MACDONALD GILL [1884-1947]
Almost exactly a Century ago the Publicity Officer of London’s Underground Electric Railways Company, Mr Frank Pick [1878-1941], commissioned the thirty year-old architect and graphic designer, Leslie MacDonald Gill to produce his now-famous comic pictorial poster map of the London Underground, the so-called “Wonderground” Map.
Such was its impact when it first appeared on the walls and display boards of London’s Underground stations in early 1914, that passengers frequently missed their trains as they stood in amused & entranced wonderment, absorbed in the finer details of this pictorial & cartographic “tour de force”.
As Gill himself noted, Pick should be thanked for the fact that he “saw in the revival of the decorative map a medium of approach whereby direction, instruction and a civic sense might be unified and fostered for the benefit of all…”
Leslie MacDonald Gill [1884-1947] (known to family & friends as “Max”) has at last begun to emerge from the historical shadows through a long-overdue reappraisal of his work and through a series of spectacular and highly informative exhibitions that have been held in both Brighton and London over the last three or four years.
The driving force behind this reappraisal has come mainly through the good offices of several of Max Gill’s surviving relatives, notably Andrew & Angela Johnston and Caroline Walker.
At last we have a clearer picture of Max’s own life story and his own immensely significant, rich & varied artistic contribution to 20th Century graphic & poster design, architecture, book illustration, calligraphy, mural art and cartography, one perhaps hitherto unduly overshadowed by that of his equally talented but more controversial elder brother, Eric [1882-1940].
Max Gill’s immediate cartographic legacy can be clearly charted in the works of numerous other contemporary artists and illustrators, not only in Great Britain but also in the United States and around the globe. In the United States, their efforts were assisted by proactive promotion (and publication) of this new genre of “decorative maps” through such outlets as the Washington Square Bookshop in New York’s bohemian Latin quarter, Greenwich Village and by some notable publishers, such as the Boston-based Company, Houghton Mifflin, the promoters of Blake Clark and Edwin Olsen’s series of three US pictorial City maps published in 1926.
As Elisabeth Burdon has highlighted, a whole series of Wonderful and Wondrous City maps, closely modelled on Gill’s Wonderground prototype, began to appear all around the World in the 1920’s and 1930’s – in countries as far afield as the United States, Central America and Australia.
Gill’s Wonderground map provided a ground-breaking model and template for a traditionally-inspired yet contemporarily “modern” genre of decorative mapmaking and cartography whose emergence can clearly be charted in both the UK and overseas from the mid 1920’s onwards. It was one whose guiding principles and features Gill himself highlighted in his fascinating article Decorative Maps, which appeared in The Studio Magazine in December 1944. In the same article Gill reflected upon his cartographic output across a wide variety of different media, in a commercial career that had spanned some 35 years, since his first commercial commission from Sir Edwin Lutyens in 1909. It was a career that was to be sadly & prematurely foreshortened by his early death just over two years later, in January 1947, aged 62.
Gill was clearly an immensely engaging personality, an artist and mapmaker whose colourful, comic, quip-filled and querky works have long intrigued, absorbed, inspired and entertained me, as they do so many others.
It is reassuring to know that, with all this recent attention, Max Gill’s reputation is now at last firmly established in its rightful place in the pantheon of “true greats” of British 20th Century graphic art and design.