Madge Gill

Daniel Wojcik

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MADGE GILL TIMELINE

1848 (March 31):  The Spiritualist movement began in Hydesville, New York, with the Fox sisters Kate (1836–1892), Margaret (1834–1893), and (later) Leah (1811–1890), claiming to receive spirit messages.

1853–1855:  French poet and novelist Victor Hugo (1802–1885) and his son Charles (1826–1871) produced mediumistic drawings and spirit art ink blots during their exile on the isle of Jersey, Channel Islands.

1858:  The major French spiritist journal, La Revue Spirite, published the spirit drawings and engravings of French dramatist Victorien Sardou (1831–1908); London editor William. M. Wilkinson published Spirit Drawings: A Personal Narrative.

1860s–1870s:  Spirit drawings and paintings became increasing popular, with Georgiana Houghton (1814–1884), Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (1831–1891), and David Duguid (1832–1907) among the more well-known individuals producing spirit art.

1882 (January 19):  Madge Gill was born (as Maud Ethel Eades) out of wedlock in the East End of London.

1891 (September  29):  Maud was brought to Dr. Barnardo’s Girls Village Home in Barkingside, an orphanage.

1896 (July 30):  Maud was sent to Canada with other British orphans as part of a labor program.

1900 (November):  Maud returned to England.

1904:  Maud lived in east London with her aunt Kate Gill, a Spiritualist medium, and began a relationship with Kate’s son, Tom Gill.

1906–1907 (September 20):  Maud gave birth to her first son, Lawrence (“Laurie”) Edwin Gill, married Tom Gill, and called herself Madge Gill.

1910 (April 27):  The Gill’s second son, Reginald (“Reggie”) Alfred Gill, was born.

1913 (November 8):  The Gill’s third son, Leonard Eric Gill (“Bob”), was born.

1914–1918:  World War I occurred.

1918–1919:  The influenza pandemic of 1918–1919 killed an estimated 20,000,000 to 50,000,000 people.

1915–1925:  The Spiritualist movement experienced a resurgence during and after the devastation of World War I and the influenza pandemic.

1918 (October 27):  The Gill’s son, Reggie, died at age eight from influenza.

1920 (January/February):  Gill diagnosed with melanotic sarcoma and her left eye was removed.

1920 (March 3):  Gill was inspired to create mediumistic works after experiencing “a presence” and having a vision. She began writing, drawing, painting, needlework, and other expressive activities guided by an unseen force later identified as the spirit Myrninerest.

1921 (February):  After the stillbirth of a daughter, Gill became seriously ill for months.

1923:  The first pubic exhibition of Gill’s art took place.

1926 (March):  Laurie Gill’s broadsheet, “Myrninerest the Spheres,” which provides an account of his mother’s trance experiences and mediumistic art, was published.

1932–1946:  Gill continued to create and her work was exhibited locally.

1947 (July–August):  The last exhibition of Gill’s art took place in the East End Academy, London.

1948:  Jean Dubuffet established the Compagnie de l’Art Brut in Paris, an organization devoted to collecting and preserving art brut, and included Gill’s work in the collection.

1950s:  Directed by the spirit Myrninerest, Gill continued to work prolifically and created more than 1,000 works of Spiritualist art.

1961 (January 28):  Gill died from pneumonia at Langthorne Hospital, Leytonstone, London.

1961 (September):  Gill’s son Laurie donated approximately 1,200 works of Gill’s art to the East Ham County Borough Council.

BIOGRAPHY

Madge Gill (born Maude Ethel Eades; 1882–1961) is one of the most acclaimed Spiritualist artists and is regarded by some commentators as the embodiment of self-taught artistry. [Image at right] Her work has been championed by Jean Dubuffet, André Breton, and various advocates of art brut, psychic automatism, and unmediated creativity. Other Spiritualists preceded her in the creation of mediumistic works (e.g., Victor Hugo, Victorien Sardou, Georgiana Houghton, David Duguid, Hilma af Klint, Augustin Lesage, etc.), but Gill’s prolific artistic output has been increasingly recognized, with exhibits and publications internationally.

During her lifetime, Gill created thousands of works of art, in what she described as a mediumistic trance state. Her art is characterized by swirling geometric patterns  and intricate designs, zigzags and checkered areas, spirals and mazes, stairways and architectural forms, [Image at right] with floating female faces peering through the cascading ectoplasmic forms of her compositions. Gill’s work reveals the otherworldly realms she envisioned and artistically rendered during her entranced states. Her works were not regarded primarily as artistic expressions, but viewed as proof of communication with other realms, as the designs were guided by the intervention of spirit beings.

Like other Spiritualists, Gill did not attribute her art to her own abilities, but considered herself to be a physical vessel through which the spirit world could be expressed. The manifestation of physical “proofs” was an important aspect of the early Spiritualist movement, providing evidence of the spirit world, whether through mysterious rappings (as in the case of the Fox sisters initially), table-turning, the appearance of ectoplasm, spiritualist drawings and paintings, automatic writing through the use of planchettes, spirit photography, or other kinds of materialization. The physical manifestations produced through Spiritualist practices were characterized by the phenomenon of automatism, in which the personality of the individual is subordinate to that of the spirit realm and the medium becomes a conduit, communicating messages or spontaneously producing art and writings that are outside of one’s conscious control.

As Massimo Introvigne notes, there are at least three distinct types of spirit art: 1) “precipitated” works that appear seemingly without the use of human hands, with the spirits believed to produce the art directly; 2) portraits of spirits said to be present during séances who are then painted by mediums; and 3) artworks produced by mediums whose hands are guided by spirits (Introvigne 2017). Gill’s art fits into in the third category, as her works were attributed to the guidance and direct control of the spirit realm. [Image at right] While her art consists primarily of visions of the spirit world, it also includes references to specific Spiritualist principles.

Gill was born (as Maud Ethel Eades) on January 19, 1882 out of wedlock in Walthamstow (the East End of London) to Emma Elizabeth Eades and an unnamed father. Her mother Emma, twenty-six years old at the time, was sent to the home of Joseph and Sarah Leakey to avoid public shame over her illegitimate child. Emma eventually returned to live with her parents, but the young Maud was cared for by the Leakeys who were paid to be her caretakers from 1882–1891. In September 1891 Maud briefly moved in with her aunt Kate Gill, but she was unable to support her, and at the age of nine Maud was sent to Dr. Barnardo’s Girls Village Home in Barkingside. In this orphanage she was taught various domestic skills and attended Bible classes, which later influenced her art.

In 1896, Maud was sent to Canada with other British orphans as part of a labor program intended to offer poor children “opportunities” not available in England. She worked as a domestic servant and farm laborer for various families during this time, became homesick and longed to return to England, which she did in November 1900. Upon returning, she was employed as a nurse and in 1904 again lived with her widowed aunt, Kate Gill in east London. A practicing Spiritualist medium, Kate conducted séances and is believed to have inspired Maud’s interest in Spiritualism, although Maud may have been introduced to such beliefs earlier by her Spiritualist grandmother Caroline Eades (Ayad 2013). During this time Maud began a relationship with Kate’s son, Tom Gill, and they were married in 1907. Maud now called herself Madge Gill. Although her marriage struggled and she suffered from various health problems, Madge Gill gave birth to three sons, Laurie, Reggie, and Bob between 1906 and 1913.

During the early years of her life, Gill experienced considerable adversity, and from 1918 to 1921 her life was further beset by trauma, grief, and severe illnesses. In 1918, her son Reggie died in the influenza pandemic at the age of eight, and around the same time all of Gill’s teeth were removed because of septic poisoning to her gums. In 1920, her left eye was removed and replaced with a glass one after she was diagnosed with melanotic sarcoma. In 1921, pregnant and hoping for a daughter, Gill gave birth to a stillborn baby girl. The heartbroken mother nearly died of complications during the labor, and she was severely ill for months, suffering from ongoing depression and possibly a nervous breakdown. [Image at right] For three months in 1922, Gill became a patient at Lady Chichester Hospital for “mental trouble, which included hearing voices and having visions night and day (Ayad 2013; Cardinal n.d.).

In early March 1920, Gill was inspired to create things after experiencing “a presence” and having a vision of Christ in the clouds. She received divine instruction to write a book of “Jewish Rites” and then to create art, which included drawings, paintings, knitting, embroidery, tapestry, dresses, tablecloths, and piano-playing. As she later described it,

I then had an inspiration to take up my pen and do all kinds of work of an artistic type. . . . It took various forms. . . . I felt impelled to execute drawings on a large scale on calico. I simply couldn’t leave it and I did on average 20 pictures a week, all in colour. . . . I felt I was definitely guided by an unseen force (Cardinal 1972:135).

It is unclear whether Gill participated in séances to communicate with her deceased children during this time, but in the mid-1920s the unseen force that guided her work was identified as the spirit Myrninerest, a name that appears as a signature on many of her drawings (often on the backs of postcards and scraps of notepaper), and which may be derived from “My-inner-rest” or “Mine innerest [innermost] being.” In the broadsheet publication, “Myrninerest the Spheres,” Gill’s son Laurie describes his mother’s mediumistic states and recalls her artistic processes, with references to Spiritualist and Theosophical notions. These include Spiritual Progression, ancient symbols, lost languages, sacred inscriptions, Egyptian mythology, hieroglyphs, astrological calculations, and the Bible (Gill 1926; Tibet and Boxer 2013:1–5). [Image at right]

In addition to her smaller pieces, Gill created enormous works on unfurled rolls of plain calico fabric, some of which were more than thirty feet in length. These huge pieces were made in a spontaneous manner, as Gill unrolled the cloth little by little as she progressed. The process of creativity and the related transcendent trance states captivated Gill, as she similarly composed her drawings quickly and in an unplanned manner. She worked her way through a stack of 100 cardboard sheets and filled more than a dozen of them with her designs in an evening. Throughout her lifetime, Gill created thousands of drawings, often working in darkness or with minimal light late at night. When her son Bob became an invalid for two years after breaking his neck in 1931, she stayed by his bedside nursing him and drawing or writing throughout the night (Ayad 2013; Cardinal 1972:137).

When asked about her art and her enormous output, Gill explained that she was merely a medium, and that every design and idea came from her spirit guide, Myrninerest. In examining her thousands of designs, one image repeatedly appears: a woman with a distant gaze in her eyes, a delicate nose, and tiny lips, often in a fashionable hat, surrounded by flowing shapes and geometric forms. The enigmatic expression in the eyes and on the face of this recurring figure appears variously as melancholy, fearful, or startled, while in some instances looks curious, calm, or pleased. According to Gill, each of these faces had meanings but she never specified what they were. These ever-present and disembodied female figures may [Image at right] depict Gill’s spirit guide, or her lost daughter, or her absent mother, or the girls from the orphanage of her childhood; or they may represent portraits of Gill herself, or an otherworldly alter ego, removed from the tribulations of her life.

During an intensely traumatic period in Gill’s life (the death of her son, devastating illnesses, disfigurement, the stillbirth of her daughter, and her disintegrating marriage), her involvement in mediumistic activities provided solace and was a catalyst for creativity. Gill’s participation in Spiritualism provided a path that helped her confront her experiences of childhood abandonment, the loss of loved ones, illness, and other life crises, and create the possibility of healing and well-being to some degree. The spiritual meanings and personally therapeutic aspects of Gill’s art are indicated by the fact that she had little interest in selling or preserving her work, replying that it was not hers to sell, as it belonged to Myrninerest. After she died in January 1961, thousands of drawings were found in her home, in stacks that were piled beneath beds and in cupboards, often torn or in damaged condition. Many of these works were later donated by her son Laurie to the East Ham County Borough Council, while others were sold at auction.

Gill’s art has been subsequently celebrated as the epitome of art brut (“raw art”) by numerous enthusiasts, including Jean Dubuffet (1901–1985), who in 1948 founded the Compagnie de l’Art Brut in Paris. Dubuffet’s organization was devoted to collecting and preserving such art (later referred to as “outsider art”), those works created by people free of formal artistic training, whose production was “untainted” by the culture of the academy and existed in an “authentic” way outside of cultural norms. Dubuffet included Gill’s art in his collection, as well as that of other Spiritualists such Augustin Lesage, Laure Pigeon, Jeanne Tripier, and Raphaël Lonné. In recent years, Gill’s work also has been exhibited in various art brut and outsider art contexts internationally, and inspired various artists and musicians. These include the British singer David Tibet, whose group Myrninerest released the album: “Jhonn,” Uttered Babylon (2012) and who co-published a book of Gill’s postcards titled MYRNINEREST (Tibet and Boxer 2013).

Gill’s work is singular in its mastery and complexity, and although it expresses a uniquely private vision, it is not entirely “outside” of culture, as it was produced within the context of Spiritualism, a global religious movement that attracted millions of believers. Gill’s first numinous experiences may or may not have occurred independently from Spiritualist influences, but over the years she developed a reputation in her Upton Park neighborhood as a Spiritualist medium who held séances in her home, spoke with spirit guides, created astrological charts, cast horoscopes, used the Ouija broad, and offered prophecies to her neighbors. [Image at right] Within the tradition of Spiritualism, Gill was not only creating art; her work was a communion with spirit entities who offered wisdom, healing, guidance, and the possibility of transcendence.

IMAGES**
All images are clickable links to enlarged representations.

Image 1: Madge Gill, self-portrait with spirit drawing and signature by Gill’s spirit guide, Myrninerest (upper left), no date.
Image 2: Large drawing by Madge Gill, no date (Courtesy the abcd collection / Bruno Decharme, Paris).
Image 3: Madge Gill, multiple faces on calico in black and colored inks, c. 1935.
Image 4: Madge Gill, drawing of three women with baby, c. 1940.
Image 5: Madge Gill, drawing of woman and astrological references, no date.
Image 6: Madge Gill, drawing of three female faces, no date (Courtesy of David Tibet).
Image 7: Madge Gill drawing on calico with black ink on her billiard table in her home in Upton Park, London, c. 1938.

REFERENCES

Ayad, Sara. 2013. “Madge Gill: A Chronology.” In Madge Gill: Medium and Visionary: Retrospective Exhibition, 5 October 2013–26 January 2014, edited by Mark De Novellis. Twickenham, UK: Orleans House Gallery.

Cardinal, Roger. 1972. Outsider Art. London: Studio Vista.

Cardinal, Roger. n.d. “The Life of Madge Gill.” Accessed from http://madgegill.com/Biography on 12 December 2017.

De Novellis, Mark, ed. 2013. Madge Gill: Medium and Visionary: Retrospective Exhibition, 5 October 2013–26 January 2014. Twickenham, UK: Orleans House Gallery.

Gill, Laurie. 1926. “Myrninerest the Spheres.” No. 1 (March). Broadsheet. Privately published.

Grant, Simon, Lars Bang Larsen, and Marco Pasi. 2016. Georgiana Houghton: Spirit Drawings. London: Pul Holberton.

Introvigne, Massimo. 2017. “Spiritualism and the Visual Arts.” World Religions and Spiritualities Project, August 2. Accessed from https://wrldrels.org/2017/08/02/ spiritualism-and-the-visual-arts/ on 23 October 2017.

Peiry, Lucienne. 2001. Art Brut: The Origins of Outsider Art. Translated by James Frank. Paris: Flammarion.

Rhodes, Colin. 2000. Outsider Art: Spontaneous Alternatives. London: Thames and Hudson.

Tibet, David, and Henry Boxer, eds. 2013. Myrninerest. London: The Sphere.

Wojcik, Daniel. 2016. Outsider Art: Visionary Worlds and Trauma. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi.  

Post Date:
5 March 2018

 

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