Edwin Lutyens and Macdonald Gill

By Michael Barker

Though a key figure in the world of graphic art in the first half of the 20th century, MacDonald Gill (1884-1947), always known as Max, fell into obscurity after his death, unlike his colourful brother Eric (1882-1940) – whose posthumous fame actually increased. They shared digs early on and sometimes collaborated (including carving the Langford-Brooke tomb in the churchyard of St Paul’s Over Taborley, Cheshire c.1909).

Max Gill trained as an architect from 1901, mainly occupied at first with decorative work for church interiors, as an assistant from 1903 for five years with the ecclesiastical firm of Nicholson & Corlette. He attended classes at the Central School of Arts and Crafts to improve his skills and frequented the Art Workers’ Guild, imbued by its ideals. It was there that he was discovered by Edwin Lutyens who commissioned him in 1909 to execute a painted wind-dial for Nashdom at Taplow and, in 1913, another for Lindisfarne Castle, a spectacular 9 ft wide wind-indicator depicting the Spanish Armada in battle with the English Navy. Gill is also recorded as an assistant in Lutyens’s office 1920-23.

Max established a reputation for his visual genius, particularly noted for his many vivid and engaging pictorial maps such as the humorous ‘Wonderground’ for London Underground, commissioned by Frank Pick in 1913, a tapestry map for South Africa House in 1934, for the GPO, the Scott Polar Research Institute at Cambridge and in 1936 for the Queen Mary liner. His murals included the chancel ceiling of 1927, depicting days of the Creation, at St Andrew’s, Roker, based on drawings by its architect E S Prior. In 1917 he was invited onto the headstone design committee of the Imperial War Graves Commission – his design of the standard headstones with his distinctive Roman font for their lettering was adopted for all the British headstones worldwide, a notable achievement which ought to have made him better-known. It was at Thiepval that Lutyens engaged him to carve the lettering for the Memorial of the Missing of the Somme, inaugurated in 1932.

There was a pioneering exhibition and symposium at the University of Brighton in 2011 which recorded his varied talents – as a supervising architect who collaborated with Halsey Ricardo for a model village in 1917 for Ernest Debenham at Briantspuddle, Dorset, his posters for the Empire Marketing Board at a time of colonial unrest, and his murals for the Empire Exhibition at Glasgow in 1938.

Visit the University of Brighton website and see the article in Country Life 20 July 2011. A symposium ‘Out of the Shadows’ took place at the Art Workers’ Guild on 27 September.