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The Wonderground Map of London Town Drawn by MacDonald Gill.

  • Author: GILL, (Leslie) MacDonald (artist)
  • Publisher: Westminster Press, London (publisher) - Gerald T Meynell (copyright holder)
  • Date: [1914]1924-c1927
  • Dimensions: sheet: 94 x 75.5 cms / map: 93 x 73.5 cms


c1927 issue of MacDonald Gill’s splendid Wonderground Map originally published for the 1924 British Empire Exhibition at Wembley

About this piece:

The Wonderground Map of London Town Drawn by MacDonald Gill.


[Printed & Published by the Westminster Press, 11 Henrietta Street, Covent Garden, WC]

Bright printed colour. Narrow margins as issued. Traces of original folds, now flattened out. Some very light verso reinforcements at original fold junctures. The whole sheet backed with museum-quality archival tissue for better preservation & presentation. Barely visible old pinholes to each corner in outer border, now filled and reinforced on verso. Small area of very light surface wear in left side border (black chevrons) with some minor retouching. With all a very presentable and attractive example.

MacDonald Gill’s original Wonderground Map of London Town was first commissioned by the London Electric Underground Railway  Company under the direction of its visionary Traffic Officer and Commercial Manager, Frank Pick. First published by the Westminster Press in 1914, it was originally designed to be displayed at individual London Underground Stations and to amuse and entertain passengers as they waited for trains. It proved a diverting and highly popular attraction, such that a second retail edition of the poster, dissected and backed on linen, was published by the Westminster Press a year later, in 1915.

On his death in 1947, the Journal of the Royal Institute of British Architects hailed Gill’s Wonderground Map as a “Cartographic Masterpiece”, indeed the widespread popularity of the various editions and formats of this map and its numerous derivatives bore witness to the remarkable resurgence of decorative cartography, not only in Britain but also around the globe, especially in the United States and Australia, in the first half of the 20th Century.

For a long time, it had been assumed that the smaller version of the Wonderground map was published in close succession to the larger 1914/15 issues, but it is now clear that, despite it’s 1914 copyright date, it actually first appeared a decade later, following the opening of the British Empire Exhibition at London’s Wembley in April 1924. It formed part of the vast swathe of promotional & commemorative memorabilia and souvenirs which accompanied the event which attracted some 27 million visitors to the Wembley site in the six months following the Exhibition’s opening. It seems the map was also offered for sale at souvenir shops & retail outlets at the Exhibition itself.  This may explain the particular directive within the encircling banner text around the map which exhorts prospective purchasers to “take a map home to pin it on your wall”.

MacDonald Gill was, of course, also closely involved in another work directly associated with the 1924 British Empire Exhibition, notably a commemorative volume produced by the LNER and entitled Pageant of British Empire, an anthology of Empire, partly based on the live Pageant which took place at Wembley in the summer of 1924, with scenery designed by Frank Brangwyn. The book incorporated an anthology of verse alongside works of leading graphic artists and illustrators of the day, including Spencer Pryse and Frank Brangwyn. It had, as its centrefold, a richly decorative colour-printed map, depicting the World at the time of Sebastian Cabot at the end of the 15th Century, which Gill had also designed.

This example, though identical in almost every respect to the c1924 Empire Exhibition edition, can actually be identified as a later second state by one very small & often overlooked revision – the symbol of a racing greyhound which replaces the Imperial Lion above the signpost to Wembley in the upper left of the image.

After the Empire Exhibition closed in 1925, the site went into liquidation and was acquired  by local entrepreneur & gambler, James White, who arranged that fellow businessman, Arthur Elvin, should clear the site for demolition. Elvin, who had operated several retail outlets at Wembley during the Empire Exhibition, recognised the unique potential of the site and in early 1927 agreed to purchase it from White, though the latter’s untimely death led to Elvin having to raise the £150,000 purchase price from backers and financiers in just two weeks. Despite the inauspicious start, Elvin envisaged the site as a prime dog racing venue, a new sport which had recently been imported from the United States and which had proved particularly popular at newly established tracks at Bellevue, Manchester and London’s White City. He quickly saw the new sport’s commercial potential especially with the profitable revenues generated from trackside gambling. The opening greyhound event in December 1927 – the inaugural Empire Stakes run over 525 yards – attracted a crowd of almost 70,000 people. It would remain a popular dog racing venue for the next four decades, though its later years were characterized by growing decline. The Wembley site quickly became far more closely associated with the football, becoming viewed by fans as the English game’s spiritual home, especially after the 1966 World Cup.

This revised map was most probably re-issued to promote the newly opened dog racing venue in late 1927 or early 1928. A very rough census of examples of this second state of the map, based on the number we have handled over the last few years, would suggest that it is probably somewhat rarer & less often seen than its 1924 precursor.

The map itself is a unique construction presenting the streets and buildings of London as if from a bird’s eye perspective, its different districts, buildings, historical sites and sounds, personalities and peculiarities, brought to life through Gill’s unique panoply of illustrative and literary props. Comical characters abound, spouting forth via the medium of the speech bubble a profusion of puns, jokes and clever literary wordplays and double-entendres, including many now sadly hard-to-understand contemporary social and topographical references. For example a large multi-coloured Chinese Dragon (representing the Serpentine) fills Hyde Park. Elsewhere the animals of London zoo consume proffered buns and visiting boys who have got to close to the cages, whilst a Tiger lurks in the deep undergrowth of St.John Wood. A farmer’s horse pulls an iron plough up the Harrow Road; men on Polo ponies cast legs of Ham against the walls of the Hurlingham (hurling ham) Club in West London. Adjacent to the headquarters of the London Underground in Victoria, a workman wields a heavy pick with the comment “my pick cannot be surpassed“, most probably a reference to the commissioner of the map, Frank Pick. Gill himself includes a comic portrait of himself, kneeling with a long-eared hare in his hands at the Temple with the comment “One hare caught in the Temple”, Gill’s London offices and address being No.1 Hare Court, Temple. He can also be spied in Westbourne Park, seated astride a local rooftop ridge and reviewing a copy of the Wonderground map (with the words “quite a good pull this”) and evidently hot off the presses of the Westminster Press printing works on the nearby Harrow Road. Another distinctive and recurrent feature of many of Gill’s maps is the inclusion of vignettes of many members of his own family, often including his parents and siblings, the latter almost invariably represented as children. This version of the Wonderground map is no exception, with Max’s elder brother Eric and one of his sisters, either Gladys or Madeline, holding open a book in the lower left of the map in which, on the opened pages, appears a quotation from Algernon Blackwood’s A Prisoner in Fairyland, an enormously popular children’s book first published in 1913. The quotation reads “Little Mouse that lost in Wonder, Flicks its whiskers at the Thunder” and its inclusion perhaps references the almost Fairyland-like quality and aura that Gill seeks to convey in this charming and captivating map.

Gill’s use of heraldic devices and coats of arms is a distinctive feature and recurrent theme of many of his commissions across the  different graphic media with which he worked and is no less evident here, with the encircling banner inscription embellished with coats of arms representing London (top centre) and Westminster (bottom centre), St.Marylebone (top left), Holborn (top right); Kensington (middle left), Southwark (middle left), Chelsea (bottom left) and Lambeth (bottom right).

Refs: David Rumsey Collection