Pearsall, Phyllis (1906–1996)

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Pearsall, Phyllis (1906–1996)

English artist, writer and mapmaker. Born Phyllis Gross in London, England, in 1906; died in Shoreham, England, on August 28, 1996; daughter of Alexander Gross (1880–1958, a Hungarian-born map publisher of Jewish descent) and Isabelle Crowley (1886–1938, a playwright and suffragist); sister of Anthony Gross (1905–1995, a painter); married Richard Pearsall, in 1928.

Phyllis Pearsall was born in London in 1906. Her father Alexander Gross, of Jewish descent, was a Hungarian-born map publisher. Her mother Isabelle Crowley , part Irish, part Anglo-Italian Catholic, was a playwright and suffragist whose feminist play Break the Walls Down opened at the Savoy in 1913. Phyllis's brother was Anthony Gross, an artist. Pearsall was 16 in 1922 when her parents separated. Bankrupt, her father emigrated to America where he continued to make maps in New York. Her mother, meanwhile, lived with Alfred Everett Orr, an American portrait painter.

Pearsall, who wrote, painted and traveled, took on the task of map making after getting lost in London in 1935 while consulting the most recent street map available—which was 20 years old. From her father, she borrowed a draughtsman, James Duncan, who assisted her in cataloguing 23,000 streets for the first edition of her Geographer's A–Z Street Atlas. Pearsall worked 18 hours a day; by the time the atlas was completed in 1936, she had walked 3,000 miles to compile it. When the book-buying establishment greeted the work with no more than apathy, the Geographer's A–Z Map Company was formed by Pearsall, who had 10,000 copies of her work printed, 250 of which she delivered in a wheelbarrow to W.H. Smith on a sale-or-return basis. Highly successful, the book served as Pearsall's model for additional maps of other British cities which followed. The company's prosperity allowed her to continue her writing and painting, endeavors at which she also reaped rewards. Pearsall was philanthropic with her shares in the lucrative Map Company, passing them in the 1960s to a trust which benefited her employees. She died on August 28, 1996. Her famous atlas, considered indispensable, can be found in homes, cars, and newsagents throughout London.

suggested reading:

Pearsall, Phyllis. From Bedsitter to Household Name: The Personal Story of A–Z Maps. Seven Oaks, England: Geographer's A–Z Map Co., 1990.

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