Issue 208
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Jul 23, 2019

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Madge Gill – an outsider who made it to the inside

Mary Gladstone on the work of an increasingly popular 'outsider' artist

SHOWING at the William Morris gallery in Walthamstow, north-east London, until September 22, is an exhibition of the work of Madge Gill, who lived from 1882 to 1961. Staged in the artist's home town, it is the most comprehensive show of her work to date, bringing together drawings, newly uncovered large-scale embroideries, textiles and objects, which many have never seen before.

Madge Gill was an exponent of mediumistic art, who believed her spirit guide, Myrninerest as she called it, was responsible for her creativity. She drew in a trance-like state, producing up to 100 images at a time, in black and white pen and ink drawings.

They often featured a girl's face or figure with swirling lines. Female images, thought to represent herself or her stillborn daughter, dominate Gill's art, their blank, staring eyes and flowing clothing accompanied by complex patterns.

Gill worked in different media: writing, knitting, weaving and crochet, transforming it into cushions, quilts and dresses, but her main interest was ink drawings on post cards, sheets of paper, cardboard and rolls of untreated calico.

In this show is a 30 ft long multi-coloured calico, 'The Crucifixion of the Soul'.

She demonstrated unswerving perseverance and could complete, in an evening, a dozen postcards. For her huge calico rolls hung vertically, she devised a mechanism that enabled her to work in sections, her sons rigging them up in the garden, but she had to stand for hours, wrestling with the problem of ink running down the calico's surface.

In 1939, Gill showed her largest work (40 metres wide), that occupied an entire wall at the Whitechapel Gallery.

Although she showed regularly at this venue until 1947, she turned down invitations to exhibit at other galleries, claiming her 'guide' owned her work and wouldn't like her to show it publicly.

Perhaps her reference to the supernatural was a way of avoiding the question of her uncontrollable passion for making art, which dominated her life. So, she hoarded her drawings in the attic or under her bed until Laurie Gill, her sole surviving son, donated much of it to Newham Council, 200 items being conserved in its archives.

Since her death in 1961, Gill's reputation has grown. In 1968, London's Grosvenor Gallery exhibited her work in 'The Guided Hand', the Hayward included her in their 1979 show, 'Outsiders'. Internationally, her art was shown at Los Angeles County Museum (1992), The Slovak National Gallery, Bratislava (2007) and 'British Outsider Art' at La Halle Saint Pierre, Paris (2008); in the UK, at the Manor Park Museum, London (1999), The Whitechapel Gallery, London (2006), 600 works, many previously unseen at London's Nunnery Gallery (2012), a show entitled 'Madge Gill, Medium & Visionary' at Orleans House Gallery, (2013) and her drawings at the Julian Hartnoll Gallery (2013).

Born illegitimate, Gill spent her early days in seclusion and, aged 9, was sent to a Barnardo's orphanage. Five years later, as part of a child labour scheme, she migrated to Canada, where she laboured on an Ontario farm.

Returning to East Ham at the age of 18, she worked as a nurse at Whipps Cross hospital in Leytonstone. After marrying T. E. Gill, she gave birth to three sons, one of whom died in the influenza pandemic of 1918. At this period, Gill herself became very ill and lost the sight of her left eye. When she was 38, she began to draw and continued until her son Bob died in 1958, whereupon she began to drink heavily.

As a celebrated British Outsider artist, Madge Gill was not alone in being untutored and unsung. Alfred Wallis (1855-1942) was another, although he was championed by the famous St. Ives artistic colony. Formerly a Cornish fisherman and mariner, who sailed schooners across the North Atlantic from Penzance to Newfoundland Wallis, in 1922, began to paint 'for company' after his wife's death.

He was entirely self-taught and In his 'naive' paintings, he paid little regard to perspective, basing the scale of his objects on their regarded importance, which gave his scenes a map-like quality.

He painted seascapes from memory, recording the sailing ships of his youth. With little cash, Wallis had to paint on cardboard taken from packing cases.

Outsider art isn't unique to Britain. Pay a visit to Lausanne's Collection de L'Art Brut in Switzerland and you can view work of this nature from all over the world. One of its most poignant exponents is Maria Angeles Fernandez Cuesta, born in 1950, at Toledo in Spain. After a difficult childhood, she grew up to be mocked locally and called La Pinturitas because she wore extravagant makeup.

At the age of 50, 'para olvidar las penas' (to forget her pain), Cuesta began to paint and it became crucial to her existence. Over the years, she has transformed the faç ade of a derelict restaurant in Arguedas in Navarre into 'an evolving visionary environment'.

She continues to paint, combining images of people, animals and faces with text, 'as a means of expressing and easing her troubling emotions'.

This exhibition of Madge Gill's work at the William Morris Gallery is showing only a few streets from where the artist once lived. Four years in the making, it is curated by Sophie Dutton. “Gill,” writes Dutton, “made work with limited resources, was self-taught and worked outside the mainstream of the art world, producing masses of amazing work.”


Madge Gill, Myrninerest, Retrospective, William Morris Gallery, Walthamstow, Tues-Sun 10 - 5. Free (suggested donation £5). Until Sept 22nd.

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