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MacDonald Gill Theatreland 1915

  • Author: GILL, Leslie MacDonald (Max) (artist)
  • Publisher: Underground Electric Railway Company Ltd
  • Engraver: Westminster Press, London
  • Date: 1915
  • Dimensions: sheet: 127 x 102 cms


Theatre-Land [1915]: Rare pictorial map poster of London’s West End Theatres by renowned artist & designer, Leslie MacDonald Gill

About this piece:


Colour-printed quad royal poster, backed with museum-quality Japanese tissue for better presentation & conservation. Traces of old folds, now flattened out. Two or three areas of invisible cosmetic repair and two small areas of surface loss, one at upper right sheet edge and the second on old fold juncture in upper right of image, affecting part of building facade on corner of Kemble Street, both areas now expertly filled & invisbly reinstated. With all a fine example of this exceedingly rare poster.

One of the finest (and earliest) of MacDonald Gill’s map posters, Theatre-Land was published in late 1915, just over a year after the outbreak of World War One, having been commissioned at the beginning of that year for Frank Pick’s London Underground Electric Railway Company. It followed Gill’s renowned Wonderground Map of London Town which had appeared earlier the previous year and whose appearance on London Underground billboards had  caused such a stir, captivating & entertaining innumerable travellers & causing many to miss their trains!

It is perhaps best left to Caroline Walker, the great niece of MacDonald Gill to highlight some of the finer details of this wonderfully engaging and visually striking poster, which was profiled in her August 2015 Newsletter available on the MacDonald Gill website which she runs:

Its depiction of the West End at night, although sombre in its colouring, remains one of my favourites because of its ingenious design. Most people fail to notice on first viewing that it shows a theatre stage as seen from the auditorium. Look carefully, and you’ll see that the proscenium arch is decorated with LU roundels, each naming a West End theatre with its nearest station. The map is printed on the fabric of the stage curtain, whose wooden support has snapped causing mayhem as it falls – actors tumble atop musicians in the orchestra pit where a manic conductor (the printer Gerard Meynell) fights a losing battle to keep the music going.

A touching scene in the top right hand corner shows Max dancing with his new bride, Muriel Bennett. The pair had met eleven years before, but distance ensured that they saw little of each other and Max’s ardour cooled. A succession of other romances ensued. Then in November 1914, following the end of a relationship, he wrote to her rekindling their friendship and by the end of February, four weeks after Pick had commissioned this map, they were engaged. They married on August 21st 1915.

Theatreland was created during a tumultuous period in London’s history. Commissioned in January 1915, only a few months into WW1, the map was designed to entice a reluctant public to return to the West End (which would, of course, also have the effect of boosting travel on the Underground). Unfortunately, Frank Pick had not reckoned on German zeppelin attacks – the first on London came in May that year. And just before Max completed the poster there was a devastating attack – known as the ‘Theatreland Raid’ [October 13th 1915] – during which the Lyceum Theatre was struck and a number of theatregoers enjoying an interval drink outside a local pub were killed. The same zeppelin is pictured over New Square, Lincoln’s Inn, where it has just dropped a firebomb – Max has drawn his brother Eric warming his hands exclaiming ‘Such a cold night too’!

Despite the raids, most theatres remained open, with many showing light-hearted, sometimes patriotic, revues and comedies, which were recognised as important for quelling fear and boosting the morale of Londoners under attack.

Theatre-Land continues in similar vein to its Wonderground precursor, replete with entertaining vignettes, verbal puns & visual double-entendres (e.g Rathbone Place (Rathbone followed by vignette of a flat fish) and endlessly amusing speech bubbles. Gill includes his own self-portrait (“McD G”) in the extreme right, adjacent to Temple Underground Station, where he is seen trying to corner an evasive hare – a reference to his studio address at 1 Hare Court in the grounds of the Temple, whence he had moved in 1912 and which he maintained until the end of his life. “1 Hare almost court in the Temple” reads the adjacent inscription.

Gerard Meynell [1877-1943] was the owner of the Westminster Press who published many of Gill’s posters, including the 1914 London Wonderground poster (& its derivatives). He also makes a further appearance in a vignette beside the Press’ offices in Henrietta Street, Covent Garden. He (“G.M”) is seen turning the top screw on a small manual printer’s press with the adjacent inscription “The Westminster Press works a treat!”. Meynell and his wife, author Esther Meynell, were long-time neighbours of Gill’s brother Eric and of calligrapher Edward Johnston (whose daughter Priscilla was MacDonald Gill’s god-daughter and whom he would marry in 1945) and many others in the bohemian artistic community that coalesced in & around the East Sussex village of Ditchling in the early 20th Century. Meynell was also an immensely influential figure in early 20th Century printing & typography, whose role as both personal mentor and early supporter of two great calligraphers and poster designers of the period, Edward Johnston & Edward McKnight Kauffer, has also been almost completely ignored and undeservedly overlooked by most recent authorities.

The inscription in the lower right corner reads:

The Westminster Press have exploited me, For the Underground Electric Railway Company, Who bid you now come to Theatre-Land – To one of the theatres – drawn by the hand of MacDonald Gill. 1915

Examples of Gill’s Theatre-Land poster are rarely seen or offered on the market. In all one of the finest and most entertaining of Gill’s great cartographic poster designs.

Refs: David Rumsey Collection; Caroline Walker: Autumn 2015 MacDonald Gill Newsletter