Discovering MacDonald Gill
1884 – 1947
Architect, Artist & Mapmaker
Review of the talk by Caroline Walker
on March 27th 2019
MacDonald “Max” Gill was an artist, architect and mapmaker of renown, whose works are not to be confused with those of his older brother, Eric Gill, who may be better known. Caroline, who is the great niece of Max, told the story of her mother discarding one of his maps on the kitchen wall, later to be horrified when a copy of that map was sold for £3,000. Although best known as a mapmaker, Max had a much greater talent, and his clients included such names as W H Smith, Rolls Royce, and London Underground.
He was born in Brighton in 1884, one of 13 children. The older boys were talented, and their father taught them how to sketch. Max’s interest in painting and sketching developed into an interest in architecture, and he moved to London to join an architectural practice. He took classes at the Central School of Art, where he learnt to love colour and decoration; a drawing of a church chancel was shown. Thereafter, he took lessons from Edward Johnston in the art of calligraphy, which eventually led him to design the lettering for stone memorials and headstones.
After 5 years, he set up his own practice in Lincoln’s Inn. From here, he met Edward Lutyens, who commissioned from Max a wind-dial map to be located over a fireplace in his client’s castle. Max’s interest in heraldry was incorporated into the dial. A further two wind–dial maps were ordered by Lutyens for clients in the north of England.
His ability at map making was now well-known, and Max was commissioned by Frank Pick to produce a map of the London Underground in 1914. This became highly regarded and very popular – it included puns, jokes and vignettes. A folded version was sold successfully. Within a decade, worldwide city maps were being produced; Frank Pick was so thrilled with Max’s work that he requested a second map of London’s Theatreland.
In August 1915, Max married Muriel Bennett, an old flame, and they lived in Dorset for 5 years. During the war, he was exempted from military service, but after the war the Imperial War Graves Commission was established, and Max was asked to be a member of the Headstones Committee. He designed the lettering used on the Cenotaph and every military headstone since WWI. This resulted in his receiving many commissions for memorials, an example being at Christ Church, Oxford.
Max’s work was not confined to maps and stonework. He also worked for publishers designing book covers, and souvenir brochures. In 1927 he created a poster entitled Highways of the Empire for the Empire Marketing board (Frank Pick was a member of the Poster Committee).
In the 1930s, with money problems, Max’s marriage was failing and he entered a relationship with his god-daughter, Priscilla Johnson. She was fascinated by his work and assisted in the creation of a tapestry map for South Africa House; then with a map of the Antarctic for the ceiling of the Scott Polar Museum. On a similar theme, she assisted with a map of the North Atlantic for the Queen Mary.
The famous GPO logo designed by Max was in use between 1935 and 1953. He designed for the GPO the Coronation telegram. In the 1940s he created a map to celebrate the Atlantic Charter, and a Great Circle Poster map for Cable & Wireless. He had divorced Muriel and married Priscilla, and helped her to refurbish her cottage, to include a studio. After his death from lung cancer, she stored Max’s work, which was discovered by her nephew who inherited the cottage.
I found the talk most interesting, with an obvious personal touch from Caroline. She reminded us of an exhibition of Max Gill’s work at the Ditchling Museum, and was aware that one of his works is exhibited at Shere Museum, a little closer to home!