavers, Valentine Kilbride and Bernard Brocklehurst, along with, a silversmith Dunstan Pruden. Pepler, who had led the guild from 1923 for many years, was expelled in 1934 after he took on a non-Catholic employee, but he remained devoted to the Dominican Order which his son Stephen (later Fr Conrad Pepler) had entered. The guild only became open to non-Catholics in 1938 and to women in 1974. It was finally dissolved in 1989. The chapel and workshops were demolished a few years later.

The organisers are grateful to Donna Steele, Curator at Ditchling Museum of Art and Craft for her assistance with this section of the exhibition.