The long overlooked artist made art despite the odds, creating work as a means of psychological repair
The mysterious and enigmatic artist Madge Gill (1882-1961) defied all expectations of being a working class woman in the early 20th century. She produced a seemingly endless wealth of unique artwork almost entirely away from the public eye. Gill had no formal training, she produced the work at home, on her own terms outside of the mainstream art world.
By the time Gill began creating work aged 38, her disjointed and eventful life had paved the way for her to begin an incredible creative journey. Born an illegitimate child in 1882 in Walthamstow, London, Madge Gill had a disjointed childhood and life of personal tragedy. It was these experiences that inspired her to begin making art, producing thousands of intricate ink drawings and embroideries, many of which reflected her obsession with spiritualism.
Gill’s childhood saw her move from Walthamstow, to Barkingside, and later on to Canada when she was 14 to work on a farm, after her family realised they weren’t willing to support her and placed her in an orphanage. Gill remained in Canada until she was 18, she moved back to London in October 1900 and became a nurse at Whipps Cross Hospital in Leytonstone.
A few years later she married her cousin, Tom Gill, and the couple went on to have three sons. However, the couple had a difficult marriage and suffered a number of tragedies. Their second son sadly died in 1918 during the influenza pandemic. Gill’s health deteriorated in the years to come with a lengthy illness resulting in the loss of her left eye.
It was around this time Gill, now 38, began to create her art, which often resulted in a flurry of seemingly unending drawing activity. This activity, Gill explained, was encouraged by a spirit guide she came to embody called Myrninerest. Shortly after the start of her prolific artistic production she gave birth to a stillborn girl in 1921. Her grief manifested itself in a deep depression and she underwent treatment in Hove for an undiagnosed psychiatric condition. Here she was encouraged to keep creating her artwork as a means of processing her traumatic experiences.
After finding this cathartic creative outlet, Gill continued to make vast amounts of work throughout the rest of her life. While living in Newham, Gill made intuitive work, skilfully exploring techniques and formats including paints, automatic writing, inks, textiles. Her instinct and eagerness to make is reflected in the variety of materials that formed the foundations of her work; she drew, wrote, painted, and stitched on whatever she could, from postcards to torn bed sheets to 100ft lengths of calico. Working to such enormous scales makes you wonder how far she could have gone on for if there was no boundary at all.
Her drawn works are predominantly monochromatic, intricate, and mesmerically repetitive, whilst her textiles are wildly colourful and made up of seemingly infinite free-flowing threads. Her artwork would often feature a young woman dressed in flowing robes, but she never gave any indication of who this figure was – perhaps it was the spirit ‘Myrninerest’ or even herself.
Today Madge Gill is one of the world’s most highly regarded ‘outsider’ artists, a term often used when referring to artists who have little or no contact with the mainstream art world. Gill is currently represented in many major international collections, however the largest collection of her work resides in the place where she is perhaps least known – in East London where she once lived. Nearly 2,000 thousand of her works are owned by Newham Council, shining a spotlight on the long overlooked artist who made art despite the odds.
To read more about Madge Gill’s life and hear about upcoming events please visit worksby-madgegill.co. Or pick up a copy of ‘Madge Gill by Myrninerest’, edited by Sophie Dutton and available from Rough Trade Books.