Obituary: Petra Tegetmeier
Saturday 09 January 1999
Her father's wood-engravings catch her in the bath-tub, combing her hair; shy, demure and never meeting his eye. Jones's swirling lines of pencil and watercolour depict a brooding earth goddess, sometimes stern, sometimes brimming with sensual energy. Always with a glance that suggested, "I know your sort."
The real Petra Tegetmeier (nee Gill) was far more vital and ebullient than the male gaze ever gave her credit for. When Gill's wife was carrying the unborn Petra, their second child, she first felt the baby's flickering movements on a trip to Rome. Eric Gill, not yet a Catholic, was absorbed by the inscriptions on the Trajan column, but years later, when his daughters made a pilgrimage to Rome, he attached poetic significance to this "quickening" in the holy city.
The family converted to Catholicism in 1913 when Petra was seven years old. Their home was on Ditchling Common, Sussex, in close proximity to the craft workshops where Gill made his sculptures and ran his lettering workshop. Women bore the brunt of domestic work here, in archaic conditions with no running water or electricity. The printer Hilary Pepler and his young family lived nearby; Pepler ran St Dominic's Press and like Gill he longed to reinvent society along rural, non-industrial lines. Self- sufficiency was applauded, health visitors and any invasion into one's domestic life by government bodies were viewed with scorn.
The calligrapher Edward Johnston lived in Ditchling village, and worked on projects with Gill, but as his family was not Catholic the children's lives were not so intertwined. The sensitive Petra remembered Johnston's daughters hiding upstairs when she visited the household: "I don't think our faith was the problem so much as their laughter at our hand-made clothes."
Petra and her sisters, Betty and Joan, were home-schooled: erratic teaching from their busy father, other artists and craftsmen from the community, and the occasional well-meaning outsider, sympathetic to their cause. One such teacher insisted on keeping her pet dog in the impromptu classroom and it barked all through maths. The girls all produced beautiful art work: both stylised Christian imagery after their father, and, when left to their own devices, plump mothers pushing prams. There was sometimes a yearning for the more ordinary side of life to be recognised. When Eric Gill carved a wooden doll for Petra with a solemn expression and pigtails she couldn't help wishing that it had fair skin and curls.
In her mid-teens Petra "walked out" with Pepler's son Stephen. Once they did not return from the South Downs until dusk and a search party was sent. Stephen became a Dominican Friar and distinguished theological writer - Father Conrad Pepler. Gill's wood-engravings of Petra, Girl in the Bath, Hair Combing and The Plait (1922-23), along with a small stone sculpture of her which now graces the book jacket of Judith Collins's 1998 catalogue raisonne of Gill's sculpture, all captured Petra's teenage magic, but did not cage it.
At 16 she escaped her patriarch's territory to train locally as a weaver with the tenacious and inspiring Ethel Mairet. Mairet was a pioneer in the revival of hand-weaving in Britain. Petra used to giggle at the memory of her own hopeless arithmetic when it came to measuring or adding percentages. She would also poke fun at the "superior" visitors to Mairet's workshop who refused to believe that she was weaving with silk because it did not have a shiny artificial finish. Petra was forever fascinated by the texture and detail of handmade cloth.
In 1923 Petra became engaged to the artist and poet David Jones, who was working with her father at Ditchling. Their betrothal was blessed in the chapel on the common and their relationship was intimate - Jones's painting The Garden Enclosed (1924), now in the Tate, records a kiss amongst the geese with Gill's carved wooden doll discarded on the path beside them. When Petra broke off the engagement, fearing that Jones did not in reality favour the family life she yearned for, Jones was devastated, but they remained lifelong friends.
Petra then became engaged to the engraver, letterer, cartoonist and former Trappist monk Denis Tegetmeier. They married in 1930. She wove her own wedding dress, and the Penelope within ensured that this was a piece of weaving that she did not unpick. They had a long and happy marriage lasting until his death in 1987.
Petra loved children. Her own four daughters and two sons grew up in Eric Gill's last home, Pigotts. Their parents encouraged their interest in craft and the visual arts - Charlotte went on to found the wonderfully resourceful toyshop and mail-order catalogue "Tridias", William is a thatcher, Adam a photographer, Judith paints and both Prudence and Petra's niece Helen Davies spin and weave.
Well into her eighties, Petra lived alone in a converted weaver's Chapel in Avoncliff, near Bradford-upon-Avon, with several of her children as near neighbours. There were thistles winding out from pots on the floor and obscuring the television screen, books crowding the shelves and flowered wrap-around aprons hanging on the kitchen door. When a stroke forced her to move into a nursing home, she made sure her interior was recreated as far as was possible, and she took tapestry work and her spinning wheel with her.
Petra Tegetmeier had long been idolised by men for her calmness and serenity but she was in many ways a woman's woman. She was most at home in the company of women, eating cake on the bench in her garden, thriving on anecdotes and laughing at some plastic "Transformer" toy vehicle which a grandchild had left in the shrubbery. She could also make art dealers squirm in their shoes just by pursing her lips.
When Fiona MacCarthy's biography Eric Gill (1989) revealed, from the evidence of Gill's diaries, his sexual relations with his two eldest daughters Petra remained unflappable in the face of media furore. She made it clear that her own attitude to sex had not been harmed. The sisters had never been made to feel shame.
In another era I could imagine Petra having a second career as a child therapist. She had an intuitive grasp of human dilemmas and could convey comfort and affection without the need for many words. She was devoid of condescension, brilliantly combined self-mockery with a subtle self- assurance, and was, without a doubt, one of the most knowing people I have ever met.
Petra Helen Gill, weaver: born London 18 August 1906; married 1930 Denis Tegetmeier (died 1987; two sons, four daughters); died Limpley Stoke, Wiltshire 1 January 1999.
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