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Diligent Detective Work 2: The (Copyright) Mystery of Madge Gill

Continued from Diligent Detective Work 1: The Bethlem Copyright Mystery.

Woman In  Elaborate  Clothes And  Bonnet

Even where an artist has become renowned as an outsider artist, tracing their copyright can call for some tenaciousness (if not hardboiled) investigation. And here is where the detective work truly comes in…..

Madge Gill, whose life and work we have described in a previous Bethlem blog is a well-known outsider artist and exhibited in her lifetime to favourable reviews. Always refusing to sell her works, on her death in 1961 she left hundreds of drawings piled in wardrobes and under beds to her only surviving family member, her son Lawrence (Larry) Edwin Gill. However, he then died only three years later and we knew of no other living relative, her sister, husband and two other sons having predeceased her. The trail had gone almost entirely cold.

There were two other leads. Larry donated a large number of her works to the London Borough of Newham (where Madge lived for much of her life) and with whom Bethlem Museum held an exhibition in 2012. The works in the Bethlem collection were also purchased from Outsider art dealers in the late eighties/ early nineties. But we were not able to get any further information from either. We contacted the Museums Copyright Group, ‘Collection de l'Art Brut’ in Lausanne who also holds some works, and the Irish Museum of Modern Art who had exhibited her work as part of the Musgrave Kinley Collection. That collection had been gifted to the Whitworth Art Gallery Manchester, who happened to be writing a blog about her at the time. They all offered sympathy, enthusiasm but only confirmation of the mystery surrounding copyright for her work.

A last ditch cold call, the kind of dirty work you might expect from a hardboiled detective, to Vivienne Roberts of magdegill.com at last produced results. Vivienne had been given to understand, but could not verify, that Larry had died intestate (without a will) which would mean that his estate, and with it the copyright for his mother’s works, had been transferred to the Crown. We just needed to confirm.

The National Archives (responsible for Crown Copyright) advised us to contact the Bona Vacantia Department which records and publicises deaths intestate and which have not been claimed. Bona Vacantia only kept easily accessible records going back 30 years so suggested we search probate records at the Principal Probate Registry Office. They were able to tell us that he died in September (1964) in Poplar, London, which should help narrow down the search. A trip to the Royal Courts might have been necessary but a search on Ancestry.co.uk gave us the evidence we needed.

Mystery Clue 1

So there we have it. Mystery solved. The Crown acquired copyright for Madge Gill’s work and will remain the copyright holder of her work until 2031. The National Archives have kindly granted us permission to use her work.

If this blog post has sparked your interest in Madge Gill and other self-taught artists, Professor Roger Cardinal, a well-known writer on self-taught art currently writing a book on Madge Gill, will be speaking at the Art of Psychiatry Society at the Institute of Psychiatry on Tuesday 23 September.