This plaster relief depicts Saint Martin of Tours in the act of dividing his cloak to share with a naked beggar. It is by Eric Gill, one of the most innovative English artists of the early-20th century, and was recently discovered in a collection in East Sussex near Ditchling, where Gill worked between 1907 and 1924.

Gill converted to Catholicism in 1913 and the majority of his sculpture combined themes of religion and the human figure. This work recalls a legendary moment in the life of Saint Martin (316 or 336 - 397), when one winter he encountered a naked beggar as he approached the gates of the city of Amiens. Without hesitation, Saint Martin divided his cloak in two, giving half to the beggar. That night, St Martin had a dream that Christ visited him, wearing the piece of cloak he had given away. The fabric retained by St Martin became an important relic after his death and...

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This plaster relief depicts Saint Martin of Tours in the act of dividing his cloak to share with a naked beggar. It is by Eric Gill, one of the most innovative English artists of the early-20th century, and was recently discovered in a collection in East Sussex near Ditchling, where Gill worked between 1907 and 1924.

Gill converted to Catholicism in 1913 and the majority of his sculpture combined themes of religion and the human figure. This work recalls a legendary moment in the life of Saint Martin (316 or 336 - 397), when one winter he encountered a naked beggar as he approached the gates of the city of Amiens. Without hesitation, Saint Martin divided his cloak in two, giving half to the beggar. That night, St Martin had a dream that Christ visited him, wearing the piece of cloak he had given away. The fabric retained by St Martin became an important relic after his death and was enshrined at Marmoutier Abbey at Tours, which was founded by St Martin in 372 after being made Bishop of Tours the year before.

Saint Martin was one of the early Christian saints who initially served in the Roman army. After finding his military obligations incompatible with his Christian faith, however, he was discharged and became a monk. Gill makes reference to Saint Martin’s military associations in this work through the inclusion of a distinctly English First World War tin helmet, and by doing so, bestows on the early Christian saint a contemporary resonance.

This plaster cast derives from a stone carving made by Gill for Campion Hall in Oxford. Gill’s friend Father Martin D’Arcy was the Master at Campion Hall and oversaw the construction of the new building, which was designed by Edward Lutyens and finished in 1936. The carving, which is still in-situ today, was unveiled on Armistice Day on 11 November 1935, a date which prior to the First World War was more commonly known as ‘Saint Martin’s Day’.

Gill would on occasion make plaster copies of his stone carvings to sell for additional income or to give to friends[1], and the present work is one of four recorded casts of the same subject, three in plaster and one in bronze.[2] One of the other plaster casts is installed at St Martin’s Ampleforth in North Yorkshire, a private Catholic school which commissioned a number of works from Gill, including a bookplate for their college library.

[1] Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft in Sussex have three works in plaster by Eric Gill: Madonna and Child (I) (c.1912), Crucifix (1919) and Small Female Torso (c.1924)

[2] One of these plaster casts was exhibited at Masterpiece Art and Antiques Fair in London by Finch & Co Antiques and Works of Art in 2014.

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500 Years of British Art