Summer 2021

Max’s life is all mapped out

MacDonald Gill: Charting a Life

By Caroline Walker. Design: Felicity Price-Smith. Unicorn Press, £30

This book is about far more than Leslie MacDonald Gill (better known as Max) and can be appreciated from several points of view. Little of the work has been seen outside a couple of exhibitions and much of the original material only came to light in 2006. It was preserved by Priscilla Johnston (Max’s second wife), made available to study by her nephew Andrew, and now Gill’s great-niece Caroline Walker has written this biography.

It is Max’s story of artistic struggle, hard work and self-belief, great talent and range, but it is the story too of the emergence of graphic design as a discipline; of patronage of the arts by influential figures such as Frank Pick; of the importance of clubs and societies such as the Art Workers’ Guild to the spread of ideas and patronage and to the artistic milieu of the time.

But first some reservations: there is nothing in this book’s design that makes me want to pick it up, bar, perhaps, the details of one of Max’s maps on the covers. Not the gold leaf, not the default grid, not the family tree, not the Bembo with its annoyingly long-tailed ‘R’ and lack of non-lining figures, nor the silk coated paper; it looks old-fashioned without being ‘good old-fashioned’.

And there’s something not quite right about the kind of book it is either. It is an illustrated biography. All the major work is here, including some sketches, which is good, especially when the work is so little known. Many maps are shown in their entirety along with reproductions of telling details, but there is no indication of scale, unlike, for example, Robin Kinross’s Modern Typography. We should be told, so we could marvel further. It is not a biography like Fiona MacCarthy’s Eric Gill, forensic and revelatory, with black-and-white illustrations in separate sections. While it is good to see the spread of work here, it deserves a larger book to itself, with more information about some of the methods Max Gill employed.

An author’s familial ties can stifle a narrative, but this does not apply here. Walker’s appreciation of Max’s work is obvious, but she takes us confidently through the incidents which informed him and his outlook, and allows us to look into and know a little more about this world before graphic design acquired an identity and a history of its own. She also guides us carefully through the many peculiarities, whimsies, and in-jokes of each map.

It is good to know that Eric Gill was not the only artistic Gill. His younger brother Max was, in his own lifetime, equally famous – famous enough to design lettering for the Imperial War Graves Commission. Max was a designer of all things: wind dials, lettering, book jackets, buildings, murals, church decorations, and especially illustrated maps. More technical information would be helpful: were the war graves cut by hand or machine, for instance? And, given the importance of The Art Workers’ Guild to Max, and by association the Arts and Crafts movement, some discussion about the value of hand versus machine production would have been interesting. Max’s reluctance to ‘open up’, often grumbled at by Priscilla, must be to blame here. Unlike Eric, Max was never given to proclaim views about everything. He was unlike Eric in other respects, too. While he was unfaithful to his first wife, he never went as far as rape, incest and bestiality.

This is a ‘who’s who’ of the design world before it became a self-aware, specialist industry after the Second World War. It is peopled by figures such as Edward Johnston, Edwin Lutyens, Ambrose and Harold Heal, Ernest Debenham, Eric Gill of course, and many others. It is a tale of patronage, but not privilege. The Gills were not a rich family – quite the reverse. Their father was a minister of the church in Brighton and then Chichester during their childhood. What luck they made was through their own efforts, and this book celebrates the work, as well as making clear the web of clubbiness and patronage that supported it.

But in the end, MacDonald Gill: Charting a Life is a love story. In 1933, Max encountered his goddaughter Priscilla, who was 26 years his junior and the daughter (and later the biographer) of Edward Johnston. They fell in love, she worked for him, painted with him and gave him moral and sometimes financial support until his divorce only three years before his death. It was Priscilla Johnston who saved much of his work and papers by storing them in her attic where they were found this century by her relatives. We owe a debt of gratitude to her and to her heirs, and to Caroline Walker for telling us the story of Max Gill.

Cover, designed by Felicity Price-Smith. Top. By Paying Us Your Pennies (1914), later known as The Wonderground Map of London Town, a poster (dimensions 102 x 127 cm) designed and illustrated by Max Gill for London Underground.

Phil Baines, graphic designer, Professor Emeritus, UAL, London

First published in Eye no. 101 vol. 26, 2021

Eye is the world’s most beautiful and collectable graphic design journal, published for professional designers, students and anyone interested in critical, informed writing about graphic design and visual culture. It is available from all good design bookshops and online at the Eye shop, where you can buy subscriptions and single issues.