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Gill, Leslie MacDonald [Max]locked

(1884–1947)
  • Caroline Walker

Leslie MacDonald Gill (1884–1947)

by Howard Coster, 1930

Gill, Leslie MacDonald [Max] (1884–1947), artist and decorative cartographer, was born on 6 October 1884 at 2 Prestonville Road, Brighton, the fourth of thirteen children (two of whom died in childhood) of Arthur Tidman Gill (1848–1933) and his wife, (Cicely) Rose, née King (1855–1929). His father, a schoolmaster, and a minister of the Countess of Huntingdon's Connexion, was ordained in the Church of England in 1897, prompting the family to move to Chichester, where Gill, known to friends and family as Max, was educated at the prebendal school (1897–9). Already artistically inclined, he also attended evening classes at the Chichester Technical and Art School. In 1899 the family moved to Bognor, where Gill completed his education at Holyrood College (1899–1900). A younger brother described him as 'an extremely attractive person … always the joker of the family, as well as the most thoughtful and kind' (Romney Gill to Leonard Williams, 19 July 1936, Michael Somare Library, University of Papua New Guinea, quoted in Garland, 23).

At sixteen Gill began a two-year apprenticeship with a local architect, and in early 1903 he moved to London to take up an appointment as assistant to Sir Charles Nicholson and Hubert Corlette, ecclesiastical architects based in Lincoln's Inn. There he shared lodgings with his elder brother Eric [see (Arthur) Eric Rowton Gill], then working as a letter-cutter. For the next four years Max attended evening classes at the Central School of Arts and Crafts, where his tutors included the architect Halsey Ricardo and the calligrapher Edward Johnston, both influential figures in Gill's life. He also attended the weekly meetings at the Art Workers' Guild, an important focal point for the painters, architects, sculptors, and designers of the arts and crafts movement. His early lettering and design work won several scholarships and prizes, and in 1907 his first Royal Academy submission, 'A study of a chancel', was accepted for exhibition.

In May 1908 Gill set up his own practice, focusing on lettering and mural painting. He and Eric collaborated on a number of inscriptional works, including the imposing Dorothea Beale memorial (1909/10) at Cheltenham Ladies' College. His 'delightful' decoration of a mission hall in Chelsea in 1909 won praise (The Times, 21 Dec 1909), as did his naturalistic scenic designs for Granville Barker's production of John Galsworthy's play Justice the following year. In 1911 Roger Fry invited Gill to join a group of artists, including Duncan Grant and Albert Rutherston, to decorate the dining room of the Borough Polytechnic; however, the resulting murals, Gill's 'Punch and Judy' included, received mixed reviews and were unpopular with the students. By now Gill was making a speciality of painted wind-indicator panels for country houses. These local maps and bird's eye perspectives, which always featured the house itself, were embellished with boldly lettered compass points and a central metal indicator, which pointed to the wind direction. Gill's first indicator panel was commissioned in 1909 for Nashdom, a mansion at Taplow, but his most magnificent—depicting the Spanish Armada fleeing from the English fleet—was painted in 1913 for Lindisfarne Castle. These, and many later commissions, came via the architect Edwin Lutyens, who also provided Gill with testimonials for other work, including teaching. He was tutor of lettering and illumination at the Clapham School of Art (1908–13) and later taught architecture at the Central School of Arts and Crafts (1913–14), which provided him with a small but steady income to supplement his otherwise rather erratic earnings.

Gill was now sharing a studio in the Temple with the architect Arthur Grove and the silversmith Henry Wilson. His talent for creating images with strong colour and simple bold lines soon propelled him into the world of commercial graphics, where he created advertising material for companies such as Selfridges and Rolls Royce. In June 1913 Gerard Meynell of the Westminster Press invited him to design a map poster to brighten the station platforms of the Underground Electric Railways of London, part of a publicity campaign devised by its publicity officer, Frank Pick. 'The Wonderground Map of London Town' (1914), as Gill's map became known, was a colourful and whimsical depiction of the city, littered with comical characters and quips. The map's appeal was widened still further by its 'medieval modernist' approach (Burdon, 10), combining borders of chevrons and heraldry with contemporary scenes showing motor buses and a monoplane 'looping the loop', a feat first performed in 1913. Designed to entertain passengers waiting on platforms, rather than to help them find their way, the map made 'people watch so long they lose their trains—yet go on smiling' (Daily Sketch, 21 March 1914). In the following year a folded version of the map costing 6 shillings went on sale in bookshops, while post-war imitations included 'A Map of the Wondrous Isle of Manhattan' (1926) and the 'Wonder Map of Melbourne' (1934). Frank Pick continued to be a loyal patron, commissioning six more pictorial maps from Gill, including 'Theatreland' (1915) and 'Peter Pan of Kensington Gardens' (1923), as well as system maps of the underground network between 1920 and 1924.

During the First World War Gill worked as architect-in-residence on an experimental agricultural project on Ernest Debenham's Bladen estate in Dorset. Here he designed and oversaw the construction of innovative farm buildings and cottages of concrete and thatch, following the vernacular style laid down by Halsey Ricardo. On 21 August 1915, at St Peter and St Paul's, West Wittering, Sussex, he married (Edith) Muriel Bennett (1887–1967), daughter of Augustus Bennett, clergyman; the couple had three children, the first of whom was born in 1916. In the following year Gill was invited to design the font and regimental badges used for the standard military headstones of the Imperial War Graves Commission, perhaps his most enduring legacy. After leaving Dorset in 1919, the family settled in Chichester, where Gill soon built up a thriving practice, taking on an assistant, William Kingswell, in 1923. The varied and prolific output of this decade included publicity materials for companies including Shell-Mex at the 1924 Empire Exhibition; designs for houses such as Darwell Hill (1924) near Hastings; First World War rolls of honour for the Royal Sussex Regiment in Chichester Cathedral—as well as for Christ Church, and Balliol and Worcester colleges in Oxford—and a series of maps for the Empire Marketing Board, notably 'Highways of Empire'. Unveiled at Charing Cross on new year's day 1927, this 20 by 10 foot poster captivated the press and public. Later that year Gill and four assistants executed a mural depicting the Old Testament myth of the creation in the sanctuary of St Andrew's, Roker, Sunderland. Gill's richly coloured mural, painted in egg tempera, depicts Adam and Eve in a garden of Eden before the Fall. An outstretched hand symbolizes God, the creator of this earthly paradise, while painted quotations from the Book of Genesis appear in a lower frieze.

At the end of 1926 Gill and his family moved from Chichester to West Wittering. However, the marriage was troubled, and in 1933 Gill embarked on an affair with his goddaughter, Priscilla Johnston (1910–1984), youngest daughter of Edward Johnston. As Gill's assistant, she contributed to commissions including circular Arctic and Antarctic maps at the Scott Polar Research Institute, Cambridge (1934), and the 'Map of the North Atlantic' for the dining room of the Cunard liner RMS Queen Mary (1936). In this period Gill was also commissioned by the General Post Office to design a new logo and several publicity posters, including 'Mail Steamship Routes' (1937), which depicts the journey of a letter from post-box to quayside.

His children having reached adulthood, Gill separated from his wife in 1938 and set up home with Priscilla in Chelsea, though during the Second World War they retreated to their remote Sussex cottage. Here, working in the cramped conditions of a tiny converted washhouse, he completed a series of works: a large canvas showing the University of London colleges; his poster 'Tea Revives the World' (1940); propaganda maps for the Ministry of Information; and his 'Time and Tide Map of the Atlantic Charter' (1942), which commemorated the peacetime goals agreed by Britain and the United States in the previous year. On 4 May 1946 Gill married Johnston at Chelsea register office. However, in September, after completing a map for the RMS Queen Elizabeth, he was diagnosed with lung cancer. He died on 14 January 1947 at 21 Joubert Mansions, Jubilee Place, Chelsea, and was buried at Streat in Sussex. After Gill's death, his work—much of it ephemeral—was forgotten by the public, though a large collection of posters, artwork, and memorabilia was stored by his widow in the Sussex cottage where she continued to live. Its importance has since been recognized through the research of Priscilla Johnston's nephew Andrew Johnston and Gill's great-niece Caroline Walker. An exhibition, 'Out of the Shadows: MacDonald Gill', was held in Brighton in 2011, and in Ealing, London, in 2013, prompting new interest in Gill's work.

Sources

  • C. M. Walker, unpublished biography of MacDonald Gill
  • E. Burdon, ‘MacDonald Gill: the Wonderground map of 1913 and its influence’, IMCoS Journal, 116 (spring 2009)
  • E. Gill, Autobiography (1940)
  • T. Garnham, ‘Edward Prior: St Andrew's Church, Roker, Sunderland, 1905’, Arts and Crafts Masterpieces: Architecture, 3 (1999)
  • C. Garland, Romney Gill: missionary ‘genius’ and craftsman (2000)
  • Gill family papers, priv. coll.
  • b. cert.
  • m. certs.
  • d. cert.

Archives

  • priv. coll., family papers

Likenesses

  • E. Gill, pencil and watercolour, 1910, priv. coll.
  • H. Coster, bromide print, 1930, NPG
  • H. Coster, half-plate film negatives, 1930, NPG [see illus.]
  • H. Coster, photograph, 1935, Rex Features, London
  • H. Coster, group portrait, half-plate film negatives, 1936, NPG
  • H. Coster, half-plate film negatives, 1936, NPG
  • double portrait, photograph, 1940–49 (with Priscilla Johnston), Rex Features, London
  • photographs, University of Brighton; repro. in arts.brighton.ac.uk/projects/macdonald-gill, 2 April 2014
  • photographs, priv. coll.; repro. in www.macdonaldgill.com/content/biography, 2 April 2014

Wealth at Death

£2140 8s. 3d.: administration, 3 Feb 1947, CGPLA Eng. & Wales