First published: Spring 2021
The mysterious and enigmatic artist Madge Gill (1882–1961) defied all expectations of being a working-class woman in the early twentieth century. Hidden away at home, she produced a seemingly endless wealth of unique artwork. While connecting to spiritualism, perhaps in response to her own psychological turmoil, she worked on her own terms, heedless of the male-dominated mainstream art world. Life outside her terraced house in Newham, East London, during World War II, was conservative, rationed and restrained.
The artist at work on a calico mural, 1947, photo: Edward Russell Westwood, courtesy: Getty Images
Her creative outpouring challenged all preconceptions of her supposed role in a gendered and restrictive society. Until Gill began creating at the age of 38, her life had been unsettled and beset with trauma and tragedy. Perhaps it was these early experiences that paved the way for her incredible artistic journey, inspiring her to make art and produce thousands of intricate ink drawings and embroideries, many of which reflected her obsession with spiritualism.
Untitled, c.1920–1955, ink on cotton, 106 x 32 in. / 270 x 82 cm, the Whitworth, University of Manchester
Born an illegitimate child in 1882 in Walthamstow, East London, Gill was christened Maud Ethel Eades. When she was a young child, her family – unable to support her – placed her in an orphanage. At 14, she was sent to Canada to work on a farm as part of the British Home Children scheme which shipped poor and orphaned children to British colonies as labourers.
Gill remained in Canada until she was 18, but in 1900 moved back to London and became a nurse at East London’s Whipps Cross Hospital. A few years later, she married her cousin Tom Gill and went on to have three sons. However, the couple had a difficult marriage and suffered a number of tragedies, including the death of their second child in 1918 to the influenza pandemic.
Gill’s health deteriorated in the years that followed and a lengthy illness resulted in the loss of her left eye. It was around this time – on March 3, 1920 – that Gill spontaneously began to create art, often engaging in extended flurries of drawing.
This is an article extract; read the full article in Raw Vision #107