ART / A legacy written in stone: The Barbican stages the first retrospective show of the sculptor, engraver and typographer Eric Gill next month. David Kindersley tells Dalya Alberge about his apprenticeship with the artist

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WORKMEN building the new British Library in London's St Pancras keep offering David Kindersley and his team of stone-carvers their pneumatic drills. 'Much faster than your tools,' they say, both amused and bemused by the carvers' clumsy wooden mallets and chisels. 'Why do you want to spend weeks on something the drills can do in minutes?'

But Kindersley, a specialist in lettering who is carving characters up to two metres high for the library's main entrance, politely declines their offer. Mallets and chisels have been the tools of this 77-year-old craftsman for more than half a century. The subtle nuances of the rough-hewn textures within each of the clearly-incised letters could not be achieved with machines. And anyway, there's no rush: the library does not open until 1994 at the earliest.

The workmen head back to their pneumatic drills and the gentle, soothing tap-tap-tapping of chisel against stone resumes.

Kindersley (whose commissions include the Falklands Memorial in St Paul's Cathedral and crockery for the Victoria & Albert Museum) employs the same tools that craftsmen used centuries ago to remain 'in total control'. As he puts it, 'they allow nothing to come between you and the materials'. It is an approach that Eric Gill (1882-1940), arguably the greatest English artist-craftsman of the 20th century, would understand. Indeed, Kindersley was apprenticed to Gill in the Thirties.

Although Gill's contribution to the modern art movement has long been valued, even during his lifetime, the retrospective of his carving at the Barbican Centre in London next month is the first ever. In recent years more attention has been paid to the excesses of Gill's private life than to his work - Fiona MacCarthy's 1989 biography made sensational revelations about Gill's incestuous relationships with his sisters and daughters, and affairs with everyone from his models to the family dog: this show should go some way to redressing the balance.

However, as Judy Collins, the organiser of the Barbican show, acknowledges, it is impossible to separate the man from his art. Her choice of exhibits illustrates Gill's two main preoccupations in both art and daily life - sex and religion. Gill converted to Roman Catholicism in 1913 and, in the belief that all work is ordained by God and should be divinely worshipped, founded a guild of craftsmen that promoted a religious attitude to art and craft. 'Gill objected to what he saw as the damaging divisions in society between art and religion, flesh and spirit,' says Collins, whose show contrasts religious works, such as his Madonna and Child, with highly erotic sculptures inspired by the explicit art found on Indian temple facades.

Although Gill referred to himself as a 'stone-carver', that description writes off his talents as wood-engraver, letter-cutter, typographer and writer. Gill is probably best remembered today as the designer of the typeface known as Gill Sans, among other fine alphabets.

Gill, both as charismatic character and artistic genius, carved such a deep impression on his apprentices that, decades later, Kindersley remains his faithful disciple. With his bushy beard, he looks a little like his former master, and he recalls that it was such an honour to work with Gill that when business was slack, his assistants would work for nothing. 'The work, and the doing of it as well as we could, was our sole aim,' says Kindersley, who points out that today he is 'working as far as possible to Gill's way'. There is, for example, not a hint of the 20th century to be found in Kindersley's Cambridge workshop. No radios, no machinery. Gill would have approved. He rejected industrial methods of production, fervently believing that the impersonal machine-age was turning artists into designers who did not see their work through from inception to completion. He is passing on Gill's gospels to his own team of six assistants, headed by his wife, Lida Lopes Cardozo.

Last week, standing on top of 30 feet of scaffolding at the British Library, Kindersley was experimenting with his design for the lettering that will read 'The British Library', cut into blocks of reddish-toned sandstone over the entrance into the library's open forecourt. He has followed Gill's method of drawing the outlines on to the stone from a rough sketch, and while Kindersley's designs look back beyond Gill to Renaissance art, his technique is entirely in line with the master's commitment to 'direct carving' - or carving a conception straight out of the block.

Kindersley's apprentices stand in a row, each concentrating on a different letter. Working so close, Kindersley can keep an eye on them, making sure they are all cutting to the same depth. Like Gill, Kindersley trains his apprentices on the job: within a short time of joining the workshop, they were working with the master on professional commissions. 'It's a more natural way to learn,' says Kindersley, who, as an apprentice, worked on some of Gill's pieces at Broadcasting House - on sculptures that include The Broadcaster and Prospero and Ariel (which, with Stations of the Cross in Westminster Cathedral, is Gill's best-known sculpture).

Kindersley gently advises, prompts and guides his assistants. He recalls how 'Gill would place his hand on mine and move it across the stone. 'Feel it,' he'd say. I do the same with my assistants. It's a physical business. You can't theorise about it. Gill's method was to ask you to draw an alphabet as you thought the letters should be. Having done this, he corrected it, saying 'here we make an A like this' or a 'B like that'.'

Making mistakes and allowing them to remain as mistakes was important to Gill. 'He used to say, 'never alter anything you've made. You'll have to do it again'. But he never got angry, however awful the mistake. He was the opposite of the temperamental artist.'

Eric Gill Retrospective, Barbican Art Gallery, London EC2 (071-638 4141) 11 Nov-7 Feb 1993; pounds 4.50 (concs pounds 2.50).

Drawings by Joanna Gill (1910-80), the youngest of Gill's three daughters, are on show at the Gillian Jason Gallery, 42 Inverness St, London NW1 (071-267 4835) 11 Nov-19 Dec.

For details about where to view David Kindersley's work, and to make an appointment to visit his workshop, call 0223 62170.

(Photograph omitted)