Macdonald Gill: a Sussex artist

PUBLISHED: 01:16 24 July 2011 | UPDATED: 19:45 20 February 2013

Macdonald Gill: a Sussex artist

Macdonald Gill: a Sussex artist

Macdonald Gill had a huge influence on the world of graphic art in the early 20th Century.

MacDonald Gill, also known as Max, had a huge influence on the world of graphic art in the early 20th Century. Born and bred here in Sussex, his works as an artist, designer, architect and illustrator were prolific across the UK and overseas. This month, for the first time since the Post War period, a hand-picked selection of these ground-breaking maps, drawings and illustrations will hang again, this time in his birthplace of Brighton


In 1884 in Prestonville Road, Brighton, one of the most influential figures of graphic art in the early 20th Century was born.

Max Gill was brought up in Sussex, his family later moved to Chichester and he began studying at Prebendal School before later moving again to Bognor Regis. By the time Max reached London in 1903 he was well on the path to illustrative success.

After a series of private commissions his first big break came in 1914 when he was commissioned by London Underground to design a series of eight posters which would be the precursors to the circuit maps we know today. They were, however, very different. Unlike todays Tube maps which are designed to get us around the system, these posters were intended to entertain. With their infinite detail, comical references and anecdotes pertaining to that time, they went down a storm with the public.
The new comic map of London that makes people lose their trains and still go on laughing.

Fun on the map of London. Pictorial chart that makes you miss your train. was how some of the national headlines heralded the unveiling of Maxs Underground Map which soon became known as the Wonderground map. The public were so entranced by the myriad speech bubbles, little cartoon people and comic references that, in some cases, they did miss their trains. Comical drawings of pilots in aeroplanes saying Have I looped yet (the first aerial loop was in 1913) and cartoon worms scrubbing planks at the Wormwood Scrubs stop, all helped to lift the mood just as England prepared for War.

In fact Maxs 1915 Theatreland map did contain a Zeppelin airship an oblique reference to the first bombing raids on London.

A splendid letterer and also a member of the Imperial War Graves Commission committee, Max designed the lettering and regimental badges for the war graves that can be found in churchyards and cemeteries across Britain and around the world. And later during WWII when Winston Churchill was concerned that wherever the troops were, they should always be able to have tea, Max designed his Tea Revives the World poster as part of the war effort. It became an enduring pick me up symbol.

Between the two World Wars the Empire Marketing Board commissioned Max to design a series of posters. The first one, entitled Highways of Empire, was a huge 20ft x10ft illustration put up on hoardings around London. Again, much excitement ensued with national headlines shouting his praise, such as this from the Daily Telegraph on 1st January 1927:
Its only necessary to mention that the artist is Mr MacDonald Gill who drew the comic maps of London for the Underground to give some idea of what the public may expect to see next week when the bill posters get busy.

In between all this, Max was also continuing to take on private commissions as an architect. He designed cottages, houses, churches and farm buildings all over England as well as maps and illustrations a little nearer to his home county of Sussex, which remained dear to him throughout his life. He designed and had built his own house at West Wittering, overlooking Chichester Harbour. Worthing Town Hall still boasts one of the famous Gill painted map panels and he did many early watercolours of places such as Dell Quay, Bosham, Hastings Old Town and Bognor Regis as well as private map commissions for Halnaker, Chichester and Brighton.

Yet despite all this prolific work, after Maxs death in 1947, his name and works, once well known, slipped into obscurity as the modern age of technology advanced and his notorious brother, sculptor Eric Gill, became ever more popular.

So it would have remained had not fate lent a hand.

Back in 1939 Priscilla Johnston, Maxs assistant and his second wife, bought a derelict cottage in the Sussex woodlands as a retreat for herself and Max. This is where many examples of his renowned work remained, untouched and out of the light, until Maxs great niece, Caroline Walker, set out to discover more about her famous but long passed away relative. Her quest led her to get in touch with Priscillas nephew, Andrew and his wife Angela, who now live in that same woodlands cottage.

We knew the work existed but wed never got it out and looked at it properly until Caroline Walker came to see us, said Andrew. When the maps were unrolled, it was extraordinary to see how good they looked after 65 years stored away in a dark attic. The colours on some were as fresh as the day they were printed.

From this amazing discovery the forthcoming Out of the Shadows exhibition was born. The exhibition which runs from 22nd July to 29th August at Brighton Universitys Gallery will be a unique opportunity to see a rare selection of some of Maxs most famous works as well as his more locally based drawings and sketches.

Andrew said: It has taken three years of spreading these wonderful works out all over floors and beds throughout the house to prepare for this exhibition.

There will be the main works, of course, the Highways of Empire and the Wonderground maps along with the original artwork that was used for his famous map on the Queen Mary, which is still in situ on the ship today, at Long Beach, California.

But it will also be a chronological journey through his whole work, including his early work as an architect as well as local sketches and drawings of Sussex and cases including other graphic works such as book jackets and the Imperial War Graves work. It will be, quite simply, a lifetime in the making.

There will also be a one day symposium at the University, drawing on a range of personal, professional and historical expertise in the field to coincide with the exhibitions opening and aimed at sharing, promoting and encouraging research relating to Max Gill and his work.

Dr Philippa Lyon, research fellow with the Universitys Faculty of Arts, who is co-ordinating the Max Gill exhibition and symposium projects, said: This exhibition will be a rich and absorbing visual panorama that will provide a long-overdue opportunity to rediscover the work of one of the most talented graphic artists of the first half of the 20th Century.

From his quiet resting place in Streat churchyard, near to the village of Ditchling, Max will no doubt be very proud that he and his works are once again out of the shadows and back in the limelight in his home town of Brighton.

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