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date: 20 September 2019

Pearsall [née Gross], Phyllis Isobelfree

(1906–1996)
  • Anne Pimlott Baker

Phyllis Isobel Pearsall (1906–1996)

by Brenda Herdman, 1990

© by kind permission of Brenda Herdman; National Portrait Gallery, London

Pearsall [née Gross], Phyllis Isobel (1906–1996), map publisher, was born on 25 September 1906 at Budapest, Court Lane Gardens, Dulwich, London. She was the younger of the two surviving children of Alexander Gross (formerly Grosz; 1880–1958), a Hungarian immigrant from Csurog, a village near Budapest, who was at that time selling oil lamps door to door, and his wife, Isabelle (1886–1937). Isabelle was a playwright and suffragette, and daughter of Arthur Crowley, a lapsed Irish Catholic priest and a dealer in second-hand pianos, of Peckham Rye, London, and his Italian wife. The artist (Imre) Anthony Sandor Gross was Phyllis's brother.

After Alexander Gross had established Geographia—an initially successful map-publishing business—in 1907, the family began making annual visits to Hungary. Phyllis was sent to Roedean School in 1916 but when her father went bankrupt and fled to Chicago in 1920 her mother found her a job in France as a pupil teacher at the Collège des Jeunes Filles in Fécamp; she spent a year there before returning to England in 1922 to live with her grandparents in Worthing, where she attended the local convent school for two years. In 1924 she went to Paris and enrolled at the Sorbonne, where she studied philosophy and Byzantine art for three years, supporting herself by writing for John Bull, an English-language magazine, translating, and giving English lessons. On 16 November 1927 she married Richard Montague Stack Pearsall, an artist fourteen years older than her and the son of William Booth Pearsall FRGS. For eight years they lived in Spain and travelled in Europe, before she left him in 1935; they were divorced in 1938. They published Castilian Ochre: Travels with Brush and Pen, an illustrated account of their travels in Spain, in 1935. Two of her etchings from this period, The Cathedral, Toledo and Approach to Toledo (both 1934) are in the permanent collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Back in London in 1935 Phyllis Pearsall made a living painting portraits, but she was disillusioned by the pretentiousness of the art world and ready to take on a new challenge, and when she got lost one evening in the streets of London and subsequently realized that the most recent street map of London dated from 1919 she decided to produce her own. Starting with the Ordnance Survey sheets she walked the streets of London for eighteen hours a day, compiling a 23,000 card alphabetical index of streets, which she kept in shoeboxes under her bed, and produced the first London A–Z Street Atlas in 1936. After W. H. Smith had taken her first 250 copies the A–Z was in great demand, and she founded the Geographers' A to Z Map Co. Ltd in the same year. Her father had started a new map-publishing business in New York, producing street maps, and in order to help him re-establish himself as a map publisher in England she insisted, until his death in 1957, that all her publications carry the inscription 'produced under the direction of Alexander Gross', although he was not involved in the business in any way. She did all the research, printing, and distribution, and employed Mr Fountain, who had worked for her father, as her draughtsman. Her next publications included the Premier Map of London, Thirty-Five Miles Round London, and London to the Sea, as well as maps of England and Wales, and the world. As war became increasingly likely she turned her attention to war maps, producing maps of northern France, Norway and Denmark, the Netherlands and Belgium, and Finland. With government restrictions on the production of large-scale maps, in 1941 she joined the civil service, and worked in the home intelligence department of the Ministry of Information from 1942 to 1945, but at the end of the war she turned down the offer of a permanent senior civil service job at the Board of Trade and returned to the Geographers A to Z Map Co. Ltd.

Faced with paper shortages after the war Pearsall arranged to have a quarter of a million copies of the A–Z printed in Amsterdam, but on the return flight in November 1946 her plane crashed in the fog, and she fractured her skull and her spine. Her efforts to recover from her injuries and revive her business—with new titles including coloured premier maps of Birmingham, Manchester, and Leeds in 1950, and of Coventry and Glasgow in 1952—contributed to her suffering a severe stroke in 1952. It was during her slow recovery from this that she experienced what she later described as a 'Damascene conversion' and became a ‘born-again’ Christian.

The company continued to bring out new titles—including quarter-inch maps of Wales (1957) and Scotland (1960) and a Road Atlas of Great Britain (1961)—and in 1962 moved from Gray's Inn Road to Sevenoaks, Kent. Chairman and managing director from 1957 and a multi-millionaire, Pearsall believed that a business should not be run solely for profit but also for the benefit of the employees, and in 1965 she set up the Geographers' Map Trust, transferring all her shares into it in order to safeguard the business against a takeover bid and to protect the jobs of her employees, some of whom worked for her for over forty years.

Pearsall continued to paint and write, especially from the late 1950s onwards, with regular exhibitions in London and elsewhere; her last exhibition, ‘Alive with Joy’, was in 1995 in the Little Gallery, Arundel. Women, 1939–1940, 'drawn and overheard by Phyllis Pearsall' (1985), and Women at War (1990) contained wartime drawings of women engaged in war work, with humorous captions; some of the originals are in the Museum of London. She published three autobiographical works: Fleet Street, Tite Street, Queer Street (1983), about her parents; A–Z Maps: the Personal Story from Bedsitter to Household Name (1990), a history of the company; and An Artist's Pilgrimage in Business (1993), which included her sketches of life in the office. She also published short stories, in the New Yorker and in a collection, Only the Unexpected Happens (1985).

Despite her bouts of ill health Pearsall, a tiny, frail-looking woman, remained chairman of the Geographers A to Z Map Co. Ltd until her death, though from the late 1950s she rarely visited the office, relying on her management team to run the business while she went on painting holidays in Europe. The fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the company, in 1986, was marked by an exhibition at the Royal Geographical Society; in that year she was appointed MBE. She died, of cancer, on 28 August 1996 at 5 Atlantic Court, Shoreham by Sea, Sussex, where she had lived since 1972. Her ashes were scattered in the garden of the A to Z office, at Borough Green, Sevenoaks, Kent.

Sources

  • S. Hartley, Mrs P's journey (2001)
  • P. Pearsall, Fleet Street, Tite Street, Queer Street (1983)
  • P. Pearsall, A–Z maps: the personal story from bedsitter to household name (1990)
  • P. Pearsall, An artist's pilgrimage in business (1993)
  • The Times (29 Aug 1996)
  • The Independent (31 Aug 1996)
  • private information (2004)
  • m. cert.
  • d. cert.

Likenesses

  • H. Turner, photograph, 1940, repro. in Pearsall, A–Z maps
  • N. Syrett, photograph, 1988, repro. in Pearsall, A–Z maps, facing p. 199
  • B. Herdman, portrait, bromide print, 1990, NPG, London [see illus.]

Wealth at Death

£663,101: probate, 26 Nov 1996, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

Podcast

(1920–)