The latest exhibition at Ealing's Pitzhanger Manor Gallery is a rare treat. Out of the Shadows presents the most comprehensive collection of MacDonald (Max) Gill's work that has ever been displayed. From church murals and architectural designs, to popular pictorial maps, it showcases the many talents of this early 20th century graphic designer. It also unearths some previously-unseen pieces that were hidden for decades in his former cottage.
Max Gill's decorative maps look familiar, even though he is not a household name. In fact, despite his creative achievements in the fields of cartography, architecture, illustration and lettering, he seems to have ironically "fallen off the map". Yet many of Max's commissions were very popular commercial maps used for publicity during imperial and wartime Britain. He produced fun and colourful poster maps, such as The Wonderground Map of London Town (1914), to amuse passengers while they waited for trains. The jokes coming from the cartoon-like characters showed that graphic design could be entertaining, and therefore a good publicity tool. In fact, Max's Highways of Empire (1927) map was a remarkably large 20'x10' poster that created so much interest it stopped pedestrians and traffic on Charing Cross Road.
As a child, Max's fine drawing skills became apparent when he created maps for competitions in boys' magazines. He followed this passion into adulthood, moving to London in 1903 to work as an assistant to two ecclesiastical architects. In London he met calligrapher Edward Johnston, whose daughter, Priscilla, became Max's wife in 1946. In the early days, Johnston inspired Max and his brother, Eric Gill, to take an interest in lettering. The brothers sometimes worked together on designing inscriptions for memorials. Max went on to design the alphabet and regimental badges for the military headstones of the First World War, an example of which can be seen in this exhibition. Eric would later create the well-known typefaces Gill Sans and Perpetua.
At the height of his career Max was receiving numerous commissions in a range of media. This exhibition features Max's designs for medals, logos, memorials, murals and tapestries, in addition to his many poster maps. One of his most striking designs was for a mural at the 1938 Empire Exhibition in Glasgow. It was a 200-foot long, 28-foot high, celebration of British shipbuilding, coal mining and iron and steel production. Interestingly, some of the panel designs predicted stylish post-industrial architecture and healthy living, alongside the glorification of Britain's heavy industries. It is clear that Max embraced the future with insights such as these. He was also keen to depict modern advancements in technology, such as cars, electric trains and new aircraft.
With the abundance of talent displayed in this exhibition, it raises the question of why Max Gill's name is not well known. There are several answers to this. Firstly, many of his works, such as poster designs, were not long lasting works of art. Secondly, in post-war times, the general public wanted to embrace the modern world, rather than the era during which Max was commercially successful. They did not want to be reminded of the two world wars, the Depression and the British Empire. Thirdly, Max was often overshadowed by his older brother, Eric, whose personal life and art became notorious. Max also had a more reserved personality and was less interested in self-promotion than his brother.
This exhibition succeeds in its aim to bring to life the forgotten talents of Max Gill. The family of Max and wife, Priscilla, have been instrumental in gathering his works for public view. Priscilla herself was responsible for the preservation of many items, which remained in good condition while stored in their home. The family have also contributed items such as photographs and letters, which help to create a vivid picture of Max's personal life. Moreover, it is fortunate that the University of Brighton took an interest in Max's work. Their Faculty of Arts held the original retrospective in 2011, making many of the pieces suitable for gallery hanging and presenting them to a new audience. It is this modern day audience who can marvel at the beautifully precise pen and ink drawings and careful watercolour designs that show a level of craftsmanship that is rarely found today.