Summer Newsletter 2016

MacDonald Gill Summer Newsletter 2016

Nursery Rhymes of London Town

In this issue we celebrate 100 years of Nursery Rhymes of London Town, Eleanor Farjeon's collection of nonsense verses based on London place names.  Its success was due in no small part to MacDonald Gill's comic illustrations.  The book, which launched Eleanor Farjeon's literary career, was popular not only with children but also with adults, including soldiers on the Western Front.  Her close friend, the poet Edward Thomas, loved the verses so much he carried a copy of the book in his uniform pocket in the months before he was killed in battle on the Somme.  Eleanor Farjeon went on to win numerous awards not only for poetry but also for children's fiction, plays, and a biography entitled Edward Thomas: The Last Four Years.   

Max's illustrations for Nursery Rhymes of London Town and its 1917 sequel capture the quirky charm and playfulness of the rhymes to perfection.  Many are reminiscent of the visual puns in his Wonderground Map of London Town.   Two of my favourites are pictured here - Kings Cross and the colour frontispiece depicting the Old Lady of Threadneedle Street.  In 1920 he designed the cover for Eleanor's two books of satirical verses Tomfooleries and Moonshine, written under the pen name 'Tomfool'.  He and Eleanor clearly shared the same sense of humour and love of word-play, but incredibly, the two probably never met.

The centenary of Nursery Rhymes of London Town is being marked by a case display of exhibits relating to the book - including 1st editions and original artwork - at several London libraries.  Its first stop is at Hammersmith Central Library where it can be seen from 6th June until 28th July.   In the autumn it will move to the City of Westminster Archives Centre, then Kensington Central Library and lastly Fulham Library.  There will also be several talks by Eleanor's literary executor Anne Harvey and myself (Caroline Walker).  For details see Events.

Max's lettering

A defining feature of Max's maps (pictured is Lindisfarne Castle wind-dial), dust-jackets and graphics  is their distinctive Roman lettering, which doesn't simply provide information but forms an integral element in the overall image.  It comes as no surprise then to read in Max's lecture notes that he believed that 'lettering is in itself 'decoration''.   As many readers will know, Max, like his older brother Eric, learned the art of calligraphy in the classes taught by Edward Johnston at the Central School of Arts and Crafts.  This remarkable man was also responsible for the familiar London Underground roundel and the LU typeface, which celebrates its centenary this year with a series of events at the London Transport Museum.

The Gill brothers owed a huge debt to Johnston.  Eric became perhaps the most famous letter-cutter of the early twentieth century and also a noted typographer, while Max, although proficient in inscriptional design, excelled at the drawn or painted letter on his pictorial maps. He also designed the alphabet for the familiar military headstone.   An admirer of Max's lettering was the writer and critic Joseph Thorp who wrote: 'Watch him draw a letter or numeral with a brush ... the tool sweeps round with an unhesitating certainty which gives those admirable curves and delicate scrip and finals. ... no precise measurements  ... would give that spontaneous "freedom".  The letters are alive.'

Max and the Ordnance Survey

I was honoured in May to present the lecture at the annual meeting of the Charles Close Society held this year in Llangollen, a lovely town on the River Dee.  The group promotes the study of Ordnance Survey maps and members were pleased to learn that Max used OS maps - bought from London's cartographic emporium, Stanford's - as a base for nearly all of his British pictorial maps (pictured is a detail from Max's 1909 wind-dial map for Nashdom).  Max recognised the importance of geographical accuracy, even for the pictorial map.  He wrote that although the Ordnance Survey map is 'naturally the antithesis of decoration, its function is primarily one of utility ... Not permissible for them is the artists' playground ... to our own modern decorative maps the Ordnance Survey should be the frame around which we build, the figure, the dry bones, which we would clothe...'  (The Studio 1940).