Donald McGill (1875-1962) Dubbed the ‘Picasso of the Pier’ by the writer, Dennis Potter, Donald McGill devoted his working life, from 1904, to designing comic cards for the postcard industry. Donald McGill was born in Regent’s Park, London, on 28 January 1875, the son of a stationer. He grew up in Blackheath, and was educated at Stratheden House and Blackheath Proprietary School, where, at the age of 17, he received a serious injury in a rugby match, which eventually resulted in the amputation of his left foot. He studied at Blackheath School of Art, but left after a year because ‘he did not like the syllabus’, and instead joined the correspondence course run by John Hassall’s New School of Art. His first published work appeared in The Joker. Working in the office of Maudsleys, a firm of naval architects, between 1893 and 1896, McGill then entered an apprenticeship with Thames Ironworks, Shipbuilding and Engineering Company. While remaining with the company until 1907, he also began to produce postcard designs, from 1904, for the Pictorial Postcard Company.
Those designs were often inspired by jokes that he heard at music halls, including the Parthenon Theatre of Varieties, Greenwich, which had been owned by his father-in- law, Alfred Hurley. He worked full time as a postcard artist from 1908, and two years later began to sell designs to Joseph Ascher, a German immigrant entrepreneur. When Ascher was interned as an enemy alien at the outbreak of the First World War, McGill moved to the Inter-Art Company, and worked as a staff member for the next 17 years, producing an average of nine cards a week. He resigned in 1931, in response to the company’s ‘clean-up’ campaign after which ‘they would not let me draw people with red noses, women in bathing costumes with cleavage’, and again worked as a freelance artist. In the same year, he and his family moved to 5 Bennett Park, Blackheath (an event that is now marked by a blue plaque). In 1934, Ascher returned to England, as a refugee from Nazi Germany, and set up the firm of D Constance Ltd in Ivy Lane, Paternoster Row, near St Paul’s Cathedral. Two years later, it began to employ McGill and introduced a ‘New McGill Comics’ series. However, in 1939, the struggling nature of the postcard industry encouraged him to retire to Guildford, Surrey. Through most of the Second World War, he worked as a clerk for the Ministry of Labour, beginning to draw for Ascher again from 1944. He was possibly encouraged in this by George Orwell’s now famous essay, published in Horizon in 1941, which stated that ‘McGill is a clever draughtsman with a real caricaturist’s touch in the drawing of faces’ and that his postcards are ‘so completely typical’. Before Ascher died in 1951, he had made McGill a nominal director of D Constance Ltd, and gave him a flat at 36 Christchurch Road, Streatham Hill (the company having moved to the same street at the outbreak of war). Following Ascher’s death, McGill and Ernest Maidment attempted to manage the company together, and deal with financial complications and issues of censorship. McGill himself died a decade later at St James’s Hospital, Balham, on 13 October 1962.
In 2006, Chris Beetles Gallery mounted the sell-out exhibition, ‘Donald McGill. The Michael Winner Collection’. It was accompanied by a very popular illustrated catalogue.