The Whitworth is home to one of the largest and most important ‘Outsider Art’ collections in the United Kingdom: The Musgrave Kinley Outsider Art Collection. This collection is made up of over 1153 individual artworks by over 129 artists, brought together by curator Monika Kinley and gallerist and curator Victor Musgrave over a period of 30 years (1979-2010). One of the artists featured in this collection, and the main subject of this blog, is Madge Gill.
However, before we delve into the fascinating and inspiring world and work of Madge Gill, what is ‘Outsider Art’ and what does it imply about an artist? Simply put, ‘Outsider Art’ refers to art created by self-taught makers. Usually those labelled as ‘Outsider Artists’ are those who have little or no contact with the mainstream art world and art institutions. The term ‘Outsider Art’ was first coined by art critic Roger Cardinal as an English translation for the Art bruta label created by French artist Jean Dubuffet to describe art created outside the boundaries of official culture. Examples of ‘Outsider Artists’ include children, people who have experienced mental health issues, and prisoners who create art without the conventional structures of art training and art production.
So, who was Madge Gill and why has she become one of the most well-known and famous ‘Outsider Artists’ in the world? I first got to know Madge Gill’s work while volunteering with our former Curator of Outsider Art in a pop-up exhibition showcasing some of Madge Gill’s artwork here at the Whitworth. I immediately fell in love with the art on display. The drawings Gill produced are incredibly intricate and spontaneous, famously made up of patterns featuring never ending structures made of crisscross, checkerboard, lines and flowers, often including a single or multiple female figure interwoven and enveloped by the evolving world around them.With no formal training during her lifetime, Gill produced many textiles and ink drawings often in secret at her home. These artworks were influenced and inspired by her spirit guide, Myrninerest. But more on that later.
Madge Gill had by no means an easy or straightforward life, in fact it was quite the opposite. Born in 1882 as an illegitimate child in the East End of London, Gill was locked away by her mother and grandfather, living in isolation from the outside world. When it became too much for Gill’s family to cope with the child, despite the fact she still had living family she was taken to Barnados orphanage to live out her childhood and, at the age of nine, sent off to Canada as part of a “fresh start” initiative for orphans.
Gill never really spoke of her time in Canada. It is known that she spent her time living and working as a domestic servant and babysitter on a number of Ontario farms. Sadly, it is thought that many of the children taking part in this new start program suffered abuse at the hands of their new ‘families’. Whatever Gill’s experience was out in Ontario, she moved back to England as soon as she was able, returning to London to live with her Aunt at the age of 18. This was when she was first introduced to spiritualism, a practice that would become a large part of Gill’s life, as she was a known medium throughout the 1930’s. Shortly after returning, Madge Gill married her cousin, Tom Gill. The marriage was not a happy one but it did lead to the birth of her children: Laurie, Reggie and Bob, all of whom she loved very much. Sadly, Reggie died during the influenza pandemic of 1918, and soon after this, Gill gave birth to her last child, a girl, who unfortunately passed away shortly after birth. If you thought Gill’s luck couldn’t get any worse, you would be sorely mistaken; she came dangerously close to death herself while fighting a serious illness, losing an eye as a result of this.
However, it was during the recovery of this illness at the age of 38 that Gill first came into contact with her spirit guide, Myrninerest. This event would change her life forever. Gill maintained contact with the spirit throughout the rest of her life, which caused her to enter trance like states where she would draw, write, knit, crochet, weave, and play piano all under the guidance of this spirit- whose signature would be found on many of her drawings. Though Gill described Myrninerest as a benevolent spirit, she did find these trance states frightening and overwhelming.
Though life was looking up for Gill, hardship was soon to return. Relations with her husband Tom Gill deteriorated further, leading to her spending time in a psychiatric hospital for ‘women’s disease.’ Bob was injured in a motorcycle accident, after which he remained bedridden for two years. Gill tended him at his bedside drawing. In 1932, Tom was hospitalised with cancer. This was same year that Gill exhibited her artwork for the first time at an exhibition for East End amateurs at the Whitechapel Gallery, which achieved attention from the national press. Tom passed away the following year. Gill continued to exhibit at this gallery until 1947, refusing opportunities to exhibit at more prestigious galleries and supposedly turning down the chance to exhibit at well known West End gallery, proclaiming that her art was not for sale as it belonged to Myrninerest, not her.
As a result of this, for 40 years – from when she was first visited by Myrninerest, until the day she passed away in 1961 – Gill maintained her status as an Outsider artist. Her work was secretive and created in the attic of her East Ham home. She created thousands of works, often by candlelight, in the house where she continued to live with her two sons, with whom she remained extremely close. These works ranged from small post-card sized drawings all the way up to huge calico roll drawings, the largest being 40 metres wide. Her son Laurie rigged up a mechanism similar to a washing line, which enabled the large rolls to be exposed section by section, allowing Gill to draw more easily on such a large scale.
In 1950, Gill’s son Bob passed away. She had actually prophesised that she would outlive him. For the next ten years she continued on creating artwork under the caring eye of her last son, Laurie. Laurie had always been a huge supporter of Gill’s artwork, continuing to support her through her ill health until her last days. When Gill passed away, the house, including all of the thousands of artworks she hoarded were passed onto Laurie, who distributed the work. Some works passed into the public domain and a large portion were donated to the local authorities. It was because of this that Madge Gill’s work has become famous worldwide and loved by many, including John Dubuffet the creator of the Art Brut label.
#1 ‘Untitled’ 1939.
#2 ‘Untitled’ Undated.
#3 ‘Untitled’ 1952.
#4 ‘Untitled’ (embroidery) 1920-1959.
All from our collection