Madge Gill (1882-1961) remains readily mutable as an artist, her bizarre, absorbing work resting on the borderlands of Outsider Art, Self-Taught Art and Visionary Art. Without a speck of proper training or lofty hopes of distinction, she produced thousands of hastily scratched out, yet remarkably precise, ink drawings during her lifetime. Scribbling furiously across every papery substance, from scraps of card stock to unravelling scrolls, she created geometric, practically psychedelic, visions which pool across the viewer’s eyesight in thin coloured threads and stark black patches.
The strange qualities of her work appear to be the fruits of a natural branching off from her equally odd personal history and working methods. Born the illegitimate daughter of a couple in East Ham, London, Gill was hidden away by her mother and aunt until the age of nine and subsequently passed on to an orphanage. Despite her upbringing in the shadows, she matured into a bright young thing and began to work as a nurse by the age of twenty. It was around then that she began rooming with the aunt who originally helped stash her away, and who imparted to her niece a profound interest in astrology and Spiritism. Gill married her first cousin in 1907, and bore him three sons and a still born girl. That last trauma left her bedridden and languishing for months, and Gill even lost the use of her left eye.
Forever changed, but with strength regained, Gill plunged into her secretive, forty year-long career as an artist-medium. She was known for entering frenetic trancelike states which terrified her young boys, popping in her new glass eye (also toyed with as a party trick) and drawing incessantly throughout the day, but mostly night, in her modest East End flat. Her sons recalled that she would also carry on in frightful binges of other inspired creative activity, including knitting and piano playing. Coming to their senses as young adults, and embracing their mother’s wacky aptitudes, Gill’s sons custom-built her an elongated wooden drawing table, upon which she could doodle tenaciously along extensive scrolls of paper— some reaching nine metres in length— without having to pause so often to unwind more workable surface area. Even the Blitzkrieg and its hateful hailstorms of fire and shrapnel that ravaged her cobbled street didn’t deter Gill from churning out sheets upon sheets of labyrinthine, linear and quite extraordinary pen compositions.
Aside from the multi-dimensional grids and checkerboard mottled architecture, one of the most striking qualities of her work is its haunted-ness by a mostly unvarying outlined female face; a countenance anchored by wide, vacuous eyes, underscored by tiny puckering lips, and framed by clods of chopped, curling hair.
Who is she?
Some might suggest the visages to be self-portraits, or perhaps the wan likeness of her daughter who slipped away. Others claim it is the visage of Gill’s cherished spirit guide and incorporeal artistic advisor, Myrninerest (often broken down as My Inner Rest, the Self) who the artist communicated freely with and declared was the force driving her adundant output, and therefore its true maker and owner. Interestingly, it is indeed Myrninerest’s signature, not Madge Gill’s, scrawled across many completed illustrations.
When her first-born son died in 1958, Gill ceased all artistic and otherworldly activities and instead committed herself to drinking. The magical, beyond-prolific nature of her body of work only became evident upon her own death a few years later. For Gill humbly never desired to sell her, or Myrninerest’s, images in her lifetime, and left them to be excavated en masse from the crammed disarray under her aged mattress.
Source: Roger Cardinal, Madge Gill, Compagnie de l’Art brut