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Remembering Madge Gill

September 15, 2019
by the gentle author

Last December, Sophie Dutton put out a call in these pages for anyone who knew the artist Madge Gill (1882–1961), as part of her research for curating the major exhibition MADGE GILL : MYRNINEREST running currently at William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow until 22nd September.

More than thirty people got in touch and today we publish Sophie’s interview with Michael Morgan Theis who knew Madge Gill as a youth.

During the thirties Madge Gill became friends with Louise Morgan, a journalist from The News Chronicle, and they corresponded regularly for the rest of Madge’s life. Then, when Sophie Dutton contacted Louise’s son Michael, it became apparent that he also enjoyed a friendship with the artist.

Now ninety-two years old, Michael was born in London within the sound of Bow Bells. He first met Madge Gill as a child but continued to know her through the post-war years. 

Michael Morgan Theis

Michael – My mother was a journalist who worked as a special correspondent at The News Chronicle from the early thirties and kept her nose very close to the ground. It was around this time she heard about Madge Gill and I believe she first visited her in the mid thirties.

My mother was a feminist and always interested in what women were doing. It was even more outlandish in the twenties and thirties than it is now, and God knows it is tough enough for women now. Madge was more than just a story to her, there was a friendship along with a lot of letters and postcards sent between them over the years.

Sophie – When did you first meet Madge Gill?

Michael – Around 1937-38, my mother took me with her to Madge’s house on Plashet Grove. I was immediately fascinated by her, just the way she would sit at the table with a mug of tea and start drawing in one corner, especially when she was doing the long mural fabrics. She would just go. There did not seem to be any plan for anything at all.

After this meeting, I started going to her house by myself. She would not talk much but I was fascinated just watching. As a ten or eleven-year-old, I was happy there until my mother would come round banging on the door to take me back home to Central London.

Sophie – Would you sit with her for quite a long time while she worked?

Michael – Given half the chance, yes. In 1940, I was evacuated to America. When I came back in mid-1944 I often found myself at a loose end so, during these times, I used to cycle or motorcycle to her home on Plashet Grove. I was always welcome. I remember filling hours just sitting and watching her producing things. Whenever I went down to visit I would always get a postcard from Madge afterwards, saying, ‘Thanks for coming’ on the front with a drawing on the back.

We would talk a little but she really did not talk very much, least of all about herself. She would often mutter away as she was drawing but to me it was just background noise. It was just like free-fall talk. Rather than looking for a reason in her method, I was just fascinated to watch her actually doing it. Seeing her hand dipping the pen into the ink and the actual drawing. It was a picture in the making, like a cartoon – a moving cartoon.

I felt I knew her and felt I knew what she was driving at. What I felt was the inside of her head all coming out and it was a fascinating process to watch. I liked the fact she started in one tiny bit of the fabric, went on straight through to the end, and it resulted in one whole entity.

Sophie – You mentioned Madge did not really talk very much while she was making work, do you remember any conversations or anything specific you might have talked about?

Michael – She told me about buying ‘balloon cloth,’ which were these long cloths. She said she bought them at a surplus sale just after the First World War. She thought they were marvellous to draw on, rather than being stuck with a piece of paper which had very finite limits. On this sort of material she could just go on and on. It was perfect for drawing all her staircases, which led to doors, which led onto something else which continued onto something else.

Sophie – Sitting there with her, how would you describe her drawing technique?

Michael – Entirely a stream of consciousness. I did not get a feeling anything was planned at all. I watched her drawing one of her grand staircases and I do not think she had any idea what was going to be at the top. There is one I particularly remember where the doors open and a sunrise is coming up behind, but going out to nothing. There was nothing there, I presumed it was going out to heaven. Whether she presumed that as well I do not know… probably.

Sophie Did you see her creating any of her automatic writing or embroideries?

Michael – I never saw her doing any of that, although I remember my mother talking about the automatic writing. Reading the letters from her now I can see she had a side, but I was never aware of when I would meet with her.

It was a side I had not appreciated—the mystical side and the way she used names of saints that came to her while she was working. My relationship with her was very matter of fact, perhaps she knew I was not interested in that kind of thing.

I just loved the drawings, going from one line to the next, almost forgetting where she was and starting again. Some of her letters to my mother are just like her drawings—words of her own invention, very florid with swirling movements.

Sophie – What was Madge Gill’s home like?

Michael – It was a terraced house with a small passageway that led out to the kitchen and there was an upstairs, but I never went there. I never saw inside the front room, I just went straight to the kitchen.

I do not remember any of her work being pinned up on the walls. It was a standard East End house with a few framed pictures on the wall. It could have been anywhere. All those terraced houses were very much the same.

I remember everything being quite tickety-boo. Nothing was misplaced in the kitchen, except for around the table where everything was laid out, filled with papers and inks and pens -whatever she was working on. There seemed to be a few things around that she – perhaps – was using for reference. Everything was modest and she used standard small bell-bottomed bottles of India ink.

I never saw her wear the embroidered pieces she made, I just remember her being in a plain frock, jumper or blouse with her hair down.

Sophie – She was known to practice as a medium. Did you ever witness her practicing or did she ever predict anything for you?

Michael – I remember my mother talking about Madge Gill’s spirituality and  I have read about it since her death, but I did not see that side of her. I was totally uninterested in it because mysticism has never really fitted with my life. I am a bit of a cynic. I am not very imaginative when it comes to taking things into places I cannot know and never can know.

However, I have always wondered -why was she doing this? What was driving her to do it? She did seem like somebody driven while she was working. I guess you could turn around and say, ‘Well she was in a trance’ or ‘She was this’ or ‘She was that’ but I did not think she was at the time and, if she was, I just didn’t notice it.

Sophie – How do you think she would feel about her work being exhibited now?

Michael – Like any artist, I feel she would like to be recognised. I cannot really answer that question myself though. She produced things, got on with it and then moved onto the next thing. I do not think she ever had an idea about exhibiting. I think it was other people like my mother or Roger Cardinal who were getting that side of things going.

Sophie – She was working outside the art world and making work through her own compulsion. She has often been categorised as an ‘outsider artist’ but how would you describe her artwork?

Michael – I remember I was not happy when I first saw her work described as ‘outsider art,’ because she was not an outsider. She was Madge Gill and she was unique. I do not think it is a good description for anybody really.

Sophie –What intrigues you about her artwork?

Michael – I was always amazed by the skill of what she was working on, whether it was a postcard or a sheet of paper, which all seemed to come from within herself.

I liked having it around. The only reason I did not keep any of it in the end is because my wife could not stand it. She felt it was all spiritualist and it was not her scene at all. She was interested in things that were revolutionary, without realising how revolutionary Madge was in her own way.

Sophie – Why would you describe her as revolutionary?

Michael – She was unique and she put her own stamp on everything she did. I never felt Madge Gill’s work was weird. I was just fascinated by it. There was a bit of magic to it, you could not help but ask where it all came from.

Recently discovered tapestries by Madge Gill on display at the William Morris Gallery

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

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

Sophie Dutton’s book about her researches into Madge Gill’s life and work is available from Rough Trade Books

Take a look at Sophie’s earlier article

Looking for Madge Gill

You may also like to read about

Grace Oscroft, Artist

Rose Henriques, Artist

Dorothy Bishop, Artist

Pearl Binder, Artist

Dorothy Rendell, Artist

Hester Mallin, Artist

4 Responses leave one →
  1. catherineap permalink
    September 15, 2019

    Wow, her work is amazing, so modern looking. I wish I could come to England to see it in person but alas, it’s too far to come from San Francisco. There’s a wonderful photo on the William Morris Gallery website of Gill wearing a dress made of one of her tapestries.

  2. Pamela Traves permalink
    September 15, 2019

    How Gifted Madge Gill was. It is So Beautiful Her is. Thank You So Very Much!!!???????

  3. Saba permalink
    September 15, 2019

    I would like to see more of the drawings and read more about the tapestries.

  4. Ron Wilkinson permalink
    September 16, 2019

    Beautiful stuff, I did not know of her. Thanks

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