A new exhibition celebrates the diverse work of designer MacDonald Gill, previously overshadowed by his more famous brother Eric
For many decades, the work of MacDonald ‘Max’ Gill (1884-1947) has been overshadowed by that of his scandalous older brother Eric, the celebrated sculptor and type designer. Now a new exhibition at Snape, in Suffolk, is throwing some well-deserved attention back to Max, who had a successful and a hugely varied creative career combining architecture with everything from illustration to lettering, murals and furniture design.
‘So many people say they know about Eric but not about Max,’ says Gill’s great niece and biographer Caroline Walker, one of the curators of the exhibition. ‘But a lot like Max’s work better – it’s got so much humour in it. There’s something joyous about it that just makes you smile.
Max learnt his architectural skills working for practices in Bognor Regis and London before taking classes in both architecture and lettering at Central School of Arts & Crafts. It was here – and later at the Art Workers’ Guild – where he made the important connections that helped him build such a diverse body of work during the early 20th century, and in particular his heyday of the 1920s. He studied lettering under Edward Johnston, designer of the London Underground symbol, and later won commissions himself for the London Underground font and for seven charming and extremely popular decorative maps for the underground, including Wonderground Map of London Town (1914) and Theatreland (1915).
His architectural tutor at Central was the arts and crafts architect Halsey Ricardo, designer of Ernest Debenham’s London house, and was a great influence on his work. It is likely he met his great collaborator Edwin Lutyens at the Art Workers’ Guild, working on all sorts of projects for his buildings, including maps, lettering, memorials and wind dials. This connection, thinks his great niece, probably led to his work for the Imperial War Graves Commission during the first world war, designing the lettering that has appeared on every military headstone and war memorial ever since.
Aa lot of people like Max’s work better – it’s got so much humour in it. There’s something joyous about it that just makes you smile.
His map work in particular made him a well-known figure on the London scene, and he won prestigious commissions such as the lettering for George VI’s coronation procession map and telegram, and the ticket to view Queen Mary’s Lutyens’ designed doll’s house. All the time he was still designing houses such as the arts and crafts house Darwell Hill, and spent five years as architect in residence at Debenham’s Bladen model village development at Briantspuddle in Dorset.
After his death in 1947, Max Gill’s work was largely forgotten. The focus of the new exhibition Maps to Memorials – Discovering the Work of MacDonald Gill is Gill’s graphic work of posters, book covers, map, lettering and illustration, much of which had been in storage at his former house for decades. Amid the picturesque setting of Snape Maltings, this exhibition is a great place to rediscover a vigorous creative talent.
Maps to Memorials – Discovering the Work of MacDonald Gill, from 15 August - 12 November 2014, Lettering Arts Centre, Snape Maltings, Suffolk.