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The Wonderground Map of London Town Drawn by MacDonald Gill.

  • Author: GILL, (Leslie) MacDonald (artist)
  • Publisher: Westminster Press (publisher) - Gerald T Meynell (copyright holder)
  • Date: [1914]c1924
  • Dimensions: 93 x 73.5 cms


MacDonald Gill’s smaller “Wonderground” map of London, published at the time of the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley in 1924

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]


Printed colour. Narrow margins as issued. Multiple folds. A few very slight edge nicks mainly in border at sheet edges and some light wear along old folds and at fold junctures. Generally an excellent clean and bright example.

MacDonald Gill’s larger format 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. It was published by the Westminster Press in 1914 and it was designed to be displayed at individual Underground Stations and to amuse and entertain passengers as they waited for trains.

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 two versions of this map and its many derivatives bore witness to a marked resurgence in the art of decorative cartography in the field of graphic arts not only in Britain but also around the globe, particularly in the United States and Australia in the following decades.

For a long time, it has been assumed that this smaller version of the Wonderground map was published in close succession to the original larger 1914 issue, but close examination of the content of the smaller map now suggests that this almost certainly cannot have been the case. The reason being that this smaller map includes in the upper left corner a signpost to Wembley, accompanied by the distinctive art deco symbol of the British Imperial Lion, an emblem that became synonymous with the British Empire Exhibition that was held at Wembley between April and October 1924.

Given the aims of the British Empire Exhibition: to stimulate trade, strengthen bonds that bind mother Country to her Sister States and Daughters, to bring into closer contact the one with each other, to enable all who owe allegiance to the British flag to meet on common ground and learn to know each other, this perhaps better explains the newly revised text in the banner that encircles the border of this smaller version of the Wonderground map, and which opens with the phrase “The Heart of Britain’s Empire here is spread out for your view”. London in 1924, at the time of the Wembley Exhibition, was very much under the spotlight as the Centre and Heart of the British Empire and of the British Imperial Ideal. This same phrase “Heart of Empire” is in fact replicated in a sketch of Nelson’s Column in the bottom of the map (where a stylized diagram of the newly laid out Underground railway connections to Wembley is laid out) that forms the verso of the popular folding guide for the 1924 Exhibition, the map having been designed in 1923 (in a complementary fashion & style to Gill’s Wonderground map) by contemporary fellow artist and bohemian, Stanley Kennedy North [1887-1942], the son of a Victorian London omnibus driver. An eccentric figure, North would in later life become “Keeper of the King’s Pictures”, a role subsequently filled by the disgraced art historian and Cambridge spy, Sir Anthony Blunt.

This discovery further suggests that this second 1924 reduced Wonderground map was, in fact, an integral part of the massive advertising and promotional campaign that accompanied the 1924 British Empire Exhibition, and which produced such a vast output of commemorative memorabilia and souvenirs of the event. It was a campaign that brought some 27 million visitors to Wembley between 1924 and 1925.

It can perhaps also be surmised that copies of this 1924 Wonderground map, in their distinctive protective envelopes (which also show the top left section of the enclosed Wonderground map in detail with the sign “On To Wembley” & the adjacent Imperial Lion) might also have been offered for sale through retail outlets at the British Empire Exhibition itself during its 6 month duration in 1924. This may also explain the very particular directive in the encircling text around the map that exhorts prospective purchasers to “take a map home to pin it on your wall”. It is interesting to discover that in May 1924, the Tablet magazine notes amongst new books received for its Library, a copy of Gill’s Wonderground Map of London Town (broadsheet) price 2/6. This must be this reduced second version. The map was also advertised in the Aberdeen Journal newspaper of May 30th 1924, as “The Wonder Ground Map of London Town….A quaintly produced pictorial map….with numerous diminutive figures accompanied by amusing captions“. It was priced at half a crown (2/6), drawn on a scale of 6 inches to the mile and sized 30 x 40 inches. The map is however mistakenly attributed to Mr Cecil Palmer.  The Wembley Exhibition had been officially opened by King George V on April 23rd 1924. A further advert in the Spectator Magazine, Vol 135 [1925], announces the publication of this new edition of the map:

THE WONDERGROUND MAP OF LONDON TOWN / Size 30 x 37 inches  Printed in five gay colours / “The whole thing, drawing, colour, and inscriptions is / an extraordinary piece of high spirits, and real art in / motley” – The Manchester Guardian / Price 2/6  Post free 3/-  / Hang it on your Wall /  The Westminster Press / Printers of Books, Magazines, Stationery, Posters &c / 11 Henrietta Street, London, WC2

It is also interesting to note that the size of the map appears to vary from 30 x 40 inches to 30 x 37 inches. It is not clear whether this was a simple mismeasurement or a printer’s error, as seems likely. Examples of the presentation envelopes (in which the maps were sold) with these two different sizes indicated upon them are recorded, though it now appears there are in fact two variant states of the map, each published with their own presentation envelope, the second and later state having the symbol of racing greyhound in place of the 1924 Imperial Lion. The revision evidently reflected the opening of a dog racing track on the Wembley site in December 1927, at which time or shortly thereafter, a new revised state/edition of Gill’s map must, presumably, have been issued.

MacDonald Gill was, of course, also closely involved in another work directly associated with the 1924 British Empire Exhibition, 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 designed.

This version of the Wonderground map 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. 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).