First published: Winter 2013
It was on March 5, 1919, that Madge Gill discovered her vocation as an artist. Following a particularly miserable period in her life, which involved bereavements, post-natal depression and a long illness culminating in the loss of an eye, the 37-year-old East-End housewife suddenly found herself overtaken by sensations of ecstasy, energised by a mysterious impulse that generated an outpouring of inspired writings, colourful embroidery and compelling drawings in India ink. These last proved to be her most distinctive works.
Over the next four decades until her death, she maintained a tireless production, embarking repeatedly on drawings of amazing complexity and scale. For weeks she would slave away, inscribing her dense designs onto rolls of untreated calico which sometimes measured as much as 30 feet long. And all the while, she made sure to add to her enormous output with small, intimate images, improvised by the dozen on blank postcards.
According to the artist herself, the creative process was always governed by her personal spirit-guide, whom she named Myrninerest. This ethereal creature would leave her florid signature on Madge’s pictures, as if to authenticate their mediumistic origin. Much like shamanism, the vocational practice of mediumism tends to dispense with formal qualifications and arises unexpectedly as an irresistible challenge or disturbing spiritual revelation.
Madge had picked up some knowledge of Spiritualism from her Aunt Kate, and was receptive to Christian belief; albeit her role in voicing devotion to Jesus was more instinctive than thoughtful. Moreover, the tribulations of her private life had created a context such that artmaking could function as a mode of self-therapy, and mediumism as a convenient wrapper to protect her fragile efforts. Growing more confident, Madge began holding séances with her neighbours in her front parlour, drawing on established mediumistic practices, such as conversing with spirits and establishing horoscopes. She developed a reputation for impromptu prophesying and evidently saw herself as enjoying clairvoyant powers.
One curious gap in her record is that she never seems to have sought communication with named dead persons. In fact, her paranormal credentials are relatively thin, more a matter of allusion and hearsay. Evidently, her defining activity as a medium was the production of works of art. Often her pictures bear uplifting religious titles, or carry notes on the back which refer to The Bible, Egyptian mythology, astrological calculations involving the planets (Mars and Venus being prominent) and so forth. Some of her doodlings include squiggles that resemble the hieroglyphs beloved by the alchemists, a form of secret writing that she may have thought appropriate to transcendental communication.