Ditchling Museum pushes aside Eric Gill in favour of a celebration of the work of his less problematic and lesser known brother Max
With a brother like Eric Gill, it’s perhaps not surprising that the funny and wonderfully humane work of illustrator MacDonald ‘Max’ Gill has slipped from the public’s consciousness.
Yet Max Gill’s art was once as prominently in the public eye as his more famous and notorious brother’s stone carvings, prints and typefaces; particularly his brightly-coloured pictorial maps, graphic designs for book covers and posters for transport and communications companies in the first half of the twentieth century.
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Born in Brighton in 1884, Max Gill lived through a time of huge social and industrial change. He trained in the Arts and Crafts tradition of William Morris, but went on to develop his own, highly personal style that reflected the social, economic and political changes of the first half of the 20th century – from the decline of the British Empire and rapid technological change to the Great Depression and two World Wars.
His highly decorative maps are particular favourites – rich in period detail with metal monoplanes replacing wood and canvas biplanes, steam replacing sail and the motor car replacing the horse. One of his most celebrated maps formed the centrepiece of the iconic 1930s Art Deco interior for the first class dining salon of the RMS Queen Mary ocean liner and two of them; A Plan of the Houses of Parliament and A Map of the Cities of London and Westminster (both 1932) can still be seen at the Palace of Westminster on either side of the steps in St Stephen’s Porch.
But his magnum opus is still considered to be the large 1914 Wonderground Map, a fantastically detailed and whimsical take on the London Underground map, which was hung at every London Underground station, just before the outbreak of the First World War.
It is said that this brilliantly quirky creation, with its medieval modern stylings, witty word plays and Heath Robinson-esque approach to interpreting the landmarks of London, provided a jolly counterpoint to the privations of Londoners during wartime. But Max Gill’s work wasn’t all about whimsy, in 1918 he was appointed by the Imperial War Graves Commission to design the lettering used on the Cenotaph and every military headstone since WWI. In a move that infuriated his purist, stone carver brother, Eric, Max used industrial cutting techniques to allow for the sheer numbers of gravestones to be carved.
“He’s barely given a mention in MacCarthy’s Eric Gill biography, which is intriguing”
Yet since his death in 1946 his work faded from the public eye and he became barely a footnote in the complex life of Eric Gill, who has in recent years cast and even bigger shadow thanks to Fiona MacCarthy’s 1989 biography, which spectacularly detailed his chaotic private life and sexual depravities.
But for Caroline Walker, who is the great niece of Max Gill and is a co-curator of this exhibition it was the nature and medium of of Max Gill’s art that hastened its journey into obscurity. “I think his art really sank without trace because it was ephemeral,” she says. “It was poster work that made him famous from 1914 up to World War Two, but posters are publicity things, they’re torn down, they disappear, and no-one thinks about them again.
“In the 1980s Eric Gill’s star was rising, but Max was just not known about – he’s barely given a mention in MacCarthy’s Eric Gill biography, which is intriguing.”
Caroline has been researching Max Gill’s life and work since the 1980s but it wasn’t until 2007 that her quest to find out more about her forgotten great uncle had a breakthrough, thanks to a remarkable discovery in a remote Sussex cottage.
Long after Gill’s death, a major collection of his work was discovered in the cottage that had once been his home.
Rolled up, carefully packed away and labelled long ago by his second wife Priscilla Johnston, the works were uncovered by her nephew Andrew (grandson of London Underground typeface designer Edward Johnston) when he inherited the cottage. Andrew and his wife Angela lived in Somerset and for years they never really explored its contents, but when they finally moved in they began finding artworks everywhere. There were rolls of maps wrapped up in brown paper and tied up with string in the attic, drawings in the outbuildings and little portfolios resting on the tops of cupboards.
“They had the most vast collection of his work including artwork, even his baby shoes and locks of his hair”
The stash of works included Gill’s posters Theatreland (1915) and the charming Peter Pan Map of Kensington Gardens (1923), alongside the artwork for the Cable & Wireless Great Circle Map (1945) (Gill’s last poster), as well as his designs for book covers, illustrations and logos.
And it was luck that brought that brought the three together. With remarkable serendipity, around the same time of the first flood of discoveries in late 2007, Caroline contacted Ditchling Museum to see if they could help in her quest to find out more about her ‘uncle Max’.
“I knew vaguely that Max Gill had married a second wife called Priscilla Johnston who was the daughter of Edward Johnston, the calligrapher who was very much a Ditchling person,” she says. “So I rang them and said ‘can you tell me anything about the Johnstons, because I’m researching MacDonald Gill, Eric’s brother’. They immediately said ‘well Andrew Johnston is a trustee of the museum’. At which point my mouth dropped.”
Later that evening the phone rang.
“It was Andrew Johnston,” says Caroline, “he told me that they had just moved into Max and Priscilla’s cottage and that they had the most vast collection of his work including artwork, even his baby shoes and locks of his hair.”
Two weeks later Caroline found herself driving down a muddy, rutted track through a remote Sussex forest.
“I was going deeper and deeper into this forest, not quite knowing where on earth I was going, and there at the end of it was this idyllic little cottage.”
It was the first of many visits. The three are now the greatest of friends, united in their desire to document and share the collection. They have collaborated on a number of exhibitions including this latest outing in Ditchling but, says Caroline, that first visit was “like finding the chest of gold at the end of a rainbow.”
“I don’t know if it’s all discovered yet,” she adds, “just four weeks ago Andrew rang me and said ‘we’ve just found something else’.”
Among the artworks on display at Ditchling are designs for posters including the famous Wonderground Map of London Town, mock ups and designs for publishers, illustrations for advertising and all the original little illustrations for Eleanor Farjeon’s first book. It’s a diverse portfolio united by a geniality that seems to reflect Max Gill’s personality.
“He has a light hearted touch, even the more informative work like the GPO maps are charming and alluring,” says Caroline.
Another quality that underpins Max Gill’s work is the lettering, which was learnt not from his letter carving brother, but from Priscilla’s father, Edward Johnston, at the Central School. Johnston became a great friend and Priscilla was actually Max’s goddaughter. Twenty six years his junior, she later became his assistant and constant companion. Gill eventually left his wife Muriel for her in 1938, which says Caroline, “brings a tiny bit of scandal into the equation”.
“It’s nothing to compare with his brother,” she adds, “and I have to say when Eric said that Max was, “mad, bad and unchristian” I think it was a bit like the pot calling the kettle black, to say the least!”
Despite the protestations of the Gill family, Max and Priscilla eventually married in 1946, but their marriage was short lived. He died of cancer in January 1947.
The artworks hidden since then in their remote Sussex cottage are now finally allowing the lesser famous Gill brother to step out of the shadows. Nothing mad, bad or unchristian to see here.
Max Gill: Wondergound Man is at Ditchling Museum of Art and Craft from October 20 2018 – April 28 2019
Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft
Ditchling, East Sussex
The rich collection of art, craft, and applied art reflects the important place that Ditchling holds in the tradition of 20th century art and craft. Famous artists and craftsmen represented in the museum include Sir Frank Brangwyn, Ethel Mairet(weaver) and Edward Johnston (calligrapher). Unique collection of work from the arts…