If you decide visit this museum, we are sure you will discover that Donald McGill was one of the nation’s finest artists. But what kind of a man was he?
(January 28th 1875 – October 13th 1962)
A serious student and outwardly a conventional family man, Donald was at the same time a skilled artist and renowned humorist, working in what some would consider to be, the vulgar world of comic cards.
Donald has been described by various people who met him as looking like a solicitor, a judge, a church warden (one of Donald’s old school friends was the Bishop of Wakefield) – and is said to have had ‘the air of a retired naval commander’. During an interview, he described himself as being ‘rather Victorian in outlook’.
Always dressed impeccably, even at the drawing board, the terms ‘spry’ and ‘dapper’ were applied to him when he was still working in his 80s. He was proud of his ancestry – some members of the McGill clan had achieved positions of importance in the church, in military service, and in public office. He was himself not afraid to have ‘unpopular’ views – he was an atheist, he is said to have supported the suffragettes, and his politics were Liberal.
Donald McGill was well educated, and had a wide variety of interests throughout his life, including medicine, biology, astronomy, anthropology and cricket. It is clear that, in addition to his artistic abilities, he was an able student with a keen interest in academic subjects and this had been recognised at an early age when he was nominated as a ‘scholar’ by a shareholder in the Blackheath Proprietary School. In the opinion of his younger daughter, he should have become a teacher ‘because he always explained things so well – but he was mad about sport’. Unfortunately, this passion for sport and a tendency not to ‘make a fuss’ led to him having his left foot amputated after a rugby injury at school. Although in pain, he never complained and walked without limping, so many people were unaware that he had an artificial foot.
He was born in the middle of the ‘respectable’ Victorian era, and his father died when he was 8. He and his three brothers and three sisters were brought up by his mother in an upper middle class area. One of her grand-daughters remember her as being ‘very sweet and very smart’ and having very definite views! When, in 1900, Donald married Florence Hurley, one of the daughters of the owner and manager of a music hall, albeit one of the more ‘respectable’ ones, one wonders whether his mother would have considered it a ‘suitable’ match. Donald and Florence went on to have a long and happy marriage which produced two daughters, and Florence’s background was to be a big asset in Donald’s work. He loved the world of the music hall and many of his ideas came from it and from the people who frequented it.
Donald was diligent about everything he did, including his role as a father, and ensured that both his daughters received a good education. As children, they learned to be quiet around the house when their father was ‘thinking’ (coming up with ideas and writing captions), but once the artwork had begun and Donald was painting, they were allowed into the front room where he worked, and he liked them to read to him. He would make them laugh by pulling the faces of the various characters he was working on. However, they were embarrassed by the postcards themselves and, in McGill’s words, ‘would run like stags whenever they passed a comic postcard shop’. Sensitive to his daughters’ finer feelings, Donald McGill would often be a bit secretive about what he did for a living.
It would be unfair to say that Donald McGill had no head for business – his academic abilities would suggest that he would have been more than capable of dealing with the intricacies of running a company. Perhaps it was just that this ‘courtly Victorian gentleman’ was more interested in other areas, and preferred to leave the cut and thrust of the business world to those whose temperaments were more suited to it. The obvious care and attention to detail that went into his designs, particularly during the earlier part of his career, suggests that he enjoyed using his artistic talents to earn a living, and he does not appear to have expected any payment or royalties over and above the flat rate paid per design that was the norm for the postcard designers of the time. Even when the popularity of his designs grew rapidly in the 1930s and 40s, he was still being paid per design, the copyright of which would then belong to the publisher. It was the publisher who would then have been the one to reap the financial rewards from the thousands of postcards that were produced from each one.
As was usual at the time, Donald worked on a freelance basis. The postcard industry allowed him to draw caracitures, which he loved to do, and it appears that happy working relationships were important to him. The first company he designed for was the Pictorial Postcard Company, owned by Max Honnest-Reddlich. After four years however, the company was taken over by the Hutson brothers, but Donald McGill did not like their drinking and womanising habits nor their tendency to produce a lower standard of postcard. As soon as it could be arranged, he only worked for them when obliged to do so by the terms of his original contract. One of the customers of the Pictorial Postcard Company, a gentleman of German-Jewish extraction by the name of Joseph Ascher, was in agreement with Donald regarding the Hutson brothers’ behaviour. Donald began to design for Ascher and they made a ‘gentleman’s agreement’ whereby Donald would produce a certain number of designs per week. This arrangement suited both of them very well, and Donald probably would have continued to work for Ascher indefinitely had it not been for the fact that, in 1914, he was interned on the Isle of Man in as an ‘enemy alien’.
Donald subsequently designed postcards for Robert McCrumb who owned and ran the Inter Art Company with his wife, and this proved to be a long and happy association, lasting for 17 years. However, censorship issues made McCrumb increasingly cautious and this frustrated Donald – ‘there was a clean-up and they would not let me draw people with red noses, women in bathing costumes with cleavage, it was so ridiculous I resigned’. Donald then continued to work for various companies, still on a freelance basis.
After his internment on the Isle of Man, Joseph Ascher had returned to Germany, but with the rise of the Nazi party he found himself in increasing danger. Donald and his son-in-law helped Ascher to gain entry back into England and, in 1936, Ascher started ‘D. Constance Ltd.’. It was with Ascher that Donald was to have his longest working relationship, once again on the basis of a ‘gentleman’s agreement’. There was no doubt that Joseph Ascher was a good businessman, often managing to get orders in advance for the following season, and often for cards that had not yet even been printed (he would take Donald’s artwork with him to show to prospective buyers). He employed a few ‘travellers’, but promoted the ‘New McGill Series’ himself and gained 80% of the sales. He recognised that Donald was a talented artist and used the ‘Donald McGill’ name to promote these designs – and as the artist was as loyal and reliable as Donald, Ascher did very nicely for himself in the process. There is no doubt that Ascher brought McGill’s artistic talents to the attention of the public and that perhaps, without him, Donald would not have been so well-known, but the recognition he received was not matched by any significant increase in earnings. In fact, Ascher informed Donald that D. Constance Ltd. was struggling just before the war, when sales of his postcards appear to have been booming.
In 1939, with paper in increasingly short supply and the postcard industry struggling, Donald decided to retire with his wife to Guildford. However, after only one year he was finding it difficult to make ends meet and took a temporary job as a clerk for the Ministry of Labour.
In 1944 he started drawing again, producing designs for D. Constance Ltd. Despite their long association, Donald McGill appears not to have questioned Joseph Ascher’s business practises, partly, maybe, because Ascher had a brash and pushy side to his character – various comments show that he was either very much liked or disliked. It is certain that he could have been a difficult man to deal with, particularly if money matters were raised. He did pass one share each of D. Constance Ltd. to Maidment and McGill, but these so-called ‘gifts’ were purely illusory. Each share transfer had a note on the back stating that the recipient remained ‘a mere nominee’ of the transferor, and had no material interest in the Company. This was done after Ascher’s second wife died – she had willed her shares to Ascher – in order to comply with company law. The headed notepaper used by Ascher in the late 1940s-early 50s did not include his own name, but read ‘D. Constance Ltd. Directors: Donald McGill. E. Maidment’. They were each given a bonus of £500 for the year 1950.
In April of that year, Joseph Ascher started investing in property, buying houses and converting them into ‘flatlets’, and his attention, and that of his accountant, was increasingly diverted away from D. Constance Ltd. He employed Ernest Maidment to collect rents from his tenants, and Donald McGill was given a flat to live in rent-free in one of his properties (36 Christchurch Road), a paid telephone, and his tax, such as it was, taken care of. In documents found after Ascher’s death, it appears that 36 Christchurch Road may have been bomb damaged, and was damp and in a bad state of repair. Also, like other properties owned by Ascher, it was overcrowded and in need of complete redecoration. At the time of Ascher’s death in 1951, the accounts of the company were found to be almost three years in arrears, and in a terrible mess, particularly as Ascher liked to deal in cash and would ‘divert’ funds from D. Constance Ltd. to his new ventures and personal interests. Donald McGill certainly would not have approved of Ascher’s ‘unorthodox’ business practices. Being an intelligent man, he must have suspected that things were not quite right – it could be that he decided to turn a blind eye and to concentrate instead on his work as an artist rather than risk upsetting whatever working relationship he had with Ascher.
It was very unfortunate that the affairs of D. Constance Ltd. had been left in such a mess, and that this coincided with the comic card industry becoming increasingly disrupted by the chaos brought about by the varying opinions of postcard Censoring Committees. This resulted in the ‘show’ trial at Lincoln just 3 years later. At the age of 76, Donald McGill joined Ernest Maidment in managing D. Constance Ltd. and trying to sort out the problems left behind by Ascher. Shortly afterwards, Donald’s wife became very ill, and he agreed to a cut in salary while he took time off to care for her. She died the following year. In order to try and establish some clear guidelines for censorship and restore some sort of order to the postcard industry, Donald and Ernest Maidment offered their assistance in the setting up of a Censorship Committee, providing copies of all the cards published by D. Constance Ltd. together with the judgements made on them by the self-regulating Isle of Man Censoring Committee. When he was summoned to appear at the 1954 Lincoln trial, it is known that Donald was apprehensive; he was completely prepared to defend his designs against the accusation that they were ‘obscene’, but concerned that the trial might bring to light the extent to which he had been being ‘taken advantage of’ by his employer. He wrote ‘it would be very damaging to my credit and prestige if it now appeared that I had been for many years a sort of underpaid hack or sweated labour. It would also be unpleasant if this got about among my friends and acquaintances – and the tradespeople’. Together with Ernest Maidment, Donald McGill continued to manage D. Constance Ltd., still designing cards and involving himself in censorship issues.
He was later asked to give evidence before the House Select Committee in order to amend the 1857 Obscene Publications Act, which he did, as he felt that a national system of censorship could not work due to the vagaries of individual interpretation. The subsequent amendment of the Act meant that censorship was relaxed and novels such as ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ were made available to the general public for the first time.
After his death in 1962, McGill’s designs were still published and sold by D. Constance Ltd. but were gradually phased out and replaced by more modern designs. Production of them eventually came to a halt in 1968.
Donald’s original artworks, for which he had been paid a few pounds each during his lifetime, now sell for thousands of pounds at leading auction houses such as Sotheby’s. Towards the end of his life, the number of designs Donald McGill produced declined, due to his age and ill health. When he died, aged 87, Donald left behind 200 unfinished sketches and postcard designs for the following season. He was an atheist and is buried in an unmarked grave within a private family plot in Streatham Cemetery. In his later years, he was interviewed on television and admitted ‘I’m not proud of myself, I always wanted to do something better. I’m really a serious minded man underneath – I would have liked to have done sporting caricatures like Tom Webster or even oil paintings, if I’d had my way’