MacDonald 'Max' Gill – A Digital Resource

Chapter 14: Private Lives

Black and white portrait of Priscilla Johnston

Priscilla Johnston (1945). She and Max were married in 1946.

Max Gill married Muriel Bennett in 1915: she was a devoted but conventional Edwardian wife, but did not share his passion for his work. While their three children were young their house was alive with noisy activity, but by the early 1930s, the children were away at boarding school. Max often stayed working in London three days at a time, and Muriel, naturally shy, was reluctant to share his life there. Their marriage had a placid rhythm that masked an increasing estrangement and loneliness.

Priscilla Johnston was Max’s goddaughter and 26 years his junior. There had been little contact between Priscilla and Max when she was a child, and when they met up again by chance in London in 1932, Priscilla had become a beautiful young woman, independent and talented in her own right: she had already had modest success with three novels and was working on her fourth. She was artistic herself and her home life – her father was the calligrapher Edward Johnston – gave her a unique understanding of the demands of the creative process.

Black and whit photo of Max Gill at work with his assistants

Max with his assistants, Priscilla Johnston and Billy Kingswell, working on the Queen Mary panels at Waring & Gillow’s timber store, Hammersmith, 1935.

The attraction was instant and mutual. She became his second assistant and worked alongside William (Billy) Kingswell on many important commissions. Max and Priscilla became constant companions: her interest in his work was genuine and she quickly became essential to his happiness.

The marital crisis in 1938 caused a storm of protest in the Gill family, particularly from Eric. Muriel, shocked and distraught, refused to divorce Max but agreed to a separation. With a small legacy, Priscilla bought a derelict cottage deep in the Sussex woods. It became a much-loved retreat for her and Max and was to be her home until her death in 1984. Eventually, Muriel agreed to a divorce and Max and Priscilla were married in 1946. Their married life was short-lived: Max was diagnosed with inoperable cancer in September and died in January 1947. He was only 62 and they had been married less than a year.

Black and white photo of Max Gill and Priscilla Johnston sitting in a garden with a chicken

Max and Priscilla in the garden of the cottage, with some of Priscilla’s wartime livestock.

Priscilla was an instinctive writer. From 1927 to her death in 1984 she wrote a daily diary. These have been an invaluable record, not only of her life, but also of her work with Max. Priscilla’s last novel, partly autobiographical, appeared in July 1947, but her finest work was her acclaimed biography of her father, published in 1959. She remarried in the Fifties and was widowed again in 1975, spending her remaining years in her beloved cottage, reconciled to her solitary life. Always writing, she corresponded with the friends she became too infirm to visit, wrote her memoirs and endlessly annotated her diaries, reliving her early life.

It was Priscilla who ensured that a huge collection of Max’s work survived, all carefully wrapped and labelled. This formed the bulk of the contents of the exhibition held at the University of Brighton Gallery in summer 2011. This exhibition is a fitting memorial to both her and Max.

Black and white photo of Max Gill sitting in a cottage garden with a white dog

Max at the cottage with their neighbour’s dog, photographed after the renovations during the War.

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Sirpa Kutilainen • November 12, 2015

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