Early Life

Leslie MacDonald (‘Max’) Gill was born in Brighton on 6th October 1884. He was the second son in a large family of thirteen children – eleven survived to adulthood. His father Arthur Tidman Gill was a non-conformist curate of missionary parents, while his mother, Cicely Rose King, had been a concert party singer. His older brother was the sculptor and typographer Eric Gill. Even as boys, both exhibited an artistic talent, filling sketch books with drawings of locomotives and Sussex churches. In 1897 after their father was ordained into the Church of England, the family moved to Chichester, where Max attended the Prebendal School and also took classes in drawing and carving at a local college. After a school map-drawing project, Max began creating maps for competitions in boys’ magazines. In June 1899 the family moved again, this time to Bognor, where his father had been appointed curate of St John’s Church. Max’s diaries record a busy and happy boyhood. He played in the school cricket and football teams, entertained friends and family with jokes and conjuring tricks, acted in local theatricals and played violin in the Bognor orchestra. He had a vivid imagination, which he fed with numerous adventure stories such as The Swiss Family Robinson. As soon as he turned sixteen, Max left White’s Holyrood School and was articled to Leonard Pilkington, a local architect.

The First Years in London

Two years later, in early 1903, Max moved to London to work as assistant to Sir Charles Nicholson and Hubert C. Corlette, ecclesiastical architects. The calligrapher Edward Johnston, who taught lettering at the Central School, became a close friend of both Max and his brother Eric. After Johnston’s marriage, the brothers shared his old chambers at Lincoln’s Inn. The focus of Max’s social life was the Art Workers’ Guild, where he rubbed shoulders with the eminent architects and craftsmen of the day.

Keen to improve his skills, Max enrolled in calligraphy and architecture classes at the Central School of Arts & Crafts, and regularly entered design competitions – he won a number of scholarships and prizes.

Eric and Max

Max and Eric were very different characters. Although outwardly very sociable, Max was actually an intensely private man, who rarely revealed his feelings. Like his father, he hated argument and conflict, which he would avoid by retreating into silence. Eric, on the other hand, relished a heated discussion and would be annoyed at Max’s refusal to engage in argument. However, the brothers shared a passion for the lettering taught by Johnston, and both designed many fine inscriptions and memorials, sometimes in collaboration. In other ways their art diverged dramatically. Although Eric started training in architecture, he soon turned to letter-cutting and sculpture, and later to typography and engraving. His inspiration derived from a fascination for the human form coupled with strong religious beliefs. Max, on the other hand, continued as an architect but was also drawn to mural painting, mapmaking and commercial graphics. He rarely drew people except for curious cartoon figures, and instead was fascinated by buildings – particularly churches – and ships.

Murals and Maps

When Max started his own practice in 1908, he had already completed many private commissions, including a number for and with his brother Eric. Their most well-known collaboration was the Dorothea Beale Memorial at Cheltenham Ladies College; Max designed and painted it, while Eric did the stone-carving. To supplement his income, Max also worked as a teacher of architecture and lettering, first at the Clapham School of Art, and then at the Central School. His professional map-making career began in 1909 when he received a commission from the renowned architect Edwin Lutyens to paint a ‘wind-dial’ map for Nashdom (pictured), a palatial villa in Buckinghamshire. This was a pictorial panel map depicting the house and neighbourhood. It was set into the panelling over a fireplace and had a metal indicator connected to a weather-vane; the wind direction could thus be read from inside the house. In total Max painted seven more wind-dial maps including one at Lindisfarne Castle.

In 1912 he embarked on a number of joint architectural and church decoration schemes with fellow architect Arthur Grove including St John the Divine in Richmond. In the same year Max moved into a studio in the Temple at No 1 Hare Court, which he kept until the end of his life.

The Wonderground Map of London Town, Theatreland

Through his friendship with Gerard Meynell of the Westminster Press, Max entered the world of commercial print.  He designed numerous illustrations and covers for magazines and journals.  In the summer of 1913 Frank Pick, Publicity Manager for the London Electric Railways, commissioned a map poster from Meynell who in turn approached Max to design it.  The result, published in early 1914, was ‘The ‘Wonderground Map of London Town,.’  It presents a colourful bird’s-eye view of the city, peopled with quirky characters, and peppered with historical notes, jokes and references to family and friends.  Designed to entertain passengers while they were waiting for their trains rather than to give exact directional information, it proved an instant hit  and a folded version was soon on sale to the public. 

It heralded the use of pictorial maps in the world of publicity and was a turning point in Max’s career. The following year Pick asked for another map: Theatreland, a view of London by night.

Dorset and the Bladen Estate

From 1914 to 1919 Max worked on the Bladen Estate in Dorset as architect-in-residence for Ernest Debenham on an experimental farm project on which Halsey Ricardo was the senior architect. Here Max designed and supervised the construction of many of the cottages and farm buildings.

These were constructed of locally sourced concrete blocks, rather than brick, and then rendered, whitewashed and roofed with thatch. Despite their traditional appearance, they were built with modern conveniences, such as bathrooms.

Love and Marriage

Over the years Max had a number of romances, including with Halsey Ricardo’s younger daughter Esther. When she ended their relationship in late 1914, Max turned back to an old flame, Muriel Bennett , and within a few months they were married.

They lived on Debenham’s Dorset estate, where their first two children, John and Mary, were born.

The First World War

In August 1914 war had been declared against Germany.   Max’s four younger brothers all saw active service in France, but Max was exempted from military service, almost certainly because of his involvement with the farm project; food production was of paramount importance. 

His other contribution during these years was his design work for the Imperial War Graves Commission, which invited him to design the alphabet and regimental badges for all military headstones.

Back to Chichester - Architecture

After leaving Dorset in 1919, Max and his growing family settled in Chichester, where his third and last child, Anne, was born. Initially he loved being back in the bustle of the city where he had spent part of his boyhood.

He was soon in great demand as an architect, designing houses such as the Arts & Crafts style Darwell Hill in Sussex for Harold Heal, and working on alterations and additions to many local churches.

Inscriptions in the Twenties

In the aftermath of the First World War, Max was commissioned to design many memorials, including the multi-panelled roll of honour for the Royal Sussex Regiment located in Chichester Cathedral. There are also many in Oxford, including the rolls of honour at Balliol, Christ Church and Worcester Colleges.

The stone tablets he designed from this time onwards were carved by Joseph Cribb at the Ditchling Workshop, while metal plaques were usually made by the engraver George T. Friend.

Post-War Maps

In the post-war era, institutions and companies turned their attention once more to marketing and publicity.  As a result of the successful poster maps he had created for the London Underground, Max was by now firmly established as the leading decorative mapmaker of the day.  More were commissioned, including the enchanting Peter Pan of Kensington Gardens, as well as simplified maps of the tube network.  There was also poster work for companies such as Shell-Mex and Spillers, which needed eye-catching material for their stands at the1924 Empire Exhibition at Wembley.  Perhaps the most iconic map of the decade was Highways of Empire, which created chaos on Charing Cross Road in London when it was unveiled on the largest hoarding ever seen.  Motorists stopped and crowds gathered and gaped, all stunned by this enormous map with its odd projection of the world showing Britain at its heart and polar bears lost in the Antarctic.  This poster spearheaded a massive and costly publicity venture by the Empire Marketing Board to promote sales of Empire goods.

Billy Kingswell

Mary Gill described her father as a ‘workaholic’. No job was too large or small, and soon the flood of commissions was overwhelming. Unable to cope, Max took on William ‘Billy’ Kingswell , a skilled signwriter and the perfect assistant for Max – good-humoured, intelligent and conscientious.

He assisted Max on most of his major commissions until the late thirties. Although Max still regularly used his London studio at Hare Court, he had also created a spacious studio at the top of the family’s house in Chichester.

West Wittering

By the mid-twenties Chichester had lost much of its charm for Max. The Gill house was situated on one of the busiest streets, which was now congested with noisy motor cars emitting smoky fumes. Max was earning more than ever before and decided to design his own house at West Wittering, where his father was now vicar. South Nore was completed at the end of 1926. It looked out over Chichester Harbour and had a small beach just a few steps away. And with its two purpose-built studio rooms and spacious garden it was a perfect place for Max to work and his children to grow up. Muriel, however, was not so happy with another move and disliked the house. Sadly, neither Max nor she had been truly happy in their marriage, but their wedding vows and their children kept them together. And despite having a studio at home, where Kingswell usually worked, Max was regularly away for work, either at the Temple studio or with clients.

Church Decoration

In the summer of 1927 Max spent several weeks in Roker at St Andrew’s Church, sometimes called the Arts & Crafts Cathedral of the North. It had been built by the architect Edward Prior some twenty years earlier. Max, with the help of a small team of painters, decorated the chancel with a colourful mural depicting the Creation edged with gilded quotations from the Book of Genesis.

Damp has unfortunately caused the mural to deteriorate badly – some parts have been obliterated completely. In the following two years Max painted colourful ceilings in St Bartholomew’s in Chichester and St Anselm’s in Hayes.

The Thirties

At the beginning of the decade the country descended into economic gloom. Although Max continued to receive jobs, his income dropped significantly and he frequently found himself in debt. The inter-war years brought a number of prestigious commissions for painted pictorial maps, several for private individuals, but most for companies and institutions. Perhaps the most beautiful are the Antarctic and the Arctic maps he painted in the domes at the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge. The most impressive, however, is the North Atlantic map that presides over the first-class dining room of the liner RMS Queen Mary, which made its maiden voyage in 1936 and is now berthed at Long Beach, California. Others were painted for W H Smith, the Houses of Parliament and Manchester Collieries.

He was at ease with commissions of any dimension – from a postage stamp to a 200ft mural for the entrance hall at the Glasgow Exhibition of 1938. The General Post Office asked him to design a new logo as well as a greetings telegram and three poster maps including the informative Mail Steamship Routes (1937). He designed for almost any medium including tapestry, plaster and glass. In 1932 he designed his last poster map for the London Underground – A Clash of Arms.

Priscilla Johnston

The Depression Years took their toll on Max – he was overworking yet constantly had financial troubles. His marriage was now little more than a sham. Although a kind, homely woman and devoted mother, Muriel had never shown much interest in Max’s work, and the couple had never enjoyed a fulfilling physical relationship; added to this was their inability to discuss their feelings. Both harboured resentment.

In early 1933, at a London talk given by his brother Eric, Max met his goddaughter Priscilla Johnston, whom he had not seen for some years. The youngest daughter of his old friend Edward Johnston, Priscilla was just twenty-two and enjoying a modest success as a novelist. Within weeks she and Max had begun an affair. And by the autumn she had become his assistant at the Temple studio.

Over the next five years Max and Priscilla became ever closer. She was the passion of Max’s life. With her love and support, his zest for life and work were renewed. Unable to live together, they nevertheless spent most of their time with each other – either in London or on work trips. In 1938 Max finally separated from his wife Muriel and set up home openly with Priscilla in a Chelsea flat, though unable to marry because Muriel refused a divorce. Both Max and Priscilla longed for a country retreat and within months – with the help of a small legacy – Priscilla bought a tumbledown cottage in a remote corner of Sussex. Life was not always easy. Priscilla was twenty-six years younger than Max and very attractive to men. She had several flirtations, which Max tolerated, in the knowledge that she loved him deeply and would not leave him.

The Second World War

The cottage became their main home during the war, safe from the bombing raids in London and it was here that they spent some of their happiest times.  The meadow was turned into a productive small-holding and Priscilla kept a motley group of animals and poultry.  Max would work in the cramped studio at the cottage, although his workload was now much reduced.  By 1940 he had completed Tea Revives the World, as well as a large canvas map for the University of London. 

There were also pilot training films and propaganda posters for the Ministry of Information.  And when Roosevelt and Churchill signed the Atlantic Charter in 1942, Time and Tide magazine commissioned a commemorative map.  This sold in thousands and versions were also published in French and Spanish.

The Final Years

When the war was over, Max and Priscilla took up their old London life once more, going to the cinema and theatre, and seeing friends.  There was good news too from Muriel, who had finally agreed to a divorce.  Max and Priscilla were married at last in May 1946 at Chelsea Register Office.  Although Max’s much-loved studio at Hare Court had survived a massive bombing raid on the Temple, it had suffered significant blast damage. Fortunately Max had created a studio at their Chelsea flat, where he created his final poster map – The Great Circle Map for Cable & Wireless (1946).  His last painted map, a large panoramic view of the North Atlantic for the liner Queen Elizabeth (destroyed by fire in Hong Kong harbour in 1972), was painted at Heal’s the furniture store.  Max, however, was not well, and just a few days after the map’s completion in August 1946, lung cancer was diagnosed.  He died in Chelsea on January 14th 1947 and was buried in the little graveyard at Streat overlooking the Sussex Downs of his childhood.  His headstone was designed and cut by Joseph Cribb.

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