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Looking For Madge Gill

December 16, 2018
by Sophie Dutton

Prior to a major exhibition next summer, curator Sophie Dutton tells the story of East London-born artist Madge Gill, and appeals for anyone with a connection to this enigmatic woman to get in touch.

Madge Gill (photograph courtesy of Getty)

Four years ago, my father told me about the vast and incredible collection of nearly two thousand drawings he had seen stashed away in Newham Council’s archive, all created by a former East Londoner, the artist Madge Gill (1882-1961). The idea of anyone being inspired to make such a vast amount of work fascinated me and, a little while later, I contacted the council. They arranged for me to view a number of her postcards and drawings in Stratford Library. These minute cards were filled from edge to edge with what I now recognise as Madge Gill’s free-flowing drawing technique.

Mostly in black and white, these drawings often feature a girl’s face or figure surrounded by repetitive patterns of broken or swirling lines and checkerboards. They are mesmerising and quite blew me away. Madge Gill’s work is widely recognised among those interested in ‘Outsider Art’ but little known in the places she lived or was connected to. I was inspired to undertake a journey of my own to find out as much as I could about this mysterious artist.

Subsequently, I have visited many archive or collections, and spoken with many people and organisations, recording any information they could offer me about Madge Gill. With each conversation I learnt a little more. Madge Gill’s story is certainly not a fairy tale and, although hers was a difficult biography to uncover, it reveals that her artwork was a testament to inner strength. She possessed a natural creativity, constantly teaching herself new skills in drawing and embroidery, which led her to produce a seemingly endless wealth of artworks.

Madge Gill was an outstanding exponent of mediumistic art and remains one of the foremost British ‘Outsider’ artists. Christened Maud Ethel Eades in Walthamstow, Gill was born illegitimate and placed into the care of Dr Barnardo’s at the age of ten. From there she was enrolled in the British Home Children scheme for orphans and sent to Canada, where she spent a significant part of her teenage years. Enduring hard labour and poor living conditions, she saved everything she earned to return to Britain.

On her return to London in 1900, she called herself ‘Madge’ and began to work as a Nurse at Whipps Cross hospital in Leyton, marrying her cousin Tom Gill, with whom she had three sons. The second, Reggie, died in the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918 and the following year Madge gave birth to a longed-for daughter who was stillborn. Complications proved almost fatal and a lengthy illness resulted in the loss of her left eye. Her grief manifested itself in deep depression and in 1922 she underwent treatment in Hove for an undiagnosed psychiatric condition.

It was at this time, on 3rd March 1920, that Gill was first ‘possessed’ by Myrninerest, her spirit-guide. From the age of thirty-eight, she maintained contact with this phantom for the rest of her life. In these trances, she produced an extraordinary number of artworks: in ink on paper and calico, and in multiples of fifty or a hundred postcards populated with the faces of young girls. She also produced rugs, hangings and dresses, knitted, crocheted and woven with a dexterity inherited from her mother, a skilled needlewoman, and encouraged by Barnardo’s who trained girls in such commercially viable work.

Today Madge Gill is one of the world’s most highly regarded ‘Outsider’ artists, represented in all the major international collections, including Jean Dubuffet’s Collection de l’Art Brut in Lausanne and the l’Aracine Collection at the Musee d’Art Moderne in Lille. Yet the largest collection of her work resides in the place where she is perhaps least known – in East London where she once lived and where nearly two thousand of her works are owned by Newham Council.

Is there anyone who knew or remembers Madge Gill? Did anyone visit her son Laurie Gill’s umbrella shop in Plashet Grove, Newham? Does anyone recall seeing her huge calico artworks hung in the East End Academy at the Whitechapel Gallery in 1938? Does anyone have letters from Madge or her son? Be aware that Madge rarely signed her art, and her drawings were often only marked with a cross or signed by ‘Myrninerest.’

I am seeking anyone with a connection to Madge Gill, anyone who knows anything about her work or anyone who owns any of her artwork. Many of her creations, especially her embroideries have gone astray and it would be wonderful to get a true sense of the quantity and variety of work that exists. Any information will help to expand her story and may be included in a book and the exhibition of her work that I am curating next year.

Please email me: info@worksby-madgegill.co

Madge Gill at work on one of her embroideries (photograph courtesy of Getty)

Six drawings (courtesy of Christies)

An example of Madge Gill’s ‘spirit writing’ (courtesy of Borough of Newham Heritage & Archives)

Madge Gill at work on a large tapestry (photograph courtesy of Getty)

Six abstract patterns (courtesy of Rosebery’s Auctions)

Madge Gill (1882-1961) (photograph courtesy of Getty)

Click here to learn more about Sophie Dutton’s Madge Gill project

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6 Responses leave one →
  1. December 16, 2018

    Extraordinary. Thank you for publishing this article.

  2. Richard Smith permalink
    December 16, 2018

    I very much enjoyed today’s post GA. Madge Gill appears to have been a unique and original talent and I thank you for telling me about her.

  3. Gayle Thorsen permalink
    December 16, 2018

    She’s utterly fascinating, and her work so original and diverse. Her work and her life deserve much greater exposure. Thank you for this post. I hope it yields responses that reveal more about her artistic life. For those of us who won’t be able to attend any exhibitions or view the mural, please post an update about this effort when it’s nearer completion.

  4. December 16, 2018

    Thank you for championing this unique artist — the photos and drawings you’ve shared today are compelling and I look forward to learning more and more about Madge Gill.

    It’s a distressing common theme in Outsider Art — a lifetime of artistic output comes “this close” to being discarded, scattered and overlooked.

    Thanks for shining a light, as ever.
    I felt great optimism reading this post today — I think you’re in the early stages of a remarkable
    discovery. Please keep us informed and uplifted.

  5. Marcia Howard permalink
    December 17, 2018

    Wow! What an amazing talent.

  6. Jill Wilson permalink
    December 17, 2018

    Mmmmm…fascinating stuff. Her style reminds me of Gustav Klimt. I look forward to hearing of any further developments.

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