Your place to explore new perspectives on British art from 1900 to now. Through interviews, films, image galleries and essays, we uncover the creative lives of the people behind the art on our walls.
Madge Gill: Outsider Artist and Visionary
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Ahead of our exhibition, All Souls: The Outside In Co-Commission 2020, author, illustrator and artist Ayshea Ahmed gives us some background on the artist who inspired this year’s co-commission – Madge Gill.
Ayshea is on a mission to uncover and promote the lives and work of lesser-known, often overlooked artists – including Madge Gill. Her recently published book The Wonderful World of Madge Gill is a joyous, colourful, illustrated exploration of the Outsider artist’s unique story.
In today’s blog, Ayshea explores Gill’s work and why she found herself drawn to her work. All of the illustrations are taken from the book, and created by Ayshea.
Night after night and day after day, Madge Gill would dip her pen into an ink pot and begin to draw. Using a specially constructed roller system, on huge, long swathes of calico, her hands would move intently as the metal nib scratched against the surface of the fabric.
With the use of only one eye and often in total darkness, Gill would draw the same thing repetitively. Ethereal female faces and forms fading in and out of chasms of inky, architectural webs of crosshatching, staircases and voids. All of this, deposited onto the cloth in an elegant, striking hand. She explained that she herself was not the creator of these works but merely a conduit for a spirit from another realm, who flowed through her hands to produce these mystical landscapes.
Born into Victorian London and admitted to an orphanage at the age of nine, Madge Gill’s body of work, created in unison with her sprit guide, whom she named ‘Myrninerest’, is amongst the most extraordinary and enigmatic examples of Outsider Art in the world today.
After being despatched by the orphanage to Canada at fourteen, she lived out her teenage years as a servant and farm labourer. The work was poorly paid but within five years Madge had saved enough money to return to England, whereupon she took up a strong interest in the Spiritual, including Tarot cards, seances and fortune telling.
A few years later Madge married her cousin Tom and together they had three sons. Sadly, they suffered a litany of tragedies, including the loss of their beloved son Reggie, aged eight, to the 1918 flu pandemic. Soon after, Madge also gave birth to a still born daughter and became perilously ill, resulting in the removal of one of her eyes.
One day in 1920, at the age of 38, Madge looked up into the sky, where she was greeted with an incredible vision of a crucified, floating Jesus, surrounded by angels and a great number of children. This sighting was the catalyst for Madge’s sudden possession by Myrninerest under whose behest she began to draw, paint, sew and write. It has been speculated that the name given to her guide was her own secret language for ‘My Inner Rest’.
Throughout her life, Gill’s work appeared in many East End Academy exhibitions, where despite garnering many generous offers, she steadfastly refused to sell a single piece. Madge explained that they were the not hers to sell but rather the property of Myrninerest.
Upon her death in 1961, aged 79, hundreds of artworks were found intact, squirreled away, within her home. The majority of the work was donated to Newham Council where it is still carefully preserved to this day.
They say that the subject finds the Artist rather than the other way around and I certainly feel that Madge reached out to me when I first saw her work in 2011. Like a beautiful perfume that lingers on the skin, I could not stop returning to the sensory atmosphere of the images that I had seen. I wanted to do more with this and explore further into her life and art.
My research lead me to imagine various scenarios such as the vision of Christ and Madge sitting in bed working away in darkness. I wanted to share her incredible story with others and create a book that was highly visual in of itself.
Afterall, what more fitting way to take readers on a journey through the life of an artist who was such an unapologetic and fearless visionary.
Ayshea’s book, The Wonderful World of Madge Gill is now available direct from the publisher Cranthorpe Milner, or from Amazon. It is the first instalment in a series of books about lesser-known artists. To purchase a special signed copy of the book, contact Ayshea directly on Instagram, @MadgeGillBook.