Highways of Empire

MacDonald Gill’s 1927 Empire Marketing Board Poster, Highways of Empire: “Imperialism without tears”

Part I : From Drawing Board to Billboard

MacDonald Gill’s 1927 Highways of Empire poster.
This is a postcard edition first published in late 1928 by Hudson & Kearns.
Many smaller derivatives & spin-offs followed Gill’s original 48 sheet poster 
(Author’s Collection)

On New Year’s Day 1927 London’s Charing Cross Road witnessed the unveiling of MacDonald Gill’s massive 48 sheet, 20 x 10 foot poster entitled Highways of Empire, the first poster of a groundbreaking advertising campaign by the recently established Empire Marketing Board (EMB). It was the beginning of what would in fact become a rolling programme of poster advertising that continued throughout the EMB’s brief but remarkable seven year existence between 1926 & 1933.

Formed in May 1926 by the Conservative Government of Stanley Baldwin, the EMB was headed by Colonial Secretary Leo Amery [1873-1955] but the Board’s day-to-day administration was directed by the energetic and inspirational figure of Stephen Tallents [1885-1958], most recently the Government’s troubleshooter during the 1926 General Strike. He would later become Head of Public Relations at the GPO and BBC and also served as BBC Deputy Director General under Lord Reith.

Other significant figures appointed to the EMB and closely involved in the EMB’s publicity & poster campaigns included the London Underground supremo, Frank Pick [1878-1941]; the prominent London advertising agency owner & director, Sir William Crawford [1878-1950]; the British-born Australian civil servant, Frank L McDougall [1884-1958], a close confidant of the then Australian Prime Minister, Stanley Bruce; and Gervas Huxley [1894-1971], cousin of author Aldous, and Secretary of the Board’s Publicity Committee. Huxley provides a fascinating account of his time at the EMB in his autobiography, Both Hands  [Chatto & Windus, 1970].

Stephen Tallents [1885-1958] Secretary of the EMB, 1926-1933
“A trim military figure, spare, balding…radiating confidence and energy” (Huxley)

Frank Pick [1878-1941]
EMB member &
Managing Director of London Underground
“A large, reserved Yorkshireman of uncompromising integrity…his adminstrative qualities…were combined with a remarkable love and knowledge of the arts” (Huxley)

Sir William Crawford [1878-1950]
Vice-Chairman of the EMB Publicity Committee. British advertising guru, he was knighted in 1927.
“Corpulent and rubicund…the complete extrovert…his approach to advertising was inspirational rather than logical” (Huxley)
Frank L McDougall [1884-1958]
Australian representative on the Imperial Economic Committee & EMB. A close confidant of Australian Premier, Stanley Bruce, during his leadership of the Coalition goverment of 1923-1929.
“Short and stocky, with a pipe always in his mouth… immensely industrious as well as enthusiastic in the Empire cause” (Huxley)

Gervas Huxley [1894-1971]
Secretary of the EMB’s Publicity Committee. Seen here in 1931 shortly after his second marriage to Elspeth Grant [1907-1997], at the time the EMB’s Assistant Press Officer. She would become famous in later life as an author & journalist. Amongst her 30 books the best known is probably
The Flame Trees of Thika [1959]
MacDonald Gill at work on his map mural in the St.Stephen’s Porch of the Houses of Parliament in late 1932

The EMB’s principal aim was to promote intra-imperial trade, that is the sale of British and Empire-made goods & British and Empire-grown produce both at home and throughout the overseas colonies & Dominions. British economic stability during post-war World was increasingly threatened in a period when many foreign nations backed outright protectionism and tariff barriers on imports on the one hand, whilst flooding foreign (especially British & colonial) markets with their own cheaply priced products on the other. The EMB was an means of encouraging a protectionist economy without direct tariff barriers whilst also promoting closer commercial & economic links within the Empire.

The EMB’s advertising campaign was described by Huxley as “something unparalleled in poster history” and was devised to sell the idea and to persuade forty million people to change their purchasing habits. According to Melanie Horton, Tallents’ principal objective was to “provide didactic instruction on what the British Empire was and why it was important to the people of Britain”. (Melanie Horton Empire Marketing Board Posters [2010])

EMB Magazine advertisement Jan 1927

Tallents’ poster campaign emphasized the mutually interdependent & symbiotically connected nexus of British imperial commerce and trade around the globe. It also reflected the careful balancing of British history & tradition with a new & vibrantly progressive modernity. At the same time it tried to engender a meaningful sense of mutually cooperative kinship & connected common humanity within the British imperial “family of nations”. Gill’s Highways of Empire, the most inconic of all the EMB’s posters, was almost certainly chosen to launch the campaign because of the eye-catching manner in which it so cleverly imagined, formulated & brought to life these ideals.

One of the specially designed EMB  poster hoardings
From: Commercial Art (Vol 4), Feb 1928
“Our poster frames would be made from English oak and British Columbian Douglas fir and would each hold a set of three pictorial posters separated from each other by two letterpress posters with a top strip” (Huxley)

With an initial budget of a million pounds in the first year of its creation the EMB’s ensuing national advertising campaign rapidly grew to encompass some 1800 exclusive sites & specially designed poster hoardings across Britain. Ancillary poster campaigns followed across the Empire & Dominions, most notably in Australia and the EMB rapidly became the principal patron & commissioning agent for many of Britain’s foremost graphic artists and poster designers. Perhaps for the first time ever, the EMB brought pictorial poster art onto the urban streetscene and truly into the popular consciousness. The posters’ propaganda value and their impact & influence in public relations & education proved profound & longlasting, even after the Board’s controversial demise in 1933.

The EMB logo also designed by MacDonald Gill in 1926

The effect of  Gill’s poster upon the British public was instantaneous & electrifying.

The Manchester Guardian captures the true essence of the map and popular reaction to it in an article of January 1st 1927:

The great coloured map “Highways of Empire”,  which Mr MacDonald Gill has done for the Empire Marketing Board, enlivened the hoardings here for the first time to-day. It immediately proved so attractive as to cause congestion of the highways of London. In the Charing Cross Road an indignant patriot who was pointing out the extent of the Empire with his umbrella was moved on by the police together with his audience. 

This poster, twenty feet by ten, is the opening of the Board’s campaign to advertise Empire trade through fine pictures, the work of leading poster artists, on the hoardings of all big cities. Mr MacDonald Gill’s map is a jolly thing and packed with entertaining detail. It has an odd and arresting look, for the artist has escaped the usual Mercator projection of the atlases in which the round world is rolled out flat and distorted in the process. Mr Gill’s projection, or point of view, is somewhere high in the sky over London. This gives him England blushing a patriotic scarlet and ridiculously small as the heart of the world, which is exactly what is wanted.                  

Due to popular demand, smaller reprints of the original 48 sheet poster were soon commissioned.  In reducing the size of the map and removing the exhortation to “Buy Empire Goods from Home and Overseas” a space was left which was now filled with a special explanatory letterpress by Gill. The new reprint (60 x 40 inches) was first offered to the general public in May 1927 for a price of 1s 6d. Tens of thousands were also distributed free to British & Dominion schools.
(Author’s Collection)

One of the most startling results of this attitude is the appearance of America and Canada floating on their side, as it were, away to the left, with Canada due east of America in a mad but entertaining manner.

Those who remember Mr MacDonald Gill’s famous Underground map of London will not need to be told that he has peopled his continents with queer creatures and written curious mottoes across his oceans. When it was too late he discovered that he had put Polar bears in the Antarctic regions, where Polar bears are not. Was he downhearted! No! With great resource he put a scroll in their mouths, asking “What are we doing here? We belong in the North Pole!”. His penguins appear to be learning the Charleston.

The windheads Aquilo and Eurus – the ancient gods of the North & East Winds –  decorate the top right corner of the map, which is further embellished with a trademark Gill “sunburst”

The map is semicircular with the corners filled in with a bold descriptive design of the heavenly bodies. Across the bright blue seas – the Highways of Empire – the British ships swarm and cluster round the great ports like bees on the threshold of the hive. The map catches the eye, which is the main thing, and once caught the eye is kept busy hunting out all the bright and amusing vagaries of the artist. This is Imperialism without tears.”

“British ships swarm & cluster round the great ports like bees on the threshold of the hive…”

A few days later, on January 5th, the EMB’s poster campaign received the personal endorsement & support of the Prince of Wales. After a special visit to the Dominions Office in Whitehall, where he met Leo Amery & leading figures of the EMB, the Prince examined a copy of the 48 sheet Highways of Empire poster laid out on the floor for his personal inspection. Staff joked with him about how they had already received one request from a member of the public for a copy of the poster to decorate the ceiling of a children’s nursery! Later the Prince crossed Whitehall to witness the unveiling of another example of the Gill Highways map displayed on railings outside Montagu House.

We learn much about the background behind the initial commissioning & design of the Highways of Empire poster from correspondence between the EMB and Lt Col Stephen Smith [1867-1950], former C/O of the 39th Division (RE) on the Western Front in World War I and retired commanding officer of the Royal Engineers attached to the Edinburgh Castle garrison (TNA CO758/60/5).

Smith had first approached the Board in January 1928 offering Tallents a copy of his unusual 1903 World map projection for use as a poster for “a reasonable and moderate fee”. Upon subsequently seeing Gill’s new Highways of Empire poster on display in Glasgow later that year, Smith wrote to Tallents again claiming Gill’s use of an almost identical World map projection to his own was in breach of the 1903 copyright of that earlier map.

Stephen Smith’s 1903 Map of “The British Empire in Its True Proportions”
From: The Geographical Teacher Vol 2 No.3 (Oct 1903)

Smith’s original hand coloured manuscript map design had measured 7′ x 5′ and had included pastoral and agricultural lands, forests &c – a design that  he claimed in his letter to Tallents would form the ideal basis for an EMB poster. He had in fact presented two papers on this “new map” to the Royal Scottish Society of Arts in April & July 1903. Its intended purpose was to give a truer idea of the size, forms, and relative positions of the several parts of the Empire than was possible using Mercator’s projection, thereby showing “every part of the Empire on the same scale and in its correct relationship to the United Kingdom”. Smith claimed that some 100,000 copies of the map were subsequently distributed at his own expense. It is interesting to note that the map was engraved by George Philip & Son, the very same cartographers to whom the EMB turned in the late Summer of 1926 to finalize the supposedly novel projection for Gill’s poster. So perhaps there was a kernel of truth in the ageing Lt Col’s claims…

Part of the Smith correspondence file (CO758/60/5) includes an internal EMB memorandum written by Gervas Huxley in July 1931 for the Treasury Solictor which provides a fascinating insight into the collective fashion in which Gill’s Highways of Empire design first came into being:

” At the very first recorded meeting of the Poster Section in July 1926 it was agreed that the Board’s first poster for the hoardings should take the form of a map of the Empire, and that Mr Macdonald (sic) Gill should be asked to design it. I at once saw Mr. Gill and prepared a very slight pencil sketch, based on the ordinary Mercator’s projection. This was shown to the Poster Sub-Committee at their next meeting on the 5th August 1926, when it was felt that the design on Mercator’s projectionwas unsuitable for the particular shape that 48-sheet hoarding posters have to take. 

I recollect well that the members of the Poster Sub-Committee then and there sat down and tried to work our more suitable projections, the idea for the lunette shape being finally evolved by Mr Pick from suggestions made by Mr McDougall, Mr Tallents and myself. I was then asked to explore the possibility of a map on this form of projection with Messrs George Philip & Son, the cartographers.

I saw Messrs Philip and discussed various projections with them, and came to the conclusion that the lunette suggested by the Poster Sub-Committee would be the most effective. As far as I or Messrs Philip knew there was no projection exisiting in this exact form, and Messrs Philip were accordingly commissioned by me to draw it out specially. This they did, and after one or two modifications by the Sub-Committee, Messrs Philip’s outline was accepted and paid for….and it was then handed to Mr. Macdonald Gill as the outline on which his map should be drawn….Mr Gill followed the outline and produced the Board’s “Highways of Empire” map…Mr Gill’s original (drawing) is at the Imperial Institute…. 

By the time of the 1st Sub-Committee Poster Section in late October 1926, Gill’s poster had been given the green light and it was agreed that an initial run of 3000 copies should be printed. Its printing was put out to tender in November and that received from Russell Palmer of Waterlows was quickly accepted, with further agreement that their printing of the posters should be completed using a lithographic process in 4 colours. It soon became apparent to Waterlows that the upscaling of Gill’s original hand drawn design to a 48 sheet lithographic poster was fraught with technical difficulty.  It needed to be blown up to four times its original size using photography, and the blemishes and  marks on the original drawing were only removed through extensive retouching and “a considerable quantity of hard work” [CO758/103/7]. 

At the same time, at the meeting of the 1st Sub-Committee of the Poster Section on 11th November 1926, William Crawford put forward the idea of printing smaller reproductions of several of the EMB’s posters, including the Highways of Empire, for free distribution to schools and wider sale to the general public. The initial proofs of these were ready for approval by early March 1927 and they went on sale two months later.  Examples were to be published in both double crown size (30 x 20 inches) and 60 x 40 inches. The space left below the map was now to be filled with descriptive letterpress in Gill’s classic cursive style. 

November 1926 proved a busy month for the EMB as its first Exhibition of poster art – an exclusive one-day event viewable by special invitation only – was opened by Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin at the Royal Academy on the 2nd of the month. It was specially timed to showcase the EMB’s work to the Dominion leaders then gathering in London for the 1926 Imperial Conference. Of the 25 posters on display, which included designs by F C Herrick, Paul Henry, George Sheringham, Gregory Brown, Spencer Pryse, Fred Taylor, Charles Paine, Charles Dixon, Charles Pears, E A Cox, Norman Wilkinson & Edward McKnight Kauffer, Exhibit No.1 was Gill’s original 1/4 size drawing for the Highways of Empire poster.

Foreword to the 2nd November 1926 EMB Poster Exhibition at the Royal Academy
A stranded Polar Bear on the Antarctic iceshelf hums “It’s a Long Long Way to Tipperary” whilst the adjacent penguins appear to dance the Charleston close to one of the two South Poles that are shown in the lower left & right corners of the map

Speaking almost thirty years later at the RSA, Sir Stephen Tallents recalled that 1926 Exhibition and how publicity is a highly dangerous trade, one all too easily susceptible to unexpected pitfall & sudden disaster:

We had commissioned MacDonald Gill to design as our first poster, a map called Highways of Empire, and in order to impress with a sense of our activity the Premiers who came to attend the Imperial Conference of 1926, arranged for it to be the principal item of a meagre display of publicity material which we staged in the rooms of the Royal Academy in Burlington Gardens. On the eve of the Premiers’ visit of inspection, someone pointed out that it showed Polar Bears in the South Pole – a gaffe which, full allowance being made for the ignorance of natural history common among Prime Ministers, was likely to be spotted by the Prime Minister of New Zealand. MacDonald Gill and I took hurried counsel together, and he accepted my suggestion that we might save the situation by looping round the mouths of our bears, in strip cartoon style, such puzzled remarks as “Where are we?”. Thus I escaped by the skin of my teeth my first, but by no means my last, threat of a publicity disaster…”

(Sir Stephen Tallents: Advertising and Public Relations Today –  JRSA Vol. 104, No.4967 (23rd Dec 1955), p.96 )

Another confused Polar Bear in Antarctica asks his companion quizzically: 
“Why are we here? We belong to the North Pole!” 

Such was his popularity that Gill became one of the go-to artists for the EMB. And the exquisite quality and detail of his design artwork meant that he could command an extremely attractive fee in comparison to many of his fellow artists. His  subsequent EMB commissions  – a series of specially themed 60 x 40 inch map posters focusing on the agriculture and fisheries of the Empire, of which the set of the three Home Countries (including the whole island of Ireland) soon followed the Highways of Empire in 1928-29 –  are known to have earned him 150 guineas per poster. It seems probable he was remunerated for his work on Highways of Empire at a similar level.

Irish Free State & Northern Ireland Portraying their Agricultural Products & Fisheries 1929
Gill’s EMB poster highlighting the island’s bountiful harvests both on land & at sea
(Author’s Collection) 

As Stephen Constantine notes £250 was the annual wage of a skilled manual worker in late 1920s Britain, whilst Gill’s fee for one poster would have easily covered the purchase of a brand new Morris saloon (£135) with considerable change to spare. 

Gill’s engaging letterpress for the smaller-sized reprints of the Highways map, notes that the map “shows the world as it would appear from an aeroplane so high above London that the pilot saw the continents stretched out beneath him. He would be thus given a vivid idea of how the British Empire is scattered in relation to the home country. He could also [if he had a strong telescope] watch the shipping and notice the outward bound steamers, with cargoes of steel or coal or boots or cotton goods, and those homeward bound, with wheat or wool or mutton or fruit, cluster most thickly where they are sketched in on the map….

Gill concludes with an endorsement of Stephen Tallents’ overarching message of an increasingly close & inter-connected Empire: “Air routes are bringing India within five days of us, South Africa within a week and Australia within less than a fortnight…Transport of all kinds is, indeed, bringing us closer and closer in touch with our fellow subjects overseas…Time and not space has become the real measure of the globe, and the British Empire to-day is more compact than the British Isles were in the past.”


Stephen Constantine: Buy and Build: The Advertising Posters of the Empire Marketing Board [PRO / HMSO 1986]                                                        

Melanie Horton: Empire Marketing Board Posters [Manchester Art Gallery 2010]