Gill’s work for the BBC in 1931–32 reveals that at times he learned to display some caution in his message, and to keep it more covert. He had been given a very important public commission for the new headquarters of the British Broadcasting Corporation in Portland Place, a few yards from Oxford Circus, and in the very heart of commercial London. At the end of the 1920s the Governors of the BBC decided that they would like to commission some figurative sculpture for Broadcasting House, their new base. They chose Gill on the advice of the art critic Herbert Read, and requested a group of Prospero and Ariel for above the main door, a large figure of The Sower for the main entrance hall, and three reliefs with scenes of Ariel to be set above the three other door of the building. Photographs of Gill’s models for the Ariel reliefs were revealed to the press in May 1931, and they provoked a strong response from the amateur artist Violet, Duchess of Rutland. The Morning Post reported her views on the model for Ariel Learns Celestial Music: ‘I think that it is awful. The proportions of the woman’s body are all wrong. All I can say in its favour is that it might have been worse, and that it is better than the work with which Mr [Jacob] Epstein and Mr Henry Moore generally favour us.’
Prospero and Ariel are characters in Shakespeare’s play The Tempest, and it is thought that the Governors chose them for the niche above the main door because Ariel, an ‘airy spirit’, was a reference to the airwaves of broadcasting. Although Prospero and Ariel are secular characters, Gill subtly altered them into religious figures. He turned the pair into God the Father with the child Jesus, and explained this change in his Autobiography: ‘Had not Prospero power over the immortal Gods? At any rate it seemed to be only right and proper that I should see the matter in as bright a light as possible and so I took it upon me to portray God the Father and God the Son. For even if that were not Shakespeare’s meaning it ought to be the BBC’s.’ Gill carved two half-size models for this sculpture: one depicted Prospero and Ariel and the other Abraham and Isaac. In the first model he cut stigmata into Ariel’s upraised palms, and in the second he translated the figures into biblical characters, which gives a clear indication that he intended to make this pair spiritual in content. When Gill came to carve the full-size group in situ at the BBC he did not immediately cut stigmata into Ariel’s hands, but during the carving he was visited by an old Ditchling friend and artist Philip Hagreen, whom he told that ‘he was thinking of the subject as God the Father sending forth the Word’. Gill did eventually cut stigmata into Ariel’s hands at the BBC, and in doing so he transformed Ariel into the young Christ, who foresees his inevitable death by crucifixion. Ariel’s upraised arms imply Christ’s position upon the cross.
When Gill told Hagreen that he was thinking of the sculpture as God sending for the Word, he made a reference to his favourite theme, that of ‘the Word made flesh’. The beginning of St John’s Gospel states: ‘In the Beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God’ (v. 1) and then: ‘And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth’ (v. 14). The Word referred to by St John is the son of God, Jesus Christ, who appeared on earth in fleshly form. When Gill wrote in his Autobiography of his first sculpture—Estin Thalassa—he described the female figure in the work in rather biblical terms: ‘I was responsible for her very existence and her every form came straight out of my heart. A new world opened up for me … A new alphabet—the word was made flesh.’ Cecil Gill, Eric’s youngest brother, gave a talk about Eric in 1967 entitled ‘Reminiscences’ and in this he informed his listeners that: ‘All his work, his way of life, and his thought proceeded from his acceptance of the doctrine that “word became flesh”. I emphasize this because one cannot begin to understand Eric, or his life, his work, and his teaching, without understanding, even if not wholly accepting, this deep spring of his being: the incarnation of Jesus Christ.’
Above the main entrance to the BBC, Gill carved ‘the word made flesh’, a stone incarnation of God the Father and God the Son. He wrote an article on his sculpture Prospero and Ariel for the BBC’s magazine the Listener in 1933 and stated that the prominent position of his sculpture ‘proclaims who the building belongs to and what game they think they are playing at. The Governors of the BBC imagine they are playing a very high game indeed. Deo Omnipotenti are the first words they hurl at you in their entrance hall …’ Gill revealed that he was extremely adept at playing the Governors’ game.
—Judith Collins, 1998