MacDonald 'Max' Gill – A Digital Resource

Chapter 10: Empire Exhibition, Glasgow

An original watercolour depicting a shipbuilding yard with travelling people on foreground

United Kingdom Pavilion (1938). Original watercolour sketch “Preliminary Design for Shipbuilding Mural”. Approximate size of finished panel 29ft high by 24ft wide. Private collection.

In May 1938, a grand Empire Exhibition was opened by King George VI and Queen Elizabeth in Bellahouston Park, Glasgow. It attracted 12 million visitors and acted as a showcase for Scottish industry as it struggled to recover from the Great Depression. Dotted among the fountains, lawns and terraces were pavilions dedicated to individual countries throughout the British Empire.

The Exhibition took place as the Munich Crisis was unfolding and this gave an added sense of purpose to its message that ‘Britain can make it’. By the late 1930s, the political ambitions of Hitler’s Germany were becoming clear and an urgent programme of re-armament was underway, bringing much needed work to Scotland’s run-down heavy industries.

A pen and ink illustration depicting industry in Britain with men on foreground and buildings at the back

Original pen-and-ink and pencil draft for “Fitter Britain” panel (1938). Private collection.

For the entrance to the United Kingdom Pavilion, Max Gill designed a gigantic mural, 200 ft long and 28 ft high. He was assisted in the painting by a team of students from Glasgow School of Art and Goldsmith’s College. When the Exhibition ended in December 1938, the building was demolished and the mural was lost. Only these original sketches and photographs survive, to convey something of the epic scale of the artwork.

The panels featured shipbuilding, coal mining and iron and steel – the heavy industries that would play a vital role if war came. But there was also a vision of a more healthy future, when overcrowded industrial housing and smoking factory chimneys would be a thing of the past. With uncanny accuracy, Max Gill predicted the post-war world of glass and concrete and today’s de-industrialised landscape.

Pen and ink drawing depicting an illustration of industry

Original pen-and-ink and pencil draft for iron and steel panel (1938). Private collection.

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Sirpa Kutilainen • November 12, 2015

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