Max Gill: Wonderground Man

When I realised that I could tie a visit to Ditchling Museum in with a trip I was already planning down to the South coast, I jumped at the chance. Strangely I hadn’t questioned why a small gallery in a tiny village had been on my radar for so long. But now I know why.

The Museum is dedicated to showcasing work created by local artists and craftspeople. Despite its quaint ‘chocolate-box cottage’ stature, Ditchling has played home to an impressive sect of notable 20th century practitioners, including illustrators, engravers, typographers and weavers. The Museum’s permanent collection offers the opportunity to view this work, alongside frequently changing exhibitions and workshops which expose and explore relevant themes.

With a key theme being ‘Maps’, Max Gill: Wonderground Man was the focus of my visit. I went in knowing little of the context of the show, and found it fitting that Gill was essentially map-making for marketing! Gill’s commissions often came from travel, transport or technology companies, with the exhibition taking its name from one of his best known pieces, ‘Wonderground Man’ a commission by Transport For London.

The maps he created pacified potentially daunting changes, across technology, communications, travel and power. This highlights how maps, by putting something unfamiliar into a context we understand, can make people feel safe, connected, and part of something exciting.

Gill’s map present narratives through fact and fiction. I think one the reasons I am draw to maps is because they present information in a non-linear way. There is no pressure to read the whole map, nor is there a beginning, middle and end. Studying the maps he created for a Tea company, there seems like no end of interesting information to absorb, which I personally would never be able to do in a traditional textbook format. (An appreciation I would no doubt associate to the brand!) Many of his TFL commissions are riddled with humour, fun facts and personal details, alongside illustrated characters. Which also makes for seemingly-endless enjoyable viewing.

The scale of Gill’s work also left an impression on me. Large posters within the show also featured as magazine prints, and smaller drawings acted up as mock ups for murals. It’s hard to know whether a billboard poster would get more attention paid to it than a magazine print, if it were to feature as much narrative-driven detail. But there’s certainly an appeal (if TFL were to get on board), in having one of Gill’s map to gaze at whilst waiting for the next Piccadilly line train.

A personal highlight was to see an unfinished design, giving insight on Gill’s process. Layout paper overlays show how he would use pencil to trace the floor plan (presumably from a map book), then build up the building profiles in pencil, to then draw the final version in pen. By the end of the show my brain was already buzzing with ideas I want to take forward, so this guide on ‘How to design maps – the old school way’ was just another brilliant thing to take away!

Needless to say I greatly enjoyed my visit to Ditchling Museum, and as a final note I must add, they also have a lovely shop! The next show ‘Women’s Work’ about women in craft also looks epic. I highly recommend making the pilgrimage down (and accompany it with a nice stroll across the South Downs).