The concept of outsider art is a contentious one. Comparatively recent in definition, it is linked both to the work of psychiatrists and their study of art work presented by patients (for example, Dr. Walter Morgenthaler who in 1921 published his book, Ein Geisteskranker als Künstler (A Psychiatric Patient as Artist) about Adolf Wölfli), or isolated self-taught artists who have little to no contact with the artistic world, however as a term it was first unleased on the world by UK based art critic Roger Cardinal in 1972. It is both a loaded term, and arguably one that seeks to differentiate between the amateur and the professional, and in doing so reinforces differentials that the art world (especially in relation to commerce) has historically thrived upon. There are many noted ‘outsider’ artists, but one of the most noted was from the East End of London, who grew up in poverty, and would go onto to produce works which are now displayed in galleries around the world; Madge Gill.
Madge Gill was born in 1882, apparently named Maude Ethel Eades. According to the research conducted by Roger Cardinal, who as well as coining the term outsider art is also one of the few to write about Madge, she was born in East Ham in Essex. A records search shows that a Maude Eades was also registered in West Ham in 1882 however. Regardless of the confusion of her place and time of birth, what is known is that Madge was born an illegitimate child to her mother, Emma Eades. How old Emma was and what happened to the father of Madge seems to be lost to history, but it is known that Madge was bought up in the house of her grandfather by her mother, and her aunt Clara who also resided in the property. For an illegitimate child in late Victorian England, life typically was unpleasant. To be born illegitimate was to be born a second class citizen, and many families were embarrassed by the presence of such in the home environment. It may have been as a result of this embarrassment, or as a result of financial difficulties of the family (or even something as seismic as the death of the patriarch) but for whatever reason, a probably isolated Madge, found herself placed into the Dr Barnardos’ Village Home for Orphan, Neglected and Destitute Girls in Barkingside, Essex. Detained in the austere environs of a girls home with hundreds of her peers, Madge was later to become part of one of the worst abuses ever suffered on the children of the poor.
Starting in 1869, a child migration scheme for the poor was founded by Scottish evangelical Annie MacPherson. Under the auspices of the Home Children scheme some 100,000 children from the British Isles were transported to Australia, Canada, South Africa, and New Zealand to alleviate labour shortages. Sourced from the ranks of orphanages and the urban poor, many children were transported across the globe. Many Home Children were either orphaned or from families in poverty. They were placed with settlers or within industrial settings that were often poorly supervised and regulated. Many of the forced young migrants were exposed to lives of privation and abuses of all kinds thousands of miles away from any support networks that they may have once had access to. The Home Children and other forced child resettlement schemes have left dark marks on the history of the United Kingdom and its former colonies, and many of the countries have formally recognized and apologized to the victims. One such was Madge.
Following three years in the home, Madge was transported with 254 other children on the ship, Scotsman headed to Quebec in Canada where it arrived in port on 8 August 1896. Accompanied by a Mr. Owen from Barnardos, these hundreds of children travelled across Canada before arriving eventually in Toronto. Luckier than some who travelled with her across the length of Canada, Madge who was only twelve years old and travelling under the name Maud Jago, found employment or rather had it found for her as a domestic servant and baby minder on a series of farms around Ontario. Many of the Home Children were routinely abused (physically, sexually, and mentally) and it is very likely that in the unsupervised environs that Madge found herself in as a young teenager she was subject to such abuses. Thankfully her time in Canada was comparatively brief and in November 1900, the eighteen year old Madge (now going by the name of Maud Eades) returned to the UK onboard the ship Corinthian. Back in London, Madge was according to Cardinal able to secure work as a nurse at the Whipps Cross hospital, Leytonstone and moved in with her aunt Kate, who was instrumental in introducing the teenager to Spiritualism.
To modern readers, Spiritualism may seem to be something of an historical oddity, but between the 1840s and 1920s, a belief in Spiritualism and mediumistic practice was widespread in the English speaking world. According to reports published in the New York Times as of November 1897, Spiritualism had over eight million followers around the world. Although sceptical minds had begun to question the bahaviours of mediums and their supposed claims, by the time of Madges’ arrival back in the United Kingdom, Spiritualism was both popular and practiced across all sectors of society. For a young adult, who had led a life of privation, it may have offered a raft of belief to cling to. For Madge it was to become part of who she was to become and remain for the rest of her life.
Following her return to the UK and several years living with Kate, Madge was to marry Kates’ son (and thus her cousin) Tom Gill who was employed as a stockbroker when she was twenty five. Here the subject of Madge, like much of her life gets somewhat blurred. According to her Wikipedia entry, the photo below shows a young Madge Gill:
Further research however illustrates that whoever it is in this photograph it may not be Madge Gill. According to the Victoria Horticultural Library this photograph shows a widower by the name of Madge Williams who married the Portland, Oregon based farmer Edward E. Gill in 1914.
Although Madges’ marriage to Tom was far from happy, they rapidly had three sons, Laurie, Reggie and Bob. Reggie was to fall victim to the influenza outbreak of 1918 aged only eight years old. Considered by many to be the most brutal medical pandemic in history, the 1918 flu outbreak has been said to have killed more individuals than the Black Death resulting in the deaths of some 3 – 6% of the worlds’ total population. Although young Reggie was only one of many millions of victims, his death would leave his mother bereft and would be further compounded less than a year later. In 1919, Madge gave birth to her only daughter who was stillborn, and was also to suffer complications herself which left her bedridden, and resulted in the loss of an eye, which was later to be replaced with a glass replacement. It was around this period that Madge according to her own words first felt the urge to express herself artistically. In a 1937 interview published by Prediction magazine (and later reprinted in Madge Gill Medium & Visionary, published by Orleans House Gallery, ISBN 1-902643-17-8), Madge stated:
“It was in 1919 when I first started my work. I then had an inspiration to take up my pen and do all kinds of works of an artistic type. I felt that I had an artistic faculty seeking expression. It took various forms. First of all, knitting – even without any pattern. Then came a flow of all kinds of inspirational writing, mostly Biblical. Then I felt impelled to execute drawings on a large scale on calico. I simply couldn’t leave it and I did on average 20 pictures a week, all in colour. All the time I was in quite a normal state of mind and there was no suggestion of a ‘spirit’ standing beside me. I simply felt inspired. Sometimes I would be dissatisfied with the work and tear it up or burn it. But I felt I was definitely guided by an unseen force, though I could not say what its actual nature was.”
Following her initial artistic outpouring, according to the brief biography that is available on Madge from Roger Cardinal it was in March 1920 that she first began to interact with Myrninerest, her supposed spirit guide with whom she was to maintain contact with for the rest of her life, and with whom she would commune in a trance state, and under whose supposed guidance she would produce her works.
Her now daily artistic endevours as well as the depression she arguably suffered following the loss of two children in rapid succession in an unhappy and strained marriage may have led Madge to seek refuge with Myrninerest. It seems likely that she may have begun to suffer from schizophrenia or other delusions, or potentially be utilising her spirit guide as an outlet to allow her artistic creation. Her behaviours definitely were a cause for concern however and in 1922, Madge found herself confined in the Lady Chichester Hospital for Women and Children in Hove which used the then nascent psychotherapy to treat neurosis.
It was in this clinical environment that Madge passed on a packet of postcards she had illustrated under the guidance of Myrninerest to a female doctor. The doctor passed the illustrations to the Society for Psychical Research, where they were pronounced according to the London Review of Books to be “more of an inspirational than an automatic kind”. Art critique aside, Madge was soon released from the Hove hospital and found herself returned home to the house she shared with her husband and children in Upton Park. Here, relations with Tom grew even more strained, and he spent more and more time away from home, potentially as suggested by Roger Cardinal with a number of mistresses. Unfortunately, Madges’ ills did not cease. Her youngest son, Bob was involved in a motorcycle accident that left him an invalid for two years. Madge was to spend her evenings sitting by his bedside illustrating and creating under the thrall of Myrninerest by the dim light of a gas lamp.
In 1932, Tom Gill was diagnosed with cancer, however, it was also during this year that the Whitechapel Gallery started holding their annual East End Academy Show. Open to all amateur artists in the East End, the gallery had received entries for exhibit from both Bob and Laurie, and it may have been at the urging of her sons, that the self-taught Madge submitted too. Her entry stole the show, and as later reported by The Times of London (and quoted by the London Review of Books):
“One of the most remarkable works in the exhibition – a work that would be remarkable in any exhibition, both in form and technically – is a pen and ink drawing on calico, measuring no less than 17ft by 5ft 6in., entitled Reincarnation by Mrs M.E. Gill. For convenient description, it is something between the work of modern Dutch and Belgian mystics and that of Mr Stanley Spencer.”
Madge was to continue to exhibit at the Whitechapel Gallery nearly every year until 1947, however she both refused to exhibit at larger venues, and also steadfastly refused to sell any of her voluminous output for fear that it would disturb or upset Myrninerest to whom she was to claim the work rightly belonged.
From 1919 onwards Madge continued to produce illustrations, paintings, and tapestries all guided by Myrninerest. Following the death of her son Bob in 1950, she continued to live with Laurie who was to be her faithful carer until she ended her days. Madge was to spend her last days a virtual recluse, however she developed an increasing reliance on alcohol and was prone to both irascible and erratic behaviour and remarks. Through it all until she finally stopped producing art in 1958, Madge produced hundreds of unique artworks.
Many of the artworks produced by Madge feature female figures, and have been interpreted by some critics as representing the relationship between herself and her daughter. Although often obsessively and quickly applied, many of them are also haunting. Scratched, etched and inked, the art that Madge created all too easily can be considered amateur and the preserve of the obsessive. Although many of her behaviours were certainly obsessive, Madge was clearly driven to create. Whether governed by the voice of Myrninerest which she alone could hear or by the desire to create art to address her demons, Madge produced over a period of decades thousands of individual works.
Following her death in 1961 just before her seventy ninth birthday Madges’ small house was found to be crammed with thousands of unique art pieces. Stored in cupboards, behind wardrobes, and under beds, her surviving loyal caretaker Laurie donated hundreds of pieces to the London Borough of Newham, where they are still stored in archival and controlled conditions. In 1968 a retrospective of some of Madges’ work was held at the Grosvenor Gallery in London, and in 2012, a small selection of the work gifted to Newham was exhibited by the Nunnery Gallery in London drawing both praise and adulation.
At the time she was creating her art, Madge was considered an eccentric by the press, her neigbours, and the art establishment. Sadly, history has been equally unkind to her, and she is most commonly considered to be an outsider. This arguably is a phrase that possesses negative connotations. Outsider art is sometime considered as being “less” than that of conventional art, and when considering Madges’ prodigious output and style this certainly does not hold true. Coming from a background of privation and probable abuse, Madge wrestled with the urge to create for the majority of her adult life. As well as potentially struggling with depression, neurosis, loss, and a strained marriage, Madge fought her own demons to leave a rich and sadly largely undervalued artistic legacy that deserves a broader audience.