Discovering MacDonald Gill
Andrew Johnston, Angela Johnston and Caroline Walker
The Johnstons had always known of the existence of the Max Gill material in their house, but had been unsure of its extent or of what to do with it. With vague ideas of a modest exhibition, they showed the Atlantic Charter map original artwork to their friend, the celebrated illustrator John Lord. He was impressed and suggested consulting his former colleague Bruce Brown at the University of Brighton. Bruce shared John’s enthusiasm for Max Gill’s work and the idea of an exhibition re-discovering this largely forgotten artist began to take shape. At about the same time the Johnstons were contacted by Caroline Walker, Max’s great niece, who was researching a book on his life. As map after map from their collection was unrolled for Caroline to photograph, often revealing colours as fresh and vivid as the day they were printed, they were astonished by the quality of the work. Organising, documenting and photographing the material was not an easy task. The material was scattered throughout the Johnstons’ house and outbuildings, and uncovering it became something of a treasure hunt.
Finding out about the collection has also meant finding out about Priscilla and about Max. They had a tumultuous life and Priscilla’s diaries (which she always made clear she intended to be read) are fascinating. Priscilla in old age was a gentle dreamy and endlessly indulgent soul, rather deaf, with an engaging, whimsical sense of humour and the slightly abstracted air of someone who is listening to distant voices only she can hear. She was a great loss to her family. This exhibition is not just a retrospective of Max’s work but a record of his life and times and his life with Priscilla, who recorded it all in such minute detail. It is a uniquely personal exhibition.
Download Andrew Johnston's paper Who Was Max.
Download Angela Johnston's paper Private Lives.
Download Caroline Walker's paper Discovering MacDonald Gill.
Gill and the changing nature of poster art in Britain
Dr Paul Rennie, Central St Martins
MacDonald Gill's poster art and map designs are unusual for eschewing the formal considerations associated with modern design. Any accusation of historicism may be refuted by consideration of his various patrons, who number amongst the most progressive personalities and represent the most modern of organisations in Britain during the 1920s and 1930s.
MacDonald Gill will be identified with the pioneers, in Britain, of colour lithography as a form of dramatic visual communication. In addition, MacDonald Gill's work will be presented as providing, within this context, a unique combination of information, design and decoration. The work will also be presented within the context of industrial and economic modernisation in Britain and by reference to the personalities of design politics.
MacDonald Gill and the British mural tradition
Dr Clare A. P. Willsdon, University of Glasgow
Mural painting occupied a prominent place in Gill’s oeuvre. Given his practice as an architect, this is not surprising: murals are physically a part of rooms and buildings. However, Gill exploited their fusion of two and three dimensions in richly imaginative ways. His map murals, in tracing voyages or commemorating geographical discoveries, symbolically link ‘here’ with ‘there’ and ‘now’ with ‘then’, just as his ceiling painting at St. Andrews Church, Roker, is at once an emblem and an illusion of the Biblical ‘heavens’. This paper seeks deeper understanding of Gill’s mural practice by setting such works in the context of the ‘mural revival’ in Britain. Launched in the 1840s by the decoration of the new Palace of Westminster, this found widespread expression well into the 20th century in public buildings such as churches, town halls, and schools, as well as in private and commercial interiors.
The paper gives particular attention to Gill’s imaginative expansion of the Gothic Revival and Arts and Crafts ideal of unity – ‘art-architecture’ – which played an important part in the mural revival. His wind- and sun-dial murals unite time with space, whilst man and machine are symbiotically linked through the bold arcs and circles of his 1938 Glasgow Empire Exhibition murals. There is nonetheless an emphasis on the dignity of human labour in the Glasgow works which continues a tradition extending from Bell Scott’s Iron and Coal mural at Wallington Hall (1850s) to Brangwyn’s dock-workers, or the porters painted at the Bank of England by Gill’s cousin Colin. If MacDonald Gill’s Queen Mary mural famously celebrated ‘leisure’, his Glasgow decorations, framing doorways, made the viewer implicitly ‘step into’ their shipyard, coal-mine and factory scenes, inviting empathy with the working man. In this they anticipate Stanley Spencer’s Clydeside murals of the 1940s, and remind us that Gill was also part of a strong ‘social’ emphasis in the British mural tradition.
Max Gill’s large-scale decorative North Atlantic Map in the Queen Mary’s 1st Class Restaurant, 1936: design in a changing world
Gill’s imposing 29.9 map of the North Atlantic in the First Class dining room of the celebrated Cunard liner, the Queen Mary, was one of the ship’s largest and most visually striking artistic commissions. Gill was one of more than forty artists, designers, interior decorators and manufacturers in what was planned as an ‘all British’ ship. The role of American architect Benjamin Wistar Morris, placed in overall charge of the Queen Mary’s interior decoration, will be considered in relation to the artistic commissioning process as well as discussions about the nature of First Class dining on board ship.
In this paper Gill’s map will be examined in the context of British decorative arts and design of the interwar years. It is informed by study of a number of prime documentary materials, the most significant of which are the Cunard Archives in the Merseyside Maritime Museum, Liverpool, and in the University of Liverpool’s Special Collections & Archives in the Sydney Jones Library. The diaries of Priscilla Johnston, typographer Edward Johnston’s younger daughter and Max Gill’s second wife, also lend considerable personal insight to the Cunard First Class mural commission on which she worked with him as an assistant.
In Gill’s mural the visualizations of New York and London represented, contrastingly, a city of towering skyscrapers and progress and a city steeped in history and tradition, epitomized by such landmarks as St Paul’s and Big Ben. The two biplanes shown flying high above the Atlantic also deserve further attention in the light of Cunard’s growing concerns about the challenge emerging from the air. Other facets considered will include the role of Frank Pick, the Chairman of the Board of Trade’s Council for Art and Industry, in relation to design on the Queen Mary and his attempts to influence Sir Percy Bates, Chairman of Cunard-White Star, and contemporary design practice in Britain.
Immortal alphabets: Max Gill’s lettering for the Imperial War Graves Commission
Andrew Haslam, University of Brighton and Daniel Alexander, University of Portsmouth
The aim of this paper is to investigate how MacDonald Gill (1884 -1947) designed an inscriptional alphabet and accompanying Regimental Badge patterns, which were used to record the names of British and Empire dead and missing from the Great and Second World Wars. Max Gill’s alphabet designed for The Imperial War Graves Commission (later the CWWGC) records the names of over 1.7 million soldiers in 150 countries throughout the world. The paper will describe Max Gill’s work in designing the inscriptional alphabet and regimental badges as part of the design and administrative process between the loss of an individual soldier’s life on the battlefield and the preservation of the name in a cemetery. It will examine the process of documenting the position of the graves on the battlefields, how the names were ordered in indices, classified by location within the Cemetery Registers, verified by the next of kin with a ‘V’ Form, accessed by the public through cemetery maps using a system of plot and row coordinates and preserved through the design of Gill’s inscriptional lettering on headstones and memorials. It will examine the possible alternative forms of lettering proposed by Gill and how the lettering was drawn and reproduced both by hand, then pantograph machine and is reproduced today using computerised cutting.
Max, maps and the Empire Marketing Board
Professor Stephen Constantine, University of Lancaster
MacDonald Gill was a commercial artist, and accordingly was open to commissions from public bodies as well as from the private sector. The Empire Marketing Board was a British government organisation, established by Baldwin’s Conservative government in 1926 and eventually closed in 1933. Tariff reform and imperial preferences had been rejected by the electorate in 1923, and this taxpayer-funded organisation, nominally an offshoot of the Dominions Office, was devised as an alternative means of increasing intra-empire trade. It funded scientific research to tackle problems of production in the British Empire and to improve flows of market intelligence. However, it became best known for its efforts to persuade UK consumers to buy foodstuffs imported from the Empire instead of from foreign sources, using modern publicity and propaganda methods, including advertising posters on public billboards. Frank Pick, who had been responsible for London Underground’s publicity since 1908 (assistant managing director from 1921), became a member of the EMB’s Publicity Committee and directly involved in its public advertising activities as chair of the Poster Sub-Committee; and since Gill had previously designed map posters for the London Underground, Pick commissioned more work from him. Gill produced eight map designs for the EMB (plus some accompanying letterpress posters and the Board’s distinctive logo). Best known is his ‘Highways of Empire’ map, reproduced in an extraordinary range of sizes, in addition to illustrated maps of Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, as well as of the home countries of the UK. This illustrated talk, as well as tracing an important phase in Gill’s professional life, analyses the process by which ‘public art’ was commissioned, printed and displayed and its impact assessed.
MacDonald Gill’s Wonderground map of 1913 and its influence on twentieth-century mapmaking
During his lifetime MacDonald Gill’s acclaim rested on artistic endeavours of amazing diversity; one area of particular celebrity involved the pictorial maps he designed for both governmental and private organisations. The first of these maps was commissioned in 1913 as a poster for use in the stations of the privately held Underground Electric Railways Company. The enthusiasm of the public for this poster was such that a smaller version, titled the Wonderground Map of London Town, was published for sale the following year.
On the occasion of Gill’s death in 1947 the Journal of the Royal Institute of British Architects referred to this Wonderground Map as “a cartographical masterpiece.” Its groundbreaking design, with emphasis on visual and verbal whimsy and bold primary colors, awakened a generation of cartographers to the imaginative possibilities of pictorial mapmaking. Elisabeth Burdon will discuss the distinctive features of this landmark map and the profound influence it had on twentieth century pictorial mapmaking worldwide.
Andrew-Johnston,-Who-Was-Max-v2.pdf at University of Brighton, College of Arts and Humanities [pdf 600.0 KB]
Angela-Johnston,-Private-Lives-v2.pdf at University of Brighton, College of Arts and Humanities [pdf 205.8 KB]
C-Walker,-Discovering-MacDonald-Gill-v2.pdf at University of Brighton, College of Arts and Humanities [pdf 438.1 KB]