The police investigation into sex abuse known as “Operation Yewtree” has changed the face of celebrity and the arts since the inquiry began in 2012. Jimmy Savile has been censored from repeats of Top of the Pops and Rolf Harris’s 2005 portrait of the Queen has disappeared without a trace. While BBC personalities and management practices have been at the heart of Yewtree allegations the broadcaster has one lingering association with child abuse that few people would recognise when they stroll past Broadcasting House on Regent Street and look up at the sculptures of Eric Gill.
The sculptures adorning the 1932 Art Deco building were carved by an artist of the Arts and Crafts movement, Eric Gill, who died in 1940. The most prominent statue stands over the original entrance and depicts a young boy in front of an older man, representing Ariel and Prospero from Shakespeare’s “The Tempest”.
It seems innocent until you see another work by Gill, “Ecstasy”, on display at the Tate Britain (bottom-left). All the grace of the Art Deco nudes suddenly looks more primitive and unsettling, and for good reason.
In 1989 writer Fiona MacCarthy published the biography “Eric Gill” from diaries in which Gill wrote of raping two of his daughters and even the family dog, and incest with at least one of his younger sisters.
“He is remembered today for his fine engravings and stone carvings,” Publishers Weekly wrote in their review of the book. “Yet there was another side to the man, downplayed by previous biographers… Gill had a hyperactive libido which extended to incest with his sister and daughters, as well as numerous extramarital affairs, according to British writer MacCarthy. He rationalised his penile acrobatics by inventing a bizarre pseudo-religious theory… a highly-sexed creative artist trapped by his Victorian concept of masculinity.”
The statue caused some disquiet even at its first unveiling, according to the BBC website. “Concern was voiced about the size of the sprite’s genitalia. A question was tabled in the House of Commons but the popular story, that Gill was ordered to modify the statue, is not substantiated.”
After the launch of Operation Yewtree, Fay Maxted, the chief executive of The Survivors’ Trust, which supports survivors of rape, sexual violence and childhood sexual abuse, called for the BBC to remove the sculpture. “It’s an insult to allow a work like this to remain in such a public place,” she said. “It is almost mocking survivors, it is intolerable.” The BBC flatly refused.
Is it time to remove it?
The historic facade of the BBC may be too high-profile a place for a piece that should be confined to history. In 2015 the “Rhodes must fall” campaign saw Cecil Rhodes’s statue removed from South Africa’s Cape Town University as an imperialist and racist icon. The idea was picked up by students at Oriel College, Oxford, whose bid to remove their college’s bust of Rhodes failed after donors threatened to withdraw £100 million of bequests. The objections to Rhodes and his legacy grew after his death due to changing attitudes to race and empire but Gill’s behaviour would have caused a scandal if it had been known at the time of his sculpture’s installation, and it is surely just as unacceptable now.
Removing the sculpture as a knee-jerk reaction at the height of the panic that came to surround Operation Yewtree would probably have been a mistake as it could have inspired a tide of allegations against other objects on public display. Gill was also the graphic designer behind the “Perpetua” font, so are documents and web-pages tainted with the paedophile’s typeface also to be condemned? But with the passage of some time it might now be appropriate for the BBC to rethink the artworks and artists it chooses to present as its public face.
What would happen to the work if it were removed? Should it be entirely destroyed or would the more institutional setting of a gallery offer it some isolation from its background? There have been no calls to have “Ecstasy” removed from the Tate Britain despite its more graphic appearance. If there were such calls should we also take down the 16th-Century Caravaggios in the National Gallery because he murdered a man?
How far censorship and iconoclasm — the deliberate destruction of artworks — should go is a topic repeatedly debated by academics, politicians and commentators. The way that society handles the relationship between a person’s professional activity, artistic output and personal behaviour is clearly not set in stone — sculpted or otherwise.
by Stewart Vickers @VickHellfire