© Roger Cardinal

THE LIFE OF MADGE GILL 
by Roger Cardinal

Madge Gill (1882-1961) was an outstanding exponent of mediumistic art and remains one of the foremost British Outsider artists. She was born in the East End of London, where she spent the greater part of her life. Her birth certificate bears the name Maude Ethel Eades alongside that of her mother, Emma Eades, yet lacks all mention of a father. Given the opprobrium attaching in Victorian times to an illegitimate birth, Madge spent her early childhood sequestered from the world, brought up by her mother and Carrie, her aunt, under the strict eye of her grandfather. There came a time when the family decided it could no longer cope with this embarrassing child, and, even though her mother was still alive, the nine-year-old was committed to Dr Barnardo’s orphanage at Barkingside. Five years later, she was transported by ship to Canada with hundreds of other juveniles, beneficiaries of a large-scale child-labour scheme devised by the orphanage to offer youngsters a fresh start in the New World. The teenaged Madge became a domestic servant and babysitter on a series of Ontario farms. Records show that it was common for such young immigrants to be maltreated, and there is little doubt that Madge nourished a fervent longing to return to England. At the age of eighteen, she succeeded in re-crossing the Atlantic and, once back in London, found work as a nurse at Whipps Cross hospital, Leytonstone. For a while she lived with her aunt Kate, who introduced her to Spiritualism and mediumistic practices. In 1907, Madge married Tom Gill, Kate’s son and thus her cousin. The marriage turned out badly, and relations became unpleasant. Within six years, Madge gave birth to three sons, Laurie, Reggie and Bob; the second boy died in the influenza pandemic of 1918. A year later, Madge gave birth for the last time, but her longed-for daughter was stillborn, her body perfect but for a disfigurement down one side. (There is no record of any name being given to this child.) Madge herself came close to death, and a subsequent lengthy illness resulted in the loss of her left eye, which was replaced with a glass one. 

It was some weeks after her return to health, on 3 March 1920, that Madge Gill was first ‘possessed’ by Myrninerest, her spirit-guide. Madge was now thirty-eight, and her contact with this phantom figure would be maintained without interruption throughout the rest of her life. In his 1926 text Myrninerest the Spheres, her son Laurie bears witness to his mother’s first experience of delirious trance-states, which she found overwhelming and frightening. He evokes a whole gamut of creative modes at that time: drawing, writing, knitting, crochet-work, weaving, piano-playing. All this took place under the auspices of Myrninerest, whose signature appeared regularly on the drawings. In 1922, Madge underwent treatment at a clinic for women’s diseases at Hove, on the south coast. While there, she confided a packet of drawings to a woman doctor, who brought them to the notice of the Society for Psychical Research in London. A document in its archives records the expert opinion of a Research Officer, who judged the drawings to be “more of an inspirational than of an automatic kind”. 

Madge Gill’s vicissitudes were far from over. Relations with her husband had deteriorated for some time past, and he had begun to seek female company outside the home. Young Bob was injured in a motorcycle accident and remained an invalid for two years: his mother devoted whole nights to sitting by his bedside, usually drawing or writing. In 1932, Tom was hospitalized, with a diagnosis of cancer. It was in this same year, at the age of fifty, that Madge participated for the first time in an annual exhibition of art by East End amateurs, mounted by the Whitechapel Gallery. She showed Reincarnation, a calico roll densely worked in coloured inks, which attracted national press coverage. Following Tom’s death in 1933, Madge continued to live with her sons, all three bound by a deep mutual affection. Until he died in 1948, her brother-in-law Bert Gill also lodged in the same house; he was an ardent follower of astrology. 

From the 1930s on, Madge Gill enjoyed a reputation as a medium in her Upton Park neighbourhood. She is said to have organized séances at her home, drawing up horoscopes and offering spontaneous prophecies. It is not known for how long she conducted séances, though it seems likely that they lapsed after a few years. What continued unabated was her artistic production. While she still made heavily decorated cushions, quilts and dresses, her principal medium became ink-drawing, executed on postcards, sheets of paper or card, and long rolls of untreated calico cloth. Gill’s frenetic improvizations have an almost hallucinatory quality, each surface being filled with checkerboard patterns that suggest giddy, quasi-architectural spaces. Afloat upon these swirling proliferations are the pale faces of discarnate and nameless women, sketched perfunctorily, albeit with an apparent concern for beauty, and with startled expressions. It is tempting to interpret them in relation to Gill’s biography: is she referring to her lost daughter, her beloved aunts, or to some feminine ideal? Are these in a sense self-portraits, or rather: attempts to stabilize her own fragile being, as it were through fleeting snapshots? Another reading equates the faces with Myrninerest, envisaged as the artist’s otherworldly alter ego, immune to the traumas of actual life. 

Gill’s craftsmanship is marked by unswerving perseverance. In a single evening, she was capable of getting through a dozen or more blank postcards, dating them conscientiously and adding Myrninerest’s familiar signature. To help her tackle the calico rolls, Laurie rigged up a mechanism which enabled the untreated areas to be exposed section by section, as the work proceeded. Madge was forced to stand upright for hours, wrestling with such technical problems as the scratchy surface and the tendency for ink to trickle downwards from the lifted pen. Unable to see the complete rolls inside the house, she would get her sons to rig them up in the back garden. In 1939, she exhibited one at the Whitechapel Gallery which, at almost forty metres wide, was probably her largest work ever: it occupied an entire gallery wall. She continued to exhibit annually at the Whitechapel till 1947. It is said she once turned down the offer of a show in an illustrious West End gallery, explaining that her works could not be sold, since they all belonged to Myrninerest. Sceptics have interpreted this supernatural reference as a convenient alibi, a way of deflecting attention from a compulsion she could not control, yet which remained indispensable to her life. Through the years, Gill rarely parted with her pictures, so that her lifetime’s production remained largely intact, hoarded in the attic of her East Ham house. 

Thus is was that, for forty years, Madge Gill maintained the profile of the classic Outsider artist, pursuing a fertile and obstinate career with practically no audience and with no thought of selling her work. In 1950, her son Bob died; she had once prophesied that she would outlive him. Henceforth she would live alone with Laurie, always a loyal supporter of her artistry. She was now working on large sheets of card, completing them in batches of a hundred. She once confided to a cherished friend, a journalist called Louise Morgan, that every face she drew had significance, yet would say no more on the subject. One letter reveals that the artmaking had become a huge burden: “Dear Louise, I wish I could be normal”. Another letter speaks admiringly of the aged American naïve painter Grandma Moses. 

During her last decade, Gill suffered from several ailments, and became self-absorbed and cantankerous. Eventually she hardly left the house, watched over by the faithful Laurie. She ended up working through the night in her bedroom, leaning with her one good eye over her images and succumbing to a seductive auto-hypnosis which distanced her from reality. Some neighbors spoke of her disturbing gaze, her eccentric remarks, her apparently deranged or drunken behavior. In 1961, in her dark Victorian house on Plashet Grove, with its solid furniture, and its homemade carpets and quilts, Madge Gill breathed her last, ten days after her seventy-ninth birthday. A good deal of her artwork would pass into the public domain and reach the art market, to the good fortune of Art Brut collectors such as Jean Dubuffet. Laurie Gill made a formal donation of the remainder of his inheritance to the local authorities, with the result that over 200 items are conserved today in the Newham municipal archives. In 1968, a retrospective held at the Grosvenor Gallery in the West End meant that the artist finally received an honour she had refused in her lifetime. A selection from her work, including the magnificent calico The Crucifixion of the Soul, contributed to the success of the 1979 exhibition ‘Outsiders’ at the Hayward Gallery. Madge Gill’s works are now preserved in several public collections, including the Collection de l’Art brut in Lausanne, Switzerland, and the Aracine Collection in Lille, France.

© Roger Cardinal