Spring 2016 Newsletter

MacDonald Gill Spring Newsletter 2016

First, just a quick word about Events.  The exhibition at Shere Museum which was scheduled to open this Easter is no longer happening due to unforeseen problems linked to building work. However, a talk at Shere Village Hall is still happening on April 12th at 8pm.

Lincoln’s Inn

Many of you will know that Max’s first home/studio in London was in the walled medieval enclave of Lincoln’s Inn.  It is composed of a collection of historic red-brick and stone buildings - including a gate-house, a chapel and a magnificent Hall - grouped around a grassy open square, giving the place a collegiate or monastic character.  In 1901 the rooms at the top of 16 Old Buildings were tenanted by the calligrapher Edward Johnston, who invited his pupil Eric Gill to join him the following year.  When Johnston married in the spring of 1903, Max replaced him, despite concerns about the brothers' wildly differing temperaments and religious beliefs.  After Eric moved out in May 1904 and over the next eight years Max recruited a string of tenants, including his younger brother Evan and a friend, Ernest Laughton, who would eventually marry his sister Gladys Gill.  The largest room, which enjoyed superb views across New Square, was used for dining, entertaining, and working.  Photos reveal vaulted ceilings, plain white walls hung with Max's watercolours, simple second-hand furniture, an old upright piano, a grandfather clock, shelves packed with books, an easel and a plain rather threadbare-looking rug.  The low, barrel-ceilinged bedroom next door was just big enough for two iron bedsteads and a pair of chests-of-drawers.  

Last year the current tenant kindly showed me round the flat and it was interesting to compare the rooms now with old photographs and heartening to discover that the interior, though altered in some details, was still recognisable.  The kitchen even has its original small skylight through which Max would clamber onto the roof, where in the summer he would tend his array of plants or sit reading on the parapet.  When, in 1912, he moved to larger premises at No 1 Hare Court in the Temple, he admitted that he was 'very sorry to leave the old rooms'.  

The City of Westminster Map

Early in my research I came across a b-&-w photo of a painted map of Westminster.  With the help of a magnifying glass I found the date – 1924 - as well as the name of the commissioner - Arnold Danvers Power, a partner in the firm of W.H.Smith and a biblical scholar of some note.    My search for the map led me to Power's nephews, who recalled seeing it at their bachelor uncle's flat in Eaton Square but had no idea where it went after his death in 1959 when his estate was bequeathed to the nation.  Unfortunately, the auction house which sold many of his possessions had no record of any Gill map.  Fast forward to 2014 and to my great surprise an image of it turned up on a BBC website, where I learnt that it was housed in the collections of the City of Westminster Archives.  Without the digitisation of public collections, I'd probably still be looking.

The map is displayed in the reception area at the CWA, which is open to the public.  There are several interesting, sometimes bizarre, details such as the tiny red bus on Westminster Bridge with an advertisement for WH Smith, and the small boy with his head apparently stuck in the decorative ironwork!  

By Lambeth Bridge there's a sign which declares: ‘Officers in command of troops passing over this bridge are requested to give orders to BREAK STEP”.   A Max joke, I first thought. But no, I discovered that the warning was genuine: the structure was apparently so dangerous that it had been closed to all vehicles since 1910 and the authorities clearly envisaged that a regiment marching in step might trigger a catastrophic collapse of the weakened suspension bridge.  Thankfully, in 1924 a parliamentary Act was passed for a new bridge to be built.

The map is also an aid to the local historian as its cartouche lists many of the area's businesses and residences, each having a number corresponding to one on the map.  So we learn the locations of W.H. Smith and the Gas Works, as well as the homes of Power and his acquaintances, including Captain Wedgwood Benn and the Duke of Marlborough.

Punch and Judy

Now for an update on the work being done at the Tate conservation studio on Max's Borough Polytechnic mural Punch and Judy (see Summer 2015 newsletter).  Adele Wright has been painstakingly cleaning the surface, removing a century of grime, bringing colours back to at least a semblance of their original - I was thrilled to see such a difference from my previous visit just a few months ago (You can see the contrast in the boy's jumper in the photo).  The paint is extremely fragile and in places there is significant cracking and flaking; these areas may eventually be retouched.  There is also discussion on the optimum way to conserve the canvas for the next few decades of its life.  Originally pasted to the wall of the Polytechnic Dining Room in 1911 the canvas was cut out in the late twenties, tacked onto a stretcher and put into store where a flood caused significant damage especially along the bottom edge where there are rust marks and ragged edges.  Now the stretcher and edging canvas beneath the painting is all to be replaced - an extremely difficult and delicate job - but it could not be in more expert hands.