MacDonald 'Max' Gill – A Digital Resource

Chapter 1: Introduction

A black and white portrait of two children, encased in an elaborate gold and red frame

Max with his sister Cicely, probably Brighton beach, 1880s. In ornate metal frame 85mm x 95mm.

MacDonald ‘Max’ Gill was a key figure in the world of graphic art in the first half of the 20th Century. The Arts & Crafts Movement was one of his main sources of inspiration and he worked alongside many of the famous architects and craftsmen of the day, becoming well-known as a decorative mapmaker, mural painter, architect, letterer and graphic artist.

In an era before television, his colourful, eye-catching and instantly recognisable poster maps were often at the heart of publicity campaigns. As an architect, he designed houses, churches and farm buildings. His lettering is to be found on British military headstones from the First World War to the present day and his distinctive designs and lettering adorn many books published in the inter-war years.

A black and white family portrait showing 13 members of the Gill family

Gill family photo, around 1905. Back (L to R): Evan, twin of Vernon, Max, Gladys, Eric, Madeline, Romney. Middle: Vernon, Enid, Arthur Tidman and Rose, Kenneth. Seated: Angela and Cecil.

Yet after Max’s death in 1947, his name and work slipped into obscurity while that of his brother Eric has become ever more famous – if not infamous. One reason could be that much of Max’s work, particularly the commercial posters, belongs to a specific historical moment. At the time of his death the past was being swept away in a tide of enthusiasm to build a new and different future: there was little desire to look back to the bleak Depression years of the 1930s, the fading Empire and the Second World War. Although Priscilla Johnston, his assistant and second wife, had intended to write his biography, the project never came to fruition.

But in 2007, Max’s great-niece Caroline Walker set out to find out about her once-renowned relative. The trail led her to the home of a descendant of Edward Johnston, the famous calligrapher, where she discovered an extensive collection of Max’s work. Her discovery was the catalyst for a pioneering exhibition that took place in July and August 2011 at the University of Brighton Gallery.

A colour photograph of a bottle of gold size from Max Gill's toolbox

From Max’s tool box. Photograph by Sirpa Kutilainen.

In the course of preparing this exhibition, the idea for a symposium that would explore Max’s work from a number of different academic and biographical perspectives, was developed. This event, which took place on 22 July 2011, triggered new scholarship and research into Max Gill’s oeuvre, attracting design historians, social and economic historians, map specialists, designers, photographers, art historians and those with a more personal interest in his work. Papers dealt with his impact in the fields of poster art, cartography, mural painting and lettering, his work for the Queen Mary ocean liner and his commissions on behalf of the Empire Marketing Board.

A colour photograph of old illustration tools

A selection of Max’s tools. Photograph by Sirpa Kutilainen.

This digital resource, hosted by the University of Brighton’s Design Archives, offers an edited selection from the 2011 exhibition and echoes that exhibition’s structure and themes. A fascinating personal account of the extensive work carried out to conserve and prepare many of the pieces for display can be found at the ‘Conserving the Archive’ blog written by Design Archives’ Sirpa Kutilainen.

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Sirpa Kutilainen • November 12, 2015

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