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Eric Gill and the Story of Plough

Matina Horning


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Of the many times that Plough Publishing House has moved its offices over the last century, the move in 1937 was the least planned. True, the publishing staff at the Rhön Bruderhof, a Christian community near Fulda, Germany, had known ever since Hitler’s rise to power that time was running out. Still, it came as a surprise when on April 14, dozens of Gestapo and S.S. officers surrounded the property, confiscating all assets and imprisoning the board of directors. Those who remained were given forty-eight hours to leave the country.

By comparison, Plough’s most recent move – last year, to new offices in Walden, New York – was calm and orderly. All the same, a few documents did get infuriatingly lost, while others unexpectedly came to light. One discovery was a dog-eared folder dated 1940 containing sketches for a Plough logo and letterhead design by a British typeface designer. His name was Eric Gill.

Even typography agnostics will recognize Gill’s best-known typeface, Gill Sans – you have seen it in the BBC logo and on the jacket designs of Penguin Books. In my design-school years, I was so taken by its elegant precision that I made it the subject of a freelance research project. Although an intern at Plough at the time, I had no idea there was a connection.

Gill’s logo design for Plough shows the simple silhouette of a mold-board plow, the kind that is pulled by horses and guided by men. Its strong, clean lines are typical of Gill’s work, as is the accuracy of form. When Gill drafted it, two years had already passed since the Bruderhof’s suppression in Germany. In the meantime, the refugees had found a haven at the Ashton Keynes farm in the Cotswolds. Once they had established the utter basics – growing food, cooking, setting up child care – they set up a print shop and bindery and started publishing again.

man type setting It’s 1937. Adolf Braun has taken refuge in England after being expelled from Hitler’s Germany. Here he sets type for Plough’s quarterly journal.
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Among their first projects was the first English-language edition of the community’s periodical, The Plough. In Germany it had appeared in various formats since 1920, but now it became a quarterly journal carrying the tagline “Towards the Coming Order.” By 1939, the magazine already counted Gill as a contributor.

A devoted Catholic, Gill was also a communitarian in his own right and deeply influenced by Tolstoy. Like G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc, he advocated Distributism, an economic model inspired by Catholic social teaching and its principles of solidarity and local community. Among Gill’s American admirers was fellow Distributist Peter Maurin, who co-founded the Catholic Worker Movement with Dorothy Day.

Gill, who was a sculptor and stone-cutter as well as a designer, dreamed of escaping the “damned ugliness of all that capitalist industrialism produced,” as he wrote in his autobiography. He believed that people should work with their hands and live together in such a way that work, art, faith, and daily life form an integrated whole:

Neighborliness need not mean only loving-kindness and readiness to lend a hammer; it might also mean unanimity, an agreement in the mind as to the good and the true and the beautiful and a common practice founded thereon.

Accordingly, in 1913 Gill had founded a community of artists and craftsmen in the Sussex town of Ditchling, which one resident described as “a fascinating sort of communal early Christianity.”(footnote)

old plough logos Gill’s design for the Plough logo, showing the simple silhouette of a mold-board plow.

The commonality with Plough’s early Christian vision was obvious, which explains Gill’s support for the magazine. I searched through several archival boxes looking for more details on the relationship, but found no further information.

As it turned out, Gill’s logo design was never used, and remained undiscovered until now. Shortly after he submitted it in February 1940, the escalation of World War II forced Plough to close its English offices; almost all Bruderhof members emigrated to Paraguay in order to avoid the internment of German nationals. Gill’s drawings were packed into a shipping crate, surviving the U-boats on its way to South America only to be forgotten amidst the challenges of pioneering in the jungle.

Sadly, the Plough logo would be among Gill’s last designs. The rest of that year he spent writing his autobiography. On November 17, 1940 he died.

Recent biographers have uncovered the moral disasters of Gill’s personal life, which were previously unknown. Even so, he is remembered today as an innovative artist, a social visionary, and a man who, despite his failings, still strove to express his love for God through his work. In a letter to a friend he wrote:

You cannot certainly paint a good picture by going to art school and learning a method, but must fall in love with God first and last.…So you cannot certainly walk with God by following a method, but must wait upon Him as a lover – singing beneath his window – waiting for him in the snow.0

Few artists have said it better.

old plough logo type Eric Gill’s designs for Plough, 1940


  1. Fiona McCarthy, Eric Gill (Faber & Faber, 2011), 182. At least one Ditchling resident – Mari Marsden – would eventually join the Bruderhof; she is the mother of contributing artist Hannah Marsden.

  2. Eric Gill, The Letters of Eric Gill, ed. Walter Shewring (London: Jonathan Cape, 1947), 154.