MacDonald Gill - the story behind the West Sussex mapmaker and architect
PUBLISHED: 00:00 29 June 2020
MacDonald Gill was the brother of controversial sculptor Eric, and was well-known in his own right as a mapmaker. Here his great-niece tells the story of his illustrious career.
A day in Sussex 13 years ago changed my life. A chance phone call a fortnight before had resulted in an invitation to a remote Wealden cottage to meet a couple I’d never met before. They were going to show me their collection of artwork and memorabilia relating to my great-uncle, MacDonald ‘Max’ Gill, brother of the controversial sculptor Eric Gill. Max had died just after World War II but in his lifetime he was renowned for his entertaining pictorial maps, including many for the London Underground. As a child, I’d been captivated by his colourful poster of Ceylon – packed with tiny images of tea plantations, exotic animals and galleons – then displayed on our kitchen wall. Now I was researching his life but had been unable – so far – to discover much of significance.
I was excited as I drove down the bumpy track leading to the cottage. This had been Max’s wartime retreat with his second wife Priscilla and was now the home of her nephew Andrew Johnston and his wife Angela. Laid out before me in their sitting room were boxes of papers, diaries, photographs, artwork and memorabilia. That first day and on subsequent visits I was given free rein to examine and photograph hundreds of items, including rolls of pristine posters that had not seen the light of day for half a century. Finally, I had enough information to piece together Max’s story.
Born in Brighton in 1884, Max was the fourth of 13 children born to Rose and Arthur Gill, a Congregationalist minister. When he was 12 the Gills moved to Chichester where Max attended the Prebendal School and drawing classes at the Chichester Technical and Art School. Two years later the family moved to Bognor, where Arthur Gill had been appointed curate at St John’s Church. Max showed artistic promise from an early age and shortly after turning 16 he was apprenticed to Leonard Pilkington, a local architect. After two years he began working for an eminent London firm of ecclesiastical architects. Max joined the classes of the calligrapher Edward Johnston at the Central School of Arts & Crafts, later becoming a tutor himself. His elegant Roman letters – often with exuberant calligraphic swirls – would become a distinguishing feature of his graphics and maps. His mapmaking career was launched in 1909, with a prestigious commission from the Arts and Crafts architect Edwin Lutyens for a wind-dial map panel – the first of seven. The most magnificent was painted for Lindisfarne Castle, summer home of Country Life owner Edward Hudson.
In 1913 Max’s talents were brought to the attention of Frank Pick, the publicity manager of the London Underground, who asked him to design a large pictorial map poster to display on the station platforms. Unveiled in March 1914, The Wonderground Map of London Town took the capital by storm with its absurd humour and colourful characters. One newspaper reported: “It makes the hoardings more popular than the trains, people watch so long they miss their trains yet go on smiling.” Max’s career as a popular mapmaker was assured.
Over the following two decades Max designed six more acclaimed pictorial posters for the London Underground. Many of these comic creations contained cheeky references to his patrons, friends and family: close inspection of a hillside scene in one corner of his Country Bus Services map, for instance, reveals the Gill family playing a cricket match.
During World War I, Max was architect-in-residence on an innovative model farm project in Dorset for the store owner Ernest Debenham, but he also continued private commissions including the illustration of Eleanor Farjeon’s first literary success Nursery Rhymes of London Town. His best-known war work, however, was the design of the alphabet and regimental badges for the British military headstone so familiar to us today.
In 1919 Max returned to Sussex with his wife Muriel and their two young children, John and Mary. Their first home was West Lodge in Chichester (now demolished), where their third child Anne was born, and in 1926 they moved to South Nore, a house Max designed in West Wittering.
Although his father was vicar at St Peter and St Paul at West Wittering, Max continued attending St Bartholomew’s Church in Chichester where he was responsible for architectural alterations and an Arts and Crafts-style decoration scheme. There is little trace now of the many other local church commissions he undertook. In Chichester Cathedral, you can find a number of his memorial plaques as well as furnishings and decorations in the chapels of St Thomas and St Edmund and the Royal Sussex Regiment.
Max’s prodigious output in this decade also included architecture, advertising material, magazine and book covers, murals and of course maps. Highways of Empire, a gigantic 20ft by 10ft poster map for the Empire Marketing Board was the best known. According to the Daily Telegraph it attracted such crowds in London on its first day that “it is no wonder that the police have already had to exhort people to ‘Move along, please’ at the hoarding in Charing Cross Road.” A smaller version was supplied free to schools across the country for use as a teaching aid.
His painted map panels were also sought-after. Many of these were destined for notable buildings such as the Palace of Westminster. The map at Worthing Town Hall, which shows the local market gardens and their produce, takes pride of place in the Mayor’s Parlour.
Depending on size and complexity, a painted map could take years to make, so they were not cheap. The relatively small (6ft by 3ft) Worthing map cost £100 – the equivalent of over £7,000 in today’s money. For a map of the Solent, his friend and sailing enthusiast Sydney Graham negotiated a fee of £36.15s.0d plus a boat for Max’s son while in 1936, Cunard paid Max £850 for a 24ft-wide map of the North Atlantic to decorate its flagship RMS Queen Mary.
In 1938 Max separated from his wife to be with his assistant (also a novelist) Priscilla, the youngest daughter of Edward Johnston. The lovers set up home in Chelsea and bought a derelict woodland cottage in West Sussex as a country hideaway. Here Max created Tea Revives the World, his wartime poster praising the virtues of a calming cup of tea. His other renowned map of this era was The Time & Tide Map of the Atlantic Charter, produced to celebrate the peacetime aims drawn up by President Franklin Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill in 1941.
Max and Priscilla finally married in May 1946 but tragically, their happiness was short-lived. Just days after completing a painted map for the Cunarder Queen Elizabeth, Max was diagnosed with lung cancer. He died on 14 January 1947 and was buried in the peaceful churchyard of Streat, overlooking his beloved South Downs.
When Andrew Johnston inherited the cottage in the 1980s, he and his wife began discovering the treasures Priscilla had carefully stored away. Our meeting was the catalyst leading to a series of jointly curated exhibitions, including major retrospectives at the University of Brighton and Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft. That meeting also signalled the start of my new career – running the MacDonald Gill website, lecturing and writing a biography of my once-renowned great-uncle; in short – putting Max back on the map.
MacDonald Gill: Charting a Life by Caroline Walker (£30, Unicorn Publishing). www.macdonaldgill.com