The London Borough of Newham owns an important collection, unparalleled in scale elsewhere in the world, of artworks by Madge Gill (1882–1961). This holding, not currently on permanent display, was donated by the artist's son, Laurie, in 1963, soon after his mother's death in relative obscurity and reduced means in Plaistow, east London. After selling some of her work, he gifted the remainder to East Ham Borough Council, now Newham Archives and Local Studies Library. The collection has gained an international significance and continues to attract new audiences year on year.
Born Maud Ethel Eades in Walthamstow in 1882, Madge Gill was exceptional in many ways. Her childhood and early life were unstable. Illegitimate, she was brought up by her mother and grandfather until, at the age of nine, she moved to a Dr Barnardo's orphanage. At 14 she was sent by Barnardo's on a boat to Canada, where she worked as a farm labourer in rural Ontario, and where she picked up some rudimentary spoken French. At the age of 18, she found her way back to London to her aunt Kate Gill, a spiritualist and medium, where she met and married her cousin Tom, a stockbroker's clerk. After her disrupted childhood, her return from Canada and marriage to a white-collar worker suggest that Gill was already a determined and ambitious young woman.
The couple produced three sons, one of whom died in childhood in 1918, and a daughter who was stillborn the following year. Soon after these tragedies, the artist lost an eye to a rare form of cancer, but by 1920, at the age of 38, she had embarked on the beginning of a successful artistic career that was to span almost 40 years. Under the influence of a 'spirit guide' she called 'Myrninerest', her prodigious output included ink drawings, watercolour paintings on cardboard and untreated calico cotton cloth, knitting on one needle and without patterns, embroidery, tapestry and rug-making, dresses and tablecloths. Gill's two sons became her assistants, Laurie (1906–1964) constructing a trestle mechanism to unwind sections at a time for her drawings on calico, some 36 feet long.
The story goes that under her bed lay shoe box after shoe box of neatly stacked postcards, each one with a drawing in ink by the artist. One imagines she produced these during sleepless nights, or perhaps a daily creative ritual to waken her mind. More than any other part of the magnificent Gill holding, these postcards give a sense of the drive to make work, to put pen to paper and express a certain thought or frame of mind. Few of these are signed or dated, however a rare scribble from Gill on one of these postcards reads, 'Wallace Collection a beautiful portrait painting' – presumably inspired by a visit to the famous London gallery, Gill has drawn a female face amidst her characteristic geometric and architectural line drawings in black ink.
Gill had artistic ambition and a measure of recognition, as attested by her entries for the annual Whitechapel Gallery's 'East End Academy' show and the invitation to submit work to the 1942 'Artists Aid Russia Exhibition' at the Wallace Collection, a showcase of London artists during the Second World War.
Since her death her reputation has continued to grow, new audiences noticing afresh her distinctive artistic vision. Gill was part of the Hayward Gallery's 'Outsiders: An Art Without Precedent or Tradition' (1979) curated by Victor Musgrave and Roger Cardinal who coined the phrase 'outsider' art, an interpretation of the phrase 'art brut'.
Gill's work is variously collected and championed by significant collections – Jean Dubuffet's Collection de l'Art Brut in Lausanne, L'Aracine Collection at the Lille Métropole Museum of Modern, Contemporary and Outsider Art (LaM), and Musgrave Kinley Outsider Art Collection at the Whitworth. Solo presentations at the Nunnery Gallery, Orleans House Gallery and William Morris Gallery have supported the research and documentation of her biography and oeuvre.
The Newham collection contains over 1,200 individual works by Gill and I have chosen 100 to illustrate its breadth. This selection from the collection includes some notes and observations on medium, size and subject matter made by curators and experts associated with the collection over the years, though they are by no means definitive. Names and dates for the artist's work can rarely be accurately established and are only included where known to be accurate.
Rosie Murdoch, art advisor