Going in to the House of Commons through St Stephen’s Porch you pass two huge and magnificent wall maps painted by MacDonald Gill. On the left-hand side is a plan of the Houses of Parliament (see right) and on the right-hand side is a map of ‘The Cities of London and Westminster’ – see below.
The plan is surrounded by wonderful coats of arms of British royalty, and it is interesting to follow the changes over the centuries in the shields of the kings and queens of Britain. This one (right) for Charles II, for example, has the lion of Scotland in the second quarter (top right), and the harp of Ireland in the third quarter. But in the first and fourth quarters, England is represented not only by the ‘leopards of England’ (lions passant guardant) but also by the fleur-de-lis of France, even though England lost all French land in 1558. The fleur-de-lis remained part of the coat of arms of the United Kingdom, and thus represented the claim to the French throne by the English monarch, until 1801, even though by this time there was no French throne as the country was a republic!
MacDonald Gill, Max, was the brother of the more famous letter cutter, letter designer and sculptor, Eric Gill, Both studied with Master Calligrapher Edward Johnston at the beginning of the last century, and this is shown well in Max’s strong and lively letter-forms – see right – from the Houses of Parliament map. Here the lettering varies from flourished capitals, compressed capitals and a formal minuscule style, with a delightful addendum in Italic where perhaps the text didn’t quite fit!
The map of the cities (see right) is particularly attractive, and fits the rather unusual shape well. (The maps are on the walls flanking a flight of stone steps.) The map itself is very detailed, and there are also a number of very well-designed heraldic shields representing the boroughs that make up the cities, balancing the arms of royalty on the opposite wall.
Up close and personal to the map it is easy to appreciate the detail and sheer artistry of Max’s hand. Buildings are drawn out in 3-D, with scrolls naming the most important. However, up close and personal it is rather worrying to see the obvious cracking of the paint.
The vibrant shield of Camberwell, shows two wells in the first and fourth quarters – the most important in heraldry. The second quarter (top right) represents Dulwich and so the chevron and cinquefoils from the arms of Edward Alleyn, who was the founder of Dulwich College, were adopted. And lastly, in the third quarter, the lion from the arms of Robert, Earl of Gloucester, represent Peckham, as the Earl was lord of this manor in the twelfth century.
That for Chelsea is equally lively. The crozier in the centre represents Westminster Abbey which used to hold the borough. The bull in the first quarter (top left) is the symbol of St Luke who is the patron saint of the borough. The white lion in the second quarter is from the arms of the first mayor, Earl Cadogan. The boars’ heads and sword are from the Sloane family, and the stag’s head is from the Stanley arms – both former holders of the manor.