Thursday, 4 August 2011


Your host was once nearly ill-tempered enough to write a tetchy piece about the recent Eric Gill retrospective at the British Museum. Not that there was anything wrong with what went into it, but for precisely the reverse reason – it was the stuff on display which demanded more of the same! It was a smidgen of a show, a bone tossed to a cur, crammed into two small rooms that perhaps previously functioned as a broom closet.

It induced the notion in this ingrate that we had rendered the arts into an acute-angled pyramid – big-name artists on repeat in a whole series of blockbuster exhibitions, some for almost completely spurious reasons, with everyone else left to langour. Furthermore, it felt like British arts were particularly unsung in their homeland (albeit with honorary exceptions), that the insistence that the British didn’t “do Modernism” was becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Finally, putting such spleen to paper came to feel like stabbing a gift horse in the mouth. (Even if that mouth was too small to easily find.) So pleased am I to focus on something more positive, this retrospective of the decorative map posters of Eric’s brother Macdonald, aka Max. (The shadows of the show’s title refers to his rescue from semi-obscurity, when a trove of his work was recently discovered at a rural Sussex cottage.) True this show runs for a frustratingly short period of little more than five weeks, but let’s not start that horse-in-the-mouth business again...

Though the exhibition is chiefly devoted to those titular decorative maps, there’s also (as you might expect from Eric’s brother) logos and typefaces on show, plus some book and architectural designs. But let’s take our cue from the name. Part of my fascination with maps is their supremely ideological nature; they always affect to simply present information, and always attempt to construct a reality. And this is a classic case in point...

Gill’s career seems to have taken off with his ‘Wonderground’ map of the then-developing London Underground system. Rather than a functional map for travellers this buried the network and focused more on the sights to be found above ground; portraying each with a little comic vignette in what the show calls “a labyrinth of intriguing detail.” (Gill simultaneously worked out a travel map; to see the Underground network not in the now-ubiquitous geometric style is like looking into another dimension.)

Despite the breadth of scenes contained in the map, each little detail is itself bold and graphic. Though drawn with pen and ink they follow the style of engravings - thick outlines with very little hatching. Colours are not naturalistic but bold simple blocks. This same palette is used virtually throughout the exhibition; pillar-box red, navy blue, saffron yellow and teal green. The consistent use of these strong elements makes the poster feel clear and unfussy despite its wealth of detail, and demonstrates the influence of the Arts and Crafts movement upon Gill.

 It is rather like looking at a page of text in one of his brother’s fonts. Even if you are too far away to read the words they do not look daunting, cramped or jumbled, but elegantly arranged and inviting. And, should you wish, you can blow each letter up to see a carefully crafted geometric composition.

The result is England’s self-image in microcosm, at least of this period, with a London simultaneously teeming and serene. The streets and parks are full of chaps, minding their own business with jollity and charming eccentricity. Yet they add naturally to a cohesive whole. Just like letters can be called characters so are we, but in our individuality we naturally form meaningful words and sentences.

An interesting feature of Gill’s work is that it was not only of public places, it was mostly designed for them, blown up onto hoardings or made into murals. (Though it is suggested smaller poster versions were sometimes made commercially available. ’Wonderground’ itself incorporates the suggestion “why not take a map home to pin on your wall?”) The internet being the very opposite of this medium, it is quite hard to show examples - which is most probably significant in itself. (Follow this link then click on the image for a scrollable, larger-scale reproduction.)

From this base in ’Wonderland’ the exhibition then embarks on a loose but intriguing journey. The decorative maps spread out, first to encompass the whole of London, then the home counties and finally the world. ’Country Bus Service’ (1928) encircles central London with a striking (if entirely imaginary) city wall, radial routes splaying out across the surrounding areas.

And just as London is the heart of England, England it seems is the heart of the world. (Around ’Wonderground’ is written “the heart of Britain’s empire, here is spread out for your view.”) A later map, made in 1945, is unapologetically titled ’Britain The World Centre.’

The show at points quotes Gill on how maps can represent space in different ways. He explains ’Highways of Empire’ (1927) as demonstrating “the world as it would appear from an aeroplane so high above London that the continents stretched out beneath him. He would thus be given a vivid idea of how the British Empire is scattered in relation to the home country.” In practise this is construed as if the continents have all upped sticks to the northern hemisphere, gathering around Britain as if for shelter.

Of course from the earliest times maps have been power objects as much as guides, for what you describe and demarcate you also control. Gill’s remit to provide decorative more than functional maps brings out that aspect to the hilt. There are several maps of colonies or trading partners, the symbolic drawings easily rendered into units of production (bushels for wheat, diamond shapes for minerals and so on). Perhaps the most joyously self-parodic of these is ’Tea Revives The World’ (produced for the International Tea Market Expansion Board, 1940), its indicia cheerfully dividing the world up into the countries that produce tea and the countries that actually get to drink it.

Of course such an absence of selfawareness about the Empire is so alien to us today that our natural reaction is laughter. Even the revisionist right, who attempt to invent justifications for its conquests, are at least aware of and orient themselves around the criticisms.

But it would be wrong to assume Gill is representative of some eternal past, as if there had been no changes to British society between Victoria’s coronation and Indian independence. In fact the interwar era saw itself very much as the apex of modernity, as an electric trolley-bus speeding away from an unchanging past, something amply reflected in Gill’s work. As this show demonstrates very well, Gill’s work was very much of a specific time and place.

Let’s look again at ’Highways of the Empire’, which was produced at the behest of the Empire Marketing Board. The name seems weirdly oxymoronic – by definition an empire conquers, it has no need to market itself. In fact this body was formed in 1926, as a response to growing disquiet among the colonies. Its power waning, empire had very much become something that needed selling.

Simultaneously, however, the maps picture a belief in empire. We may no longer subscribe to such imperial notions, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to understand them. Those bold and simple maps, where everything is run and accounted for by a controlling centre, they orient around the assumption that order is a prerequisite for benevolence. Only through control can we bring harmony. The model reflects the way a map designer transforms some crinkly accidents of geography into a well-composed whole, and perhaps doubly appealed to Gill.

As mentioned in an earlier piece on Hepworth and Moore, their semi-abstracted figures sitting outside social institutions reflected the new post-war politics. It is tempting to see Gill’s maps as belonging to the previous generation.

Yet there are intriguing points of overlap. In 1942 Gill drew up the ‘Atlantic Charter Map’, effectively staking out the sea as under the two countries cross-ownership. This was part of a pact between Churchill and Roosevelt to promote association (though at that point stopping short of American involvement in the war).

Six years later the map reappeared, rebranded as the ‘Time and Tide Map of the United Nations.’ Of course we know with hindsight that the UN became a glove for increased American dominance in world affairs. Yet at the time it stirred up idealism, it was welcomed as an answer to war and a sign of growing world maturity. The rebranded poster promises “to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom.” But there was also a continuity. Charter was replacing empire as the bringer of order.

Gill straddles what seems to us to be a great variance; celebrating Empire, yet associated with the arts and craft movement and keen to create art that was public, accessible and functional. (He might make an interesting comparison to Otto Neurath’s contemporary Isotype system.) Added to which he celebrated what we now see as the apolitical but inexorable march of progress and technology, as epitomised by the spread of the London Underground.

But perhaps the key to Gill is not to think how he reconciled these variances, but to picture a mind oblivious to them. A mind he has obliginlgy mapped out for us...

Postscript: The welcome nature of this exhibition in no way means we are no longer due a major Eric Gill retrospective!

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