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An original typed and signed letter from MacDonald Gill [1938]

  • Author: GILL, (Leslie) MacDonald
  • Date: 1938
  • Dimensions: 20.2 x 25.4 cms


A rare typed and signed letter from MacDonald Gill dated February 28th 1938 & addressed to John de la Valette

About this piece:

[Original typed and signed letter, addressed to John de la Valette, 8 Hertford Street, London W1 on Gill’s own letterheaded notepaper, MacDonald Gill FRIBA, 1 Hare Court, Temple EC4 Telephone Central 3947 & West Wittering, Chichester, Sussex. Telephone West Wittering 218.]

Typed letter. Staple pinholes and paper clip stain (verso) to upper left corner. Several ink and pencil annotations.

Dated 28th February 1938, Gill writes to John de la Valette at his home at 8 Hertford Street, London WI.

He writes to De la Valette, formerly Organising Secretary of the 1935 Exhibition of British Art in Industry, to inquire about the whereabouts of “the diagram map which I painted for the British Art in Industry Exhibition in Burlington House several years ago”. This was in fact the Exhibition of British Art in Industry which had been opened by the Prince of Wales at Burlington House in early January 1935.

Gill also asks whether it would be possible for him to either borrow the map in order to have it photographed for reference, or whether, if of no further use, he might be able to buy it back for a nominal sum. A note on the bottom indicates that one of De la Valette’s assistants was currently investigating and that a response had been sent to Gill on the same day, March 1st 1938.

John de la Valette was born in the Dutch East Indies, at Pasoeroean (Pasuruan) Java on the 22nd Dec 1883, the son of Gerars Johannes Petrus Valette, a local magistrate and author, and Getruida Johanna Couperus. He changed his name to John de la Valette in 1903 and married Maria (or Marise) Alice Rose, daughter of merchant, Charles Edward Glanville Rose in Hampstead in March 1911. De la Valette became a naturalized British Citizen in 1914. Having made a considerable fortune in the shipping business, in later life, he became known as a prominent financier and a respected authority and writer on matters Asian and oriental, especially relating to India and the Far East. In 1934 he was Honorary organizer of the first all-India Exhibition of Modern Indian Art at the Royal Academy, and, as noted above, in early 1935, the Honorary Secretary of the British Art in Industry Exhibition at the same venue. His first wife (whose portrait by William Lee-Hankey c1934 now hangs in the Glasgow Museums) died in Feb 1941. There were no children of the marriage. De la Valette appears to have subsequently emigrated to Australia where he seemingly remarried in New South Wales in 1944, this second marriage apparently ending in divorce in 1951.

The aim of the British Art in Industry Exhibition in 1935 had been to try and emphasize the importance of design and designers and to marry their individual training & skills, as well as their unique personal aesthetics and crafsmanship, to the commercial demands and requirements of larger-scale British industries. As Sir William Llewellyn, P.R.A, the Chairman of the Royal Society of Arts, noted in his speech opening the Exhibition :

Today, more and more articles were produced in mass by machinery. In view of this great multiplication of things, good design and attractiveness were an urgent necessity and it was incumbent upon those who commanded machinery to look to the worthiness of their designs. They had the widest fields for the dissemination of beauty on the one hand or of ugliness on the other….The scheme of the Exhibition was an entirely patriotic one, and was evolved solely with the object of bringing together the British designer with the British manufacturer for the betterment of the style of our products and the taste of the general public, with the consequent benefit to industry and the reduction of unemployment.

[Our Art Critic. “British Art In Industry.” Times [London, England] 5 Jan. 1935]

It is not entirely clear whether the map in question was one perhaps used as artwork for the original Exhibition Catalogue or Guide or whether, in fact, it was a Map that was designed and completed for display at the Exhibition itself. One wonders if Gill may have been an Exhibitor himself.

Amid rumours of a significant budgetary overspend on the set-up costs for the Exhibition (some £40,000) De la Valette was also forced to publicly deny further accusations made by the the Council of the Drapers’ Chamber of Trade that this overspend would be paid for by taxpayers & ratepayers. One member of the Drapers’ Council berated the Exhibition organisers stating that it was unfair and unjustified to make a charge on the public purse for what he considered to be nothing but a “high-brow exhibition of high-grade merchandise selected from a few exclusive decorators and distributors”. De la Valette responded by assuring the Council of the Drapers’ Chamber of Trade and the general public that the costs for the Exhibition would not be met out of the public purse but would be guaranteed by funding from Private Fellows of the Royal Society of Arts.

In the same 5 Jan 1935 edition, The Times was relatively restrained in its overall praise for the Exhibition calling it a mere flirtation between Art and Industry rather than a genuine marriage for human nature’s daily needs. A good beginning but one that needed to be followed by public reaction in their insistence in finding something of similar quality in their daily shopping. The newspaper was, however, reserved particularly fullsome praise for De la Valette himself, noting that, “as an intermediary between the artists, manufacturers and selecting committees, Mr John de la Valette, the honorary organising secretary of the Exhibition, can only be regarded as a genuis”.

The Exhibition appears to have provided the impetus and inspiration for De la Valette to publish: The Conquest of Ugliness, a collection of contemporary views on the place of art in industry. Edited by John de la Valette   [Methuen & Company Limited, London, 1935].

De la Valette’s shipping interests would also connect him to another example of Macdonald Gill’s cartographic productions. In April 1936, he presented a paper to the Royal Society of Arts on a subject clearly very dear to his own heart: The Fitment and Decoration of Ships from the “Great Eastern” to the “Queen Mary”. He focuses much time and attention on Cunard’s great new ocean liner, the Queen Mary, considered a masterpiece of British design and construction. Having spent a considerable time on board the Queen Mary during the final period of its construction, De la Valette was able to offer a very insightful personal perspective and critique of the way in which the internal architecture and rooms, their fittings, fabrics, furniture and interior design had all been knitted and blended together to create a cohesive form and vision. In his paper he drew specific attention to :  Mr. McDonald Gill’s track-chart in the big dining room, and Mr. Edward Wadsworth’s painting over the marble mantelpiece in the main smoking room [which] are excellently attuned to their respective surroundings. In his conclusion, De la Valette hoped that his review might go some way to showing how the decorators of the Queen Mary have succeeded in combining practical simplicity of treatment with a constant retention of that sweetness of curved lines which is so typical of every good ship, and which is, even unconsciously, a source of satisfaction to passengers. And he hoped these same features would be apparent on the Queen Mary’s forthcoming successor and sister ship.

Returning to Gill’s letter and the map. The latter’s nature, size and content remain a mystery and its present whereabouts unknown, suggesting that it was probably never returned to Gill nor photographed by him, as he requested.

Any individual examples of MacDonald Gill’s private letters and correspondence, outside those preserved within Gill family papers and personal archives, are clearly of considerable scarcity. In all a rare typed letter written on Gill’s personal notepaper & complete with Gill’s own signature in blue ink.