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Artist in Focus VI - Madge Gill

Madge GillMadge Gill spent most of her life in London. An illegitimate child, she was brought up by her mother and aunt until sent to an orphanage at the age of nine. Later she lived with another aunt who introduced her to spiritualism. She married in 1907. One of her three sons died in the influenza epidemic of 1918, and the next year she herself almost died giving birth to a stillborn daughter. In the illness which followed she lost the sight of one eye.

Around this time she began to draw, embroider and knit, often working in bed by the light of an oil lamp and even, it has been suggested, in total darkness. It is not clear how far, at the start, she attributed her inspiration to spiritualism. She later wrote: ‘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.’ However, she was soon convinced that the ‘unseen force’ was a spirit guide called ‘Myrninerest’.

Over the next forty years she made many hundreds of drawings, often at great speed. Many are on postcards or cardboard, but the largest and most typical are on calico, some of them more than thirty feet long. (A relatively small example, only about six feet long, is in the collection.) She would often work all night, standing in front of a huge roll of calico set up on a frame which had been specially made by her son so that it could be gradually unwound. The recurrent imagery is of a female figure with oval face and large eyes, whose flowing garments often merge into a background which hovers between abstract pattern and architectural form. This spatial ambiguity creates a world which is strongly identified, though not subject to the laws of earthly perspective. It is not hard to believe that this is the inner world of Madge Gill herself – or even, as she might say, of Myrninerest.

After her husband’s death in the 1930s she became more deeply involved in spiritualism, holding weekly seances with the ouija board. She exhibited some of her pictures, attracting favourable reviews, but always refused to sell on the grounds that they belonged to her spirit guide, not to her. At her death she left hundreds of drawings piled in wardrobes and under beds.