Eric Gill, the famous sculptor and calligrapher, cast a very wide shadow over all who came into contact with him, not least his younger brother MacDonald, known as Max. Although a highly accomplished architect, graphic designer and letterer in his own right, Max’s work is still often mistaken for that of his brother’s. But a new exhibition in London devoted to him is helping to redress the balance and demonstrating that Max’s emergence from his brother’s shadow is long overdue.
Max is today most famous for his pioneering and intricate designs of decorative maps on the London underground and the exhibition, in Ealing’s PM Gallery, has much of his original artwork on show, discovered by Andrew Johnston and his wife Angela as they rummaged through wardrobes and tallboys in the cottage he inherited from his aunt Priscilla, Max’s second wife. They found rolls of maps, plans and drawings that had not seen the light for decades and this makes for an especially vibrant display as the colours appear so fresh.
Born in Brighton in 1884, one of eleven surviving children of a non-conformist minister, Max trained as an architect and joined the London firm of Nicholson and Corlette which specialised in ecclesiastical works. At the same time he was also taking night classes in calligraphy at the Central School of Arts and Crafts, where he was taught by Edward Johnston, also Eric’s tutor.
He set up in private practice in 1908 and it was not long before he was approached by the eminent architect Sir Edwin Lutyens to paint a wind dial panel map for a country mansion. Wind dials gave a bird’s eye view of a house with a compass design, usually over the main fireplace, and an indicator showing the wind direction as it was connected by a series of rods and pulleys to a vane on the roof. Dutch merchants first used wind dials in the 17th century to see when their ships were approaching port and Lutyens, of Dutch origin himself, had no difficulty in selling the idea and Max’s designs to his wealthy clients.
Max’s great calligraphic skill and his fine attention to detail soon won him the first of his seven decorative map commissions for the UERL – the Underground Electric Railways of London, as the system was then known. Frank Pick, UERL’s commercial manager, and later its managing director, was seeking ways to boost passenger traffic on underused, off-peak services. Although he would later deal directly with the artists who worked for him on poster designs and maps, at this stage he was still using his printers to contract them.
Gerard Meynell of the Westminster Press employed Max to design a poster originally called By Paying Us Your Pennies (1914) but which grew so popular that it became known as the Wonderground map. As Claire Dobbin writes in her book London Underground maps: Art, Design and Cartography (2012), the work is now seen as a ‘cartographic masterpiece’ which lay the ‘stylistic foundations for a distinctive new genre of poster and [opened] the eyes of advertisers to the power of maps in promotion and publicity.’
Max’s great niece Caroline Walker took me on a tour of the show and explained that Wonderground, like a number of other map designs, contains “lots of references to family, friends and clients. We can find Gerard Meynell on the map in Harrow Road where the Westminster Press was and he’s sitting on the roof of his press with a copy of the Wonderground map with the first pull or impression saying ‘Quite a good pull this’. Or we’ve got Frank Pick himself at the ‘Head Office of the Underground’ clearly marked with a man holding a pickaxe saying ‘My pick cannot be surpassed.’ And we have Max himself holding a hare and the caption saying ‘one hare caught in the temple’. It’s a visual pun because Max’s studio was at No. 1 Hare Court in the Temple.”
It is of course the humour of a gentler and far less cynical age and it gives a very good indication of Max’s own personality. One of Max’s three children, Mary Corell, is still alive at the age of 95 and Caroline Walker has spent many hours with her discussing her father. “She just bubbled away about him, what a wonderful man he was, how funny he was. He would relish playing mischievous, rather impish and enigmatic practical jokes. He was a gifted linguist and would often mimic foreign accents in mock foreign languages, like gobbledegook Italian or French but it sounded authentic. So he would approach absolute strangers in the street and strike up an absurd conversation with them. A picture emerged of an incredibly humorous, lovely man.”
What is clear from the Wonderground map, the humour aside, is Max’s intense eye for detail, his passion for London and his erudition. Claire Dobbin quotes Max as stating that he applied himself to his art with what he called ‘sincerity of purpose’ and it took him seven months to complete the commission. Oliver Green, in his new book on Frank Pick – Frank Pick’s London: Art, Design and the Modern City (2013) – asserts that the Wonderground map ‘was far and away the most popular of the early Underground commissions with the public. It was the first UERL poster to attract enthusiastic and widespread press interest, and Pick decided to make it available in a folding presentation format as a decorative item for home or office use. Gill’s ‘Wonderground’ and subsequent Underground poster designs started a fashion for illustrated maps, pioneered by him but picked up by many other designers, which spread well beyond printed posters to wall decoration in stations, hotels, galleries and other public spaces in the 1920s.’
When the Westminster Press quickly produced the smaller fold-out version for personal use, it was sold with the catchy line: ‘You have no time to admire it all? Why not take a map home to pin on your wall?’ The public duly did and it also featured prominently in schools and nurseries as an entertaining teaching aid.
The fascination with Wonderground was so great, wrote The Daily Sketch in May 1914, that ‘people spend sometimes twenty minutes examining it, so entertainingly does it parody the names and characteristics of the different districts of the metropolis…People watch so long they lose their trains – and yet go on smiling.’
Max’s next major UERL commission was Theatre-land of 1915. His diary relates: ‘Called on Pick…at 5.30:wanted to draw another map – this time of theatre-land. Jolly job!’ This ‘jolly job’ took nine months to complete and the final version is another complex Gill tour-de-force. “The map is ingenious,” says Caroline Walker, “because it’s not just an ordinary map but created on what appears to be the theatre curtain. So there is a stage and we have the names of the theatres and their nearest tube stations adorning the sides and the top of the proscenium and at the bottom the orchestra pit. The map itself is the curtain so we’ve got the folds of the curtain at the bottom as it collapses down on to the stage because it has been broken and we’ve got the actors trying to escape down into the orchestra pit, causing immense confusion and chaos. Gerard Meynell is the conductor and he’s trying to control the orchestra which is descending into chaos.”
Intriguingly, Max has included a Zeppelin air ship in the top right corner flying over Lincoln’s Inn Fields. A late addition to the map, not in the original artwork, is the speech bubble of the Zeppelin pilot who asks ‘What about the censor?’ Zeppelin raids had begun over London in May 1915 and, just days before Max completed his design in October that year, an air raid had killed 17 people near the Lyceum Theatre in Wellington Street, Covent Garden, so this may be why he added the wording. Air raids had never been experienced by the public before 1915 and were still seen at this stage as something of a curiosity as the giant bags of gas floated silently above the night sky. Those feelings later wore off as the death toll mounted and around 200 people were killed in London alone as a result of Zeppelin raids during the war.
Caroline Walker believes that “the map was commissioned in order to keep people in London and not panic into leaving the capital because of the threat of Zeppelin raids. So the message was keep going to the theatre and enjoying yourself, life goes on as normal.” This may well be the case as leisure travel in the capital was only discouraged from 1917 on when the war began to have a greater effect on daily life.
Max also did his bit for the war effort, although his task was tinged with sadness. Lutyens was a member of the Imperial (later Commonwealth) War Graves Commission and asked Max to join him in 1917 to sit on the sub-committee to design lettering for the headstones. The exhibition actually includes one such headstone and Max also designed more than 200 badges which designated the dead soldiers’ regiments. Most people still assume the alphabet font was designed by brother Eric, an understandable mistake perhaps as Caroline Walker points out. “Both brothers were taught lettering by the same man, Edward Johnston, so it’s not surprising people presume Eric did this but he didn’t.” The font that Max designed was not only used on the headstones but also on all official war memorials including Lutyens’ Missing of the Somme (1927-32) and the Cenotaph itself in Whitehall (1919-20).
The exhibition includes a vast array of Max’s work over the years including more decorative transport maps such as the Peter-Pan Map of Kensington Gardens of 1923, the Country Bus Services Map of 1928 and Max’s 1920 design for a pocket tube map which for the first time had no topographical or surface detail. But the show also demonstrates his breadth of skills including completed house projects, book covers, paintings for the transatlantic liners Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth and designs for tapestries in South Africa House and Coventry’s 14th century Guildhall. The Coventry tapestries actually disappeared in the early ’80s but were found, thanks to Caroline Walker and Angela Johnston’s endeavours, perfectly preserved and stored in the nearby Herbert Art Gallery.
Max’s design for the Empire Marketing Board map poster of 1926-27 – Highways of Empire – was the largest ever produced for a street hoarding, measuring 20 by 10 feet, so large in fact that it stopped the traffic in the Charing Cross Road when it went up on New Year’s Day 1927.
Finally, there is a more intimate room which includes Max’s baby shoes, his schoolboy drawings of the trains which ran at the bottom of his garden on the London-Brighton line, and a diary noting the death of his beloved sister Cicely, aged only twelve.
Max married his first wife, Muriel Bennett, a vicar’s daughter, in 1915 “on the rebound,” as Caroline Walker says. “They’d had a relationship since about 1902/3 but he’d had a number of other relationships in between. And when one of these finished in November 1914, within a few days he was writing to Muriel again and within a couple of months they were engaged. He was working down in Dorset, he was lonely, he wanted a companion and he could see his friends getting married and having children.”
Max was always in demand and rarely turned down a commission, particularly as he had large overheads. All three children were at boarding school, he had designed and built his own house and was a member of many groups and societies, each with a hefty subscription but which he judged important for his career. However, the combined stress of running a constant overdraft and Muriel’s dislike of their new home, added to Max’s worries and his unhappiness with the marriage.
In 1931, Priscilla Johnston, the daughter of Max’s former tutor Edward Johnston and Max’s own goddaughter, paid a surprise visit with a friend to the Gill family home in West Wittering, Sussex. Angela Johnston has studied Priscilla’s diaries closely from this time and describes her as ‘an attractive and confident young woman of 21[who] became fascinated by Max’s work and his elusive personality.” She was also already the author of two published novels. Max was by now spending more and more time at his London studio, away from a wife who had no interest in or sympathy for his work, unlike his artistic and literary-minded goddaughter. Max and Priscilla next met in January 1933 at a talk in London given by Eric Gill. Despite the 26-year age gap between them they fell in love, and in 1938, Max separated from Muriel who was devastated and refused him a divorce. Max and Priscilla eventually set up home together in a cottage near Midhurst, west Sussex but it was not until 1945 that Muriel finally divorced Max and he married Priscilla in May 1946.
These were happy times for them both and Priscilla kept a diary of their life together. She describes him at work – “the real thrill was to watch him doing it in an old green smock with a pipe gripped between his teeth, horn-rimmed glasses and one small vertical line between his eyebrows, revealing a complete and serene concentration” and there are scenes familiar to any married couple: “When I got into bed with him at night I sighed and relaxed and curled up against him contentedly and I said ‘Being in bed with you is my favourite thing.’ He said ‘My favourite thing is custard.’ ”
But their life together was cut short. Max, like his brother Eric, had always been a heavy smoker and he was diagnosed with lung cancer in the summer of 1946, dying just months later in January 1947. He was buried in Streat churchyard, his grave overlooking the Sussex Downs of his childhood.
Priscilla was later to write: “When he was sick I sat behind him and held him in my arms and he said ‘it’s all right because you’re there.’ I would have been there for ever if it could have made it all right.”
“Gill’s work was commissioned almost exclusively commercially which may in part account for his relative obscurity,” explains Claire Dobbin, “although his creations were no less original or influential because of it….His many masterpieces may have served the specific requirements of businessmen, the Church, government agencies and private individuals, but their art was his own.”
Now there is a determination that Max’s life work should be seen for the remarkable achievement it is. Thanks to the efforts of his admirers, this immensely talented yet deeply modest man can finally take his place in the light.
Official MacDonald Gill site: http://www.macdonaldgill.com/home
Frank Pick’s London is due to be published on 4 November 2013 by V&A Publishing: http://www.vandashop.com/Frank-Picks-London-Hardback/dp/1851777571
Out of the Shadows was first hosted at the University of Brighton in 2011 when a symposium took place on the life and work of MacDonald Gill. More information can be found here: http://arts.brighton.ac.uk/collections/design-archives/projects/digital-resource