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Cornering the states of MacDonald Gill's Wonderground map

Cornering the states of MacDonald Gill's Wonderground map

Today's guest on the blog is my good friend Winfrid de Munck. Twentieth Century maps, until recently the preserve of a few enthusiasts, are now the focus of serious and sustained study - but a great deal remains to be learned. This is a perfect example of why so many of those discoveries will be made by the trade or by collectors such as Winfrid. MacDonald Gill’s Wonderground Map of London is among the most famous examples of comic map-making, but it is only by handling and comparing numerous examples of the ‘same’ map that new information comes to light. Most published descriptions of the map give 1914 as the date of publication, based solely on the date given in the bottom right hand corner, which was never altered. However, a series of relatively minor changes to the image extend its active life considerably, and support our assumptions that it was hugely popular over a sustained period. I’ll leave it to Winfrid to pick up the story. An original, framed copy of the smaller version of MacDonald Gill’s Wonderground Map of London Town adorns the wall behind the desk in my study. Although it has hung there for several years now,I still do discover new details on it. At the same time, I am also aware that a number of the puns and witticisms on the map will probably be lost forever. Will we ever know what Gill’s mysterious “Begarez Hog … a very fearful beast when famished but … very fond of little children”actually is or refers to, for instance? And what did actually happen near the Old Kent Road every day between three and four in the afternoon? Although the meaning of a number of these arcane references may be lost to us a hundred years on, MacDonald Gill himself has made a very firm and welcome comeback from relative obscurity in recent years. Undoubtedly, the major turning point for this was the aptly named “Out of the Shadows” exhibition, originally held at Brighton University in 2011 and repeated at the PM Gallery in Ealing in autumn last year, which admirably highlighted the many sides of the artistic talents of Eric Gill’s younger brother. Since then, MacDonald Gill’s life and work for the London Underground have been the subject of some excellent research, revealing a surprising number of details that otherwise would have gracelessly sunk into oblivion. One of the issues that has been addressed in this research is the various states that the Wonderground Map ran through since its inception. Crucial in the dating of the consecutive states of the map is an inconspicuous triangle in the left upper corner, which has the curved horizon as its left side, Harrow Road as its base, and Chamberlayne Wood Road as its right side. In the original Wonderground Map of 1914, commissioned by Frank Pick, then the Publicity Manager for the London Electric Underground Railway Company, the triangle is occupied by a simple block of stylized white houses, executed in the same vein as all the other housing on the map.
However, the version on my wall differs in that all but one of the houses in the triangle have made way for a blue background against which a left-facing, standing lion is depicted in yellow with black manes. Also, the speech bubble with the text “Dry work, pushing!” uttered by the man ironically having to push a B-type bus of the London General Omnibus Company, has disappeared from the triangle, but the “tail” of the bubble issuing from the mouth of the pusher is still visible on the map nevertheless.
As can be seen in the picture above, a caption has also been added underneath the lion, reading “ON TO WEMBLEY”, with a small arrow pointing the way. The lion depicted is the British Imperial Lion, the symbol or logo (as we would have it nowadays) for the British Empire Exhibition, which was opened at the Empire Stadium in Wembley on April 23rd - St. George’s Day! - 1924 by King George V. Because of the presence of the British Imperial Lion, there is general consensus among connoisseurs that this state of the map was produced in 1924 and, furthermore, that this appears to be the last edition of the Wonderground Map. However, such consensus does not account for yet another variant of the Wonderground Map in which the triangle has been changed once more. On this state of the map a coursing brown greyhound with the number one on its red racing jacket has replaced the British Imperial Lion. Furthermore, the greyhound is now set against a green background, while the earlier caption “ON TO WEMBLEY” remains unchanged.
According to numerous sources, greyhound racing was introduced for the very first time to Wembley on the 10th of December in 1927, with a dog named Spin winning the very first race. Since there appear to be no earlier records of greyhound racing at Wembley, this state of the Wonderground map must have been produced in 1927, or maybe 1928 even, as the first event took place in the last month of 1927.But what prompted the production of this new state of the Wonderground Map? Had the earlier British-Empire edition been sold out completely, as it was an immensely popular map among the public, or was an update deemed necessary for this novelty map? In this respect, further research on this seemingly last state of the map would be most welcome, but as it stands I think that the production period of the various states of the Wonderground Map of London Town should be extended to thirteen years rather than the ten years that it is allotted now. Edited to add: Although I originally discovered the variations of this seemingly insignificant corner on the Wonderground Map several years ago, I would like to point out the excellent research that Roderick Barron ( has conducted recently on the printing history and background of the various states of the Wonderground Map and on a number of other, equally wonderful maps that MacDonald Gill produced. Also, Claire Dobbin’s book London Underground Maps: Art, Design and Cartography (Lund Humphries, London, 2012) is indispensable for a better understanding of MacDonald Gill’s artwork for the London Underground.
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