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Madge Gill, ‘Untitled’

by Roger Cardinal

It was in March 1919 that the London housewife Madge Gill (1882-1961) discovered her vocation as both an artist and a psychic medium, when she experienced an overwhelming illumination characterized by visions and ecstatic feelings, and was initiated into mediumship by a spirit-guide named Myrninerest. Hitherto, her life had been little more than a cycle of brusque disruptions, cruel disappointments and physical traumas. Born illegitimate, she had been raised by foster parents, then assigned to an orphanage before being sent as a teenager to Canada to work on farms in Ontario. Back in England, she married her cousin Tom, by whom she had three sons, one of whom died in the 1918 influenza pandemic; she also had a stillborn daughter and suffered a series of extreme ailments, eventually losing an eye and all her teeth. When relations with her husband deteriorated in the aftermath of the First World War, she sought solace in clairvoyant experiments that resulted in inspired art, yet fell into a severe depression exacerbated by poverty. Luckily, a sympathetic psychiatrist helped her avoid being labelled a lunatic, and she managed to ‘normalize' her existence at the expense of devoting every spare moment to her compulsive artmaking.

While at first she produced embroidered rugs, quilts and patchwork dresses, Madge Gill's preferred format soon became the ink drawing, painstakingly executed on blank postcards, sheets of paper or cardboard, and lengthy rolls of untreated calico. Her elective colour was black, but she also exploited other inks (red, blue, yellow, green), mixing them to produce variant hues. Her tireless improvisations have an hallucinatory quality, each image teeming with checkerboard patterns that suggest resplendent interiors full of giddy stairways, alcoves, casements and mosaic floors. As if borne on a flood of swirling doodles, the startled faces of hundreds of females gaze out at the viewer.

Gill rarely titles her pictures and never identifies these women, who nevertheless adopt varied attitudes and postures, now meek and destitute, now haughty and opulent. Evolving slowly through the four decades of her creative career, they become more and more assertive, even adopting a stylish swagger by the 1950s. The Pallant House Gallery drawing presents a figure typical of this period, a self-possessed lady whose glorious tumbling hair and rich costume mark her out as an exceptional being. The flowing gown of this queenly personage is inseparable from the palatial space in which she resides, while her body is elided, registered purely as untouched whiteness. Strange motions of her hands, half-hidden amid ornamented cuffs, seem to betray some urgent emotion. The figure's emphatic eyes transmit a mesmerizing power, even a summons. Might this be Myrninerest, Gill's otherworldly guide and imperious mentor? Or is it a self-portrait, the celebration of a woman entirely in command who inhabits a sovereign space of her own making, an unearthly realm beyond adversity and frailty?