Gill's graveyard legacy

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A COUNTRY graveyard between Garstang and Longridge contains a secret which will fascinate lovers of the history of art, sculpture and typography. The cemetery contains one of the few examples of controversial craftsman Eric Gill's sculptural works in this part of the country. Yet the headstone, like the story of Gill's love affair in the 1930s with Garstang teacher May Reeves featured last week, is virtually unknown. In the second of his two-part feature on Gill's local legacy deputy

A SPIDER jerkily traces her way over the web she has woven across the carving of the crucified Christ on the weather-beaten headstone of Jose-ph and Mary.

The gossamer covering of the horrific yet sanctified scene at Golgotha immediately heightens the sense of the gothic…

But brush away the cobweb and the remains of dry lichen roots, study the headstone's carving and typography more closely, and artistry of a different era than gothic will come into view.

Rather than the mock mediaeval and traditional style headstones on the graves surrounding it, the memorial marking the last resting place of Joseph and Mary Reeves is distinctly different.

The Catholic couple buried there are almost certainly the parents of May Reeves, the Garstang woman who became Eric Gill's lover in the early 1930s.

Gill, married since 1904, was already a friend of May's brother Father John-Baptist Reeves, and had taken a shine to her sister Annie before starting an adulterous relationship with May at the same time as he was working on sculptures and murals at the art deco Midland Hotel, Morecambe.

The Gill headstone has been "discovered" by Moreca-mbe historian Peter Wade, during his research into Gill's Lancas-hire links.

Peter's find was aided by a reference in "Eric Gill: The Sculpture" by Judith Collins (The Herbert Press).

The book lists all Gill's known works, including a description of a Gill-carved headstone for a Mary Reeves lodged with Gill's papers at the Clarke Library at the University of California, Los Angeles.

It says the headstone is at a cemetery in Garstang. Peter discovered with the help of Father David Elder, priest at Garstang's SS Mary and Michael Church, that the reference was inaccurate.

Further research with the help of Lancashire Library and 1927 back copies of a newspaper death notice for Mary Reeves revealed her grave was at St Thomas the Apostle Roman Catholic Church, Claughton on Brock.

As Gill is believed to have met May Reeves in the early 1930s a puzzle remains as to why he would have been asked to work on this particular headstone in 1927.

Peter conjectures that one possibility is that Gill's ecclesiastical or commercial links could have played a part.

Gill had worked on an altarpiece for Rossall School, visiting the school near Fleetwood in 1928 to see it set up.

He may have become friendly with the Reeves family around that time, and have been asked by them to create the headstone after Mary died.

A stronger possibility is that the headstone was created after Joseph's death in 1932. It is likely that the headstone, naming both parents was a loving tribute from the Reeves' children to their mother and father, using the creative talents of their internationally renowned sculptor friend.

Few, if any, parishioners at Claughton are aware of the hidden Gill gem in their church's cemetery, or the story of the love liaison with which it is inextricably linked.

Seventy years of rain and wind have done their best to weather the headstone, but a discerning eye with a bit of knowledge of Gill's artistic style and typography will be able to detect the appealing, simple lines of the Christ on the cross carving and the functional yet attractive typeface (quite different from his more famous Gill Sans) on the inscription to Mary and Joseph.

Claughton parish priest Father Stephen Cross was unaware of the Gill connection in the graveyard until being informed about it last month by Morecambe historian Peter Wade and The Courier during our shared research for this article.

Father Cross said there was no reference to the headstone or its famous creator in a booklet on the history of the church published 10 years ago.

He added while the well-tended graveyard did get many visitors of relatives of people buried there he had not seen anyone visiting the Reeves grave.

Peter believes the "discovery" of the headstone could lead to the isolated cemetery becoming a point of a pilgrimage for fans of the controversial craftsman, whose sexual activities and often erotic artistry, were regarded by many of his fellow Catholics as being at odds with his religious profession.

Peter said: "There are many people interested in Gill's work and I am sure the headstone at Claughton on Brock, to which little attention has been paid over the years, will be of considerable interest to them."

He added: "I hope this puts Claughton on Brock on the artistic and cultural map of Britain."

Peter, who has lectured in art deco for Lancaster City Council and Lancaster University, and published historical booklets on the subject, intends to incorporate references to Gill's Claughton headstone in future lectures and publications.

The other Gill link with Garstang - which is possibly a teasing hint about his affair with May or at least an obvious reference by Gill to the area - can still be seen at the Midland hotel, Morecambe.

The hotel contains several Gill works, including the wonderfully ornate seahorses on the exterior, a carved frieze and a large map of Lancashire and the Lake District.

The map features motifs of 1930s-style ocean liners in Morecambe Bay, and a steam train running along the main west coast railway line.

Hidden in tiny lettering in the smoke from the train, at a point geographically in the Garstang or Claughton area are the words "Tarnside Refuge."

The question puzzling historian Peter Wade is, what is, or maybe was Tarnside Refuge?

Is it the name of a house, perhaps the home of the Reeves family?

Why was it a refuge - perhaps because Gill found refuge there in the bosom of his beloved May?

Peter said: "On the actual map it is in very small lettering. I am sure it is a personal thing for himself and has some connection with May Reeves."

But he adds it is one of the many mysteries which remain unanswered about Gill and his Garstang connections.