Most of us know Eric Gill (1882 – 1940), the renowned typographer and sculptor. Few, however, are familiar with his younger brother, MacDonald “Max” Gill (1884 – 1947), who doesn’t even have a proper entry on Wikipedia and nothing at all in the DNB. Hence the title of this exhibition, which opens today at the Pitzhanger Manor gallery in Ealing.
My first introduction to Max Gill was at last year’s Mind the Map exhibition at the London Transport Museum. I ended up featuring him strongly in my review, as he was unquestionably one of the stars of the show itself. Before and after the First World War, he was on the roster of commercial artists engaged by the Underground’s talented talent-spotter Frank Pick, and it was said that commuters actually missed their trains in order to enjoy Max’s cartoon map of central London: Wonderground. This poster, along with its ink preparatory sketch – plus other Gill items from the LTM collection – feature in this show.
But Underground posters are a tiny fraction of Max Gill’s output and not even particularly representative of his life’s work. A formally-trained architect, Max – like his brother – was a talented typographer and calligrapher, much evidenced here. You will also see his expertise in architectural illustration (naturally) but there are plenty of examples of his work in tapestry design, heraldry, monuments, book covers, invitations, advertisements, large-scale murals. He was unapologetically a commercial artist; a jack of all trades, and yet master of most of them. Compared with Eric’s modernism, Max’s work is highly detailed, drawing much more on the past. But look at his designs for the 1938 Empire Exhibition in Glasgow and you’ll see his deco elements, delivered effortlessly.
If he is remembered for anything, though, it will be his maps. They are exquisite, colourful, funny, playful, large, propagandistic (one of his main clients was the Empire Marketing Board). Visual puns abound. Dozens of examples feature in this exhibition.
Max Gill had been married for twenty years when in the late 1930s his private life became complicated when he fell in love with his god-daughter, the attractive Priscilla Johnston, 26 years his junior. This is Johnston as in Edward Johnston the typographer of London Transport’s typeface, friend of the Gill brothers and mentor of Eric in particular. You see, Priscilla was his daughter. I mention this only because in the show are two letters from 1938 in reaction to this situation breaking cover: one from Johnston to Priscilla, his daughter – forgiving; and one from Eric to Max – the opposite, berating. Both writers, as one might expect, had beautiful handwriting. There is also a rather nice letter, after Max’s death from his first wife Muriel to Priscilla.
These letters are in addition to diaries, notebooks, sketchbooks, Max’s pens, nibs, rulers, T-square, tools of his trade. Even the brass plate from his architecture practice. So Out of the Shadows is a very intimate exhibition as well as being a very complete one.
This show is curated by Max Gill’s great-niece, Caroline Walker, alongside Edward Johnston’s grandson Andrew Johnston and Andrew’s wife Angela. The Johnstons provided many of the exhibits and personal memorabilia featured in this show. Caroline has determined to bring the artist’s life and work to a wider audience. A book is in the pipeline, but meantime visit her MacDonald Gill website and sign up to her newsletters which you’ll receive from time to time. There is a good gallery of Max’s work there too on this page.
So. Out of the Shadows. A one-man exhibition of the most charming and breathtaking inter-war commercial art. I shall definitely go again, probably several times. You should too. And it’s free.
The show runs until 2 November. Information here.