Chapter 15: Personal Contributions
During his lifetime, MacDonald (Max) Gill’s work had many admirers but it became gradually less well-known in the decades following his death. The University of Brighton exhibition Out of the Shadows: MacDonald Gill decorative map posters and visual genius (summer 2011) is the first major show of Gill’s work since the mid-twentieth century and has won the attention of a new audience. The exhibition has also, for some people, triggered prior memories of seeing Max Gill’s work and the impact it had on them. In this section, personal accounts and recollections of Max’s work are shared, from the stories of posters that have been inherited and much-loved over many years, to the description of the impact of visiting one of Max’s painted maps in situ. If you have a contribution you would like to share on this public site, please get in touch!
On 22nd July I wandered through the private view of the Max Gill exhibition in the University Gallery. Whilst examining one of the maps in more detail I was surprised to find what I believe to be the building that houses a flat in which I used to live.
Having lived in London for more than a decade, before recently moving to Brighton, I spent four very happy years residing in an ex-local authority flat on Cruikshank Street, WC1X, just east of Kings Cross.
Gill’s map is dated 1939, and shows Holford Square, in the borough of Finsbury (now Islington) in the top right hand corner. Cruikshank Street, or its previous incarnation Bond Street, is not named, but is shown leading off Holford Square slightly to the east. The area was bombed heavily in the Second World War. My understanding is that Holford Square and the surrounding vicinity was practically obliterated in a raid on 10th May 1941, but most of Cruikshank Street survived, including a terrace of four late Victorian townhouses, in which our flat was situated. The townhouses were badly damaged but deemed fit for repair.
Although clearly twentieth century, I’m unsure as to when the more recent houses that dominated the remainder of Cruikshank Street were built, however these seem to have also survived the bombings with little damage. The appearance of later housing on the street explains the rather confusing numbering system which existed, with the first of the four Victorian townhouses, sited in the middle of the street, being number 1. The numbers then ran down towards Holford Square, then continued back up the opposite side of the street to the top, and round in a circle, which seemed to cause no end of problems for the postman. Number one and two Cruikshank Street were later acquired by Islington Council and split into the 8 flats in which we lived, whilst three and four were split into maisonettes but remained in private possession.
New signage was installed by Islington Council on one side of Cruikshank Street whilst I lived there, and for a couple of years, a spelling mistake caused that side to be named Cruickshank Street, whilst the other remained Cruikshank, until it was rectified in 2009. This wasn’t however the first time the mistake had been made and records and maps as far back as the war possessed conflicting spellings.
What remained of Holford Square after the raids in 1941 was deemed unsafe and was promptly razed. A new modernist housing development, Bevin Court, was designed for the site by the Tecton architecture practice, led by Berthold Lubetkin, and this became part of Cruikshank Street. The Y shaped development holds 118 flats and was supposedly built on the site of Lenin’s lodgings at Holford Square, where he stayed whilst in exile in 1902-03, however the back of a Travel Lodge just around the corner bears the blue plaque claiming the spot was 16 Percy Circus, which was also destroyed in the 1941 raids.
Bevin Court was originally to be named Lenin Court, and was so during conception and building stages, but the Cold War deepened before it was finished in 1954, and the building was rather ironically renamed after the foreign secretary Ernest Bevin.
Lubetkin had designed a bust of Lenin, which was placed on the Holford Square site in 1942 as a tribute to his former residence. The memorial received much attention from communists and fascists alike, and required 24-hour police protection due to repeated vandalism from anti-communist supporters. It was intended that when the development was finished the bust would embellish the main entrance hall, however rumour has it that because of the repeated vandalism and change in political climate Lubetkin buried the remains of the memorial in a basement under the central staircase of the building. Whether this was the case or not the bust was later displayed in Islington Town Hall where it was further vandalised, and is now on permanent display at the Islington Museum. A mural by architect and artist Peter Yates still exists in the entranceway to Bevin Court, though again due to vandalism it has certainly seen better days.
If you are ever in the area and, with the help of a friendly resident, can manage to gain access to Bevin Court, it is worth a trip to the top of the central staircase where looking south-west, you can experience a fabulous view across London to the BT Tower as the sun goes down. Oh and whilst you are there, please say hello to number one Cruikshank Street for me.
This poster belonged to my grandparents, they must have saved it when they bought the magazine and put it away. I don’t know anything about whether they were regular readers of Time and Tide or if they bought the issue because they wanted the map as I never saw it during their lifetime so never discussed it. I came across it about 30 years ago when they died and I helped my aunt to sort out their flat. It was in a drawer, folded up.
I loved it and my aunt was happy for me to keep it. However, because it is so large it has been in our plan chest, folded up, ever since. Framing and displaying it has been on my ‘list of things to do’ over the years and when I heard about the exhibition I thought “I must find that poster” not knowing that it is a Max Gill map but just because it was of the same genre.
Imagine my delight when I saw the ‘MacDonald Gill 1942’ scroll in the bottom right-hand corner. The poster is rather tatty around the folds and in the top corner but there is nothing missing so I am definitely going to frame and hang it over the summer break, maybe even next week!
Dr Catherine Moriarty
In 1934, the sculptor Gilbert Ledward (1888-1960) established the firm ‘Sculptured Memorials and Headstones’. With a showroom in London, the aim was to encourage the public to commission headstones and other works of sculpture from British artists and craftsmen in the regions, rather than importing monumental objects in marble and other materials considered unsympathetic to British churchyards. In 1938 the firm moved to Albermarle Street and Macdonald Gill designed the map for the company brochure. MacDonald Gill and his brother, Eric, were both supportive of Ledward’s project and obtained commissions through it.
For more information see Catherine Moriarty ‘The Sculpture of Gilbert Ledward’, Lund Humphries, 2003, pp. 68-73.
I first saw the Wonderground map on the wall of my godparents’ house near Manchester. I had been living in London for a few years and, like every incomer to that potentially overwhelming city, had been gradually building up my own mental map of London, and how its parts related to one another. I was intrigued not only by the map as a visual object, but by the way it represented London, and something of its character and history. I enjoyed taking a virtual journey around its streets, getting that wonderful bird’s eye perspective we so seldom get otherwise, and certainly not in such evocative visual and textual language. I’m always interested in how the past is still written on a city’s streets, and this map helps us take a leap backwards in time. And of course the London captured here has changed so much, not least because of the Blitz and post-war reconstruction.
My godparents must have remembered my enthusiasm and when they came to downsize a few years later they gave the map to me. It hangs above our dining table as a talking point: what was the South Bank like in 1914? What happens at the spot near the Old Kent Road that we’re told to watch between 3 and 4 in the afternoon? And what on earth is the Begarez Hog? Some of the references in the map seem rather arcane, but some you can work out to be a historical reference, a play on words or perhaps a bizarre in-joke. I love it because I can always see something new in it; because it reminds me of my godparents and of my own time in London (I don’t live there now); and, as a historical document, it connects with my work in archives and art and design history.
I’m not sure I’d want to physically find my way round the underground by this map, but if its purpose is also to give a sense of the city’s character, and inspire us to explore it, then it works for me. It’s like seeing an old friend in a picture from a time before you knew them, a picture that explains something of how they are today.