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2023 Spring MacDonald Gill Newsletter – The Coronation Issue

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As I write this today – on Saturday May 6th – King Charles lll is being crowned at Westminster Abbey. There will be a little less pomp and ceremony at his coronation than for previous monarchs but it will still be a day of Royal pageantry and celebrations around the country. An Official Souvenir Programme is on sale just as there was for the coronation of his mother Elizabeth II in 1953 and his grandfather George Vl in 1937.

King George VI was a reluctant monarch. His accession was the result of his brother King Edward VIII’s abdication on 11th December 1936. This crisis came about when Edward proposed to marry the American divorcee Wallis Simpson. Marrying a divorcee was not permitted within the Church of England and she was also thought to be unsuitable as a consort for the monarch. By the time these events came to a head, however, arrangements were well under way for his coronation on May 12th 1937. A souvenir programme had even been designed with two maps by Max Gill. One of these was a coloured map showing the tours undertaken by Edward VIII whilst still Prince of Wales. Max’s brother Evan, then serving in the Canadian Forces, took this ph of the Prince in Regina in 1919.


I came across a black-and-white-photo of the map in Max’s portfolio with the royal title blanked out and ‘unused’ written next to it. A small pen-and-ink artwork (see right) measuring 43 mm by 50 mm showed he also designed a crest for the new king.

Photo of A Map of the World shewing the journeys of King Edward VIII when Prince of Wales, 1936. The original painting measured 376mm x 229mm

In her journal for 17th November 1936 Max’s companion and assistant Priscilla Johnston records work at the Temple studio on the second map – ‘a nice job’ – which was to show the coronation procession route. The ‘Abdication Crisis’ momentarily threw the coronation arrangements into disarray but it was soon decided that George VI should be crowned on the same day as planned. The Official Programme, however, needed to be almost completely revised. The map of world tours was thrown out but the procession route map was still usable – it simply needed a few adjustments including a new title and revised royal monograms.

Coronation Procession Route Map, 1937. 190 x 390mm

The centrefold map was perhaps the highlight of the programme. The titles, street and place names are spelt out in clear and elegant Roman lettering and the procession route is boldly delineated making the map and its purpose easy to interpret. Yet it is also an artistic delight. Max’s typical chevron edging separates the various sections including side panels with King George VI’s initials from which rise the national symbols of leek, shamrock, thistles and roses. The procession route which started and ended at Buckingham Palace passed several royal parks – easily recognisable by their collections of delightfully drawn stylised trees – and numerous landmark buildings including Marble Arch, Westminster Abbey and – most useful for spectators – nearby Underground stations.

In early January 1937 Odham’s, the programme’s publisher, suddenly asked Max to design a title page for the new programme. Already busy on a number of commissions and with a tight deadline, this demand precipitated what Priscilla called ‘The Great Coronation Rush’. However, with the help of two men from Odhams working with Max the job was completed in just three days although amendments the following week entailed an all night session.

The title page made a striking opening to the programme with its fabulous collection of emblems (forty-six in the more expensive edition) representing the many territories within the British Empire.

Title page of Official Souvenir Programme for The Coronation of their Majesties King George VI & Queen Elizabeth (de-luxe edition), 1937, 292 x 220mm

The programme was published in April and Max attended a Royal Luncheon on the 27th to celebrate the event. The thirty-six page programme cost one shilling, but if you could afford half-a-crown, you could buy the de-luxe version embellished with gold with double the number of emblems on the title page and bound with a gold tasselled cord. Over 2 million programmes were distributed worldwide.

Official Souvenir Programme, 1937.
De-luxe version

The rush to complete the Coronation Programme work was compounded on 6th February by the General Post Office – on top of poster work – wanting Max to design a a Coronation Greetings Telegram. On the day of issue, Max sent one to Priscilla who was staying in Ditchling with her father the calligrapher Edward Johnson.

Alongside the official programme many companies sought to use the coronation in their own publicity material. Max did this colourful coronation route map for the specialist printing firm of Cook, Hammond & Kell for their 1937 calendar.

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