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British artist. 1882 - 1961.

Madge Gill is one of the most striking of self-taught artists, now considered a major figure in the field of outsider art or art brut; she was a spirit medium who created enormously detailed ink drawings, apparently channelled from beyond the grave.

She was born Maude Ethel Eave in Great Portland Street, East London to a single mother, and suffered a harsh early life; when her mother died she was placed in an orphanage, aged nine. While still a child she was sent to Canada to work as a farmhand, which was not an unusual fate for orphans of the time.

Aged 19, she returned to London, where she lived with her aunt Kate, who was a keen practitioner of spiritualism (spiritism). Under her aunt's influence, Madge too became involved in the religion, which was founded in the nineteenth century and is based on the belief that it is possible for some people, called spirit mediums, to communicate with the dead by holding special meetings or seances.

She married her cousin Thomas Gill in 1907, and they had four children, two of whom died before reaching adulthood: one in the influenza epidemic of 1918 and the other in birth the following year. Soon after this she took ill, was confined to her bed for months, and lost the sight in her left eye.

It is these events which seemed to inspire her to start drawing. She was already a practicing spiritualist and this seems to have played a significant role in her art. At first she insisted she was not working in a mediumistic trance

I was in quite a normal state of mind and there was no suggestion of a "spirit" standing beside me. I simply felt inspired. I felt I was definitely guided by an unseen force, though I could not say what its actual nature was.
Later in her life, when she was more involved in spiritualism, she attributed her drawings more clearly to the supernatural, claiming to be channelling the images from a spirit guide called Myrninerest, and she often signed the spirit-guide's name on them.

After early experiments with knitting and embroidery, she found her true metier in ink drawing, sometimes in black and white but often using bright colours like reds, blues and purples. She worked with cheap materials, initially on paper and cardboard (from postcard size upwards), and moving on to increasingly large areas of calico fabric. She used rolls of cloth which she gradually covered in drawings, winding and unwinding them like scrolls. One of her biggest works on calico, entitled The Crucifixion of the Soul, measured 35 foot by 35 foot (11 m x 11 m).

Like many outsider artists (and in contrast to most academic modern art), her work is incredibly detailed. Her drawings tend to show women in elaborate costumes, garments which blend into the complex perspective-less backgrounds. The women are often surrounded by geometrical patterns like tiled floors or irregular networks of lines. Many of the pictures seem to show the same unnamed woman, possibly Gill or her lost daughter, an image that Gill repeated over and over again in her work.

The pictures seem to have been an obsession for her; she worked night after night, often by the light of an oil-lamp. Although she had begun work in her bed, she usually drew standing up. Of one busy period she said: "I simply could not leave it and I did on average 20 pictures a week, all in colour." The back of her postcards and smaller drawings were often covered with writing, strange messages in English and French about religion, the afterlife, and life on Mars.

Following her husband's death in the 1930s, she became more involved with the spiritualist movement, holding seances weekly. She drew extensively until her death in 1961, and exhibited in the East End of London at shows for amateur artists, but by choice sold very little of her work and turned down more prestigious exhibitions. She considered that the paintings belonged to Myrninerest rather than herself, and did not wish to take the credit.

Online bibliography (see the gallery websites for some of Gill's pictures)

  • James Brockway-Boxer. "Madge Gill". Henry Boxer Gallery website. 2001-2003. http://www.outsiderart.co.uk/gill.htm Geoff Cox. "Madge Gill". Bizarre. http://www.bizarremag.com/lives/gill.php
  • Robert Howard. "Psychiatry in pictures". The British Journal of Psychiatry. 182:1 (2003). http://bjp.rcpsych.org/cgi/content/full/182/1/1-a3
  • Petullo Art Collection. "Madge Gill". The Anthony Petullo Collection of Self-Taught and Outsider Art website. http://www.petulloartcollection.com/artistprofile.asp?refArtistID=20
  • Phyllis Kind Gallery. "Madge Gill". Phyllis Kind Gallery website. http://www.phylliskindgallery.com/self-taught/artbrut/mg/

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