Out of the Shadows: MacDonald Gill

The first major retrospective of designer and architect MacDonald Gill’s work opens in London next month. We spoke to Gill’s family about curating the show and why his work has received so little recognition until now.

The first major retrospective of designer and architect MacDonald Gill’s work opens in London next month. We spoke to Gill’s family about curating the show and why his work has received so little recognition until now.

In a forthcoming exhibition of MacDonald Gill’s work – alongside maps, posters, logos and typefaces – will be a pair of brown leather children’s shoes. On one sole, a relative has carved MacDonald’s name (Max for short), and crossed out his older brother Eric’s.

A pair of hand-me-downs may seem like an unusual item to place in an art and design exhibition, but these little shoes tell a story – the tale of a designer who followed in his brother’s creative footsteps but whose work has since been eclipsed by his controversial sibling’s.

Born in Brighton in 1884, MacDonald Gill was one of thirteen children. His brother Eric is a famed sculptor and typographer, the creator of Perpetua and Gill Sans.

MacDonald was a talented artist, too – he trained as an architect before designing the alphabet used on standard military headstones, the hugely popular London Wonderground maps and large-scale murals for imperial exhibitions – but while people have formed societies and published biographies celebrating Eric’s work, Max’s was largely forgotten about after his death.

A new exhibition, Out of the Shadows: MacDonald Gill is hoping to change all that and will showcase the biggest collection of Max’s graphic art to date.

The exhibition was curated by Andrew Johnston – the nephew of Gill’s second wife Priscilla Johnston and grandson of designer Edward Johnston – his wife Angela, and Gill’s great-niece Caroline Walker, and is “a cross-section of just about everything he ever did,” says Andrew, including commissioned work, first drafts and sketchbooks from his childhood. Most of the work on display was found in Gill’s former cottage, which Johnston and his wife inherited after Priscilla’s death.

“The house was full of all these maps rolled up in brown paper. I knew a little about Max’s work, but it wasn’t until we discussed the possibility of doing a show and Caroline appeared on the scene researching his life, that we began to dig it all out. Only then did we realise what an important and exciting collection it was. We found artworks everywhere – in wardrobes and under tables, just gathering dust,” he says.

Key exhibits in the retrospective include a number of Gill’s highly-detailed, illustrated maps: in the early 1900s, he designed the official procession map and programme for King George VI’s coronation, wind dial maps commissioned by architect Edward Lutyens and large-scale murals for imperial exhibits in Paris and Glasgow, as well as one for the dining room of Cunard liner The Queen Mary.

His Wonderground maps, cartoon drawings of London, entertained passengers at tube stations throughout the city, and he also designed logos and posters for the General Post Office, as well as the alphabet used on standard military headstones for the Imperial War Graves commission, all of which will be on show.

Spanning four decades, Gill’s work offers a glimpse of Britain on the cusp of huge societal and technological change. In his career, he witnessed two world wars, a great depression, abdication, coronation and the invention of technology such as the radio. His careful lettering and intricate cartoons reveal artistic styles of the time, and his versatility and technical skill.

“Max was extraordinarily talented,” says Johnston. “He wasn’t a great figure drawer – his sketches of humans are very basic cartoons – but he had an incredible eye for detail. His lettering was done by hand and with basic tools – just brushes, pencils, squares and compasses. It could take up to 500 hours to draw a single London Wonderground map, and my aunt’s diaries are full of accounts of Max working all night or staying up until three in the morning,” he adds.

Considering the scale and range of Gill’s work, it’s astonishing to think that until just a few years ago, most of it laid untouched in an empty cottage, and was often wrongly credited to Eric. His posthumous obscurity can be partly attributed to his brother’s notoriety and eccentricity – Eric had an affair with his younger sister, entitled one of his sculptures Fucking and rarely wore pants – but it’s also because of the ephemeral nature of his work, say Johnston and Walker.

“His work represented a time people wanted to forget – imperialism, the war, the great depression – the public had moved on and they didn’t want to look back. It’s only now that people are taking another look and realising just how interesting and beautiful it is,” Johnston says.

“A lot of his commercial work was dated soon after it was made – his posters were only designed to last for a month or so, unlike his brother’s permanent sculptures,” Walker adds.

Walker also believes that MacDonald’s lack of self promotion was to blame. “Eric was a very good self-publicist, although he’d hate to be described as such. He published an enormous amount of his work and was very outspoken and eccentric. In contrast, Max was a very modest man, and really quite self-effacing,” she says.

Some of Gill’s work has already been shown at a smaller-scale exhibition at London’s Kemistry Gallery and a show at the University of Brighton, which was organised and funded by Brighton’s Faculty of Arts. Out of the Shadows will include work shown at both, as well as previously unseen designs, and Andrew and Caroline hope it will help distinguish MacDonald’s style and character from his brother’s.

“My family told me he was a tremendously fun man and very fond of practical jokes. He liked to entertain people, and I think that really comes across in his work – Eric’s is very beautiful but sparse, whereas Max’s is full of colourful scenes, creatures, plants, animals and stunning buildings,” says Walker.

Walker has spent years documenting Gill’s career, but says the retrospective is just the beginning. “I’ve already drafted a biography, and am working on curating an online archive of his work. Max never had a champion – I think that’s partly the reason he received so little recognition – so I want to make sure there is something left of him for future generations,”

Out of the Shadows: MacDonald Gill will open at PM Gallery & House on 20 September until 2 November 2013. For visitor information and opening times, see ealing.gov.uk/pmgalleryandhouse. To see more of Gill’s work, visit macdonaldgill.com

Images (from top): Gill’s London Wonderground map; the alphabet used on military cenetaphs, a pair of shoes owned by MacDonald and his brother; a map detailing the procession route for the coronation of George VI; an Empire Marketing Board map of New Zealand; a Tea Revives the World Map for the Tea Market Expansion Board; a map detailing the country’s bus service; a photograph of Max, and a poster for the General Post Office.

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