Friday 16 August 2019

Shedding Light on Madge Gill's Art and Spirit

Artist and Spiritualist Madge Gill is an important figure in twentieth-century British art. Her work deserves to be much better known.

Madge Gill. Myrninerest, installation photo with ink drawing, William Morris Gallery

I spent the morning with Madge Gill. I finally read Vivienne Roberts’ excellent article to which Light devoted the whole of its June edition, and had a really good look at Madge Gill by Myrninerest, edited by Sophie Dutton, which was published to accompany the exhibition devoted to Gill's work  she curated at the William Morris Gallery, London.

Madge Gill is an artist in whose work I have long been interested. I even own a few pieces, all courtesy of the Henry Boxer Gallery, London Her range of imagery is mesmerising and the scale of her visual art pieces moves from the near-miniature, on countless postcards, to large – and sometimes enormous – drawings on calico, five of which are can be seen in the William Morris Gallery show, including the breathtaking Crucifixion of the Soul (1934). Besides drawings, Gill also produced textiles and automatic writing, and examples of both are also included in Dutton’s book and exhibition.

Madge Gill, Crucifixion of the Soul (detail), 1061 x 147 cm, London Borough of Newham Heritage and Archives
In ‘The Art and Spirit of Madge Gill’, Vivienne Roberts develops a fully rounded picture of Gill’s life and character. She deals intelligently with Gill’s identification as a canonical outsider art figure and outlines her relationship to the artworld, both during her lifetime and after her death, demonstrating a continuum of sorts that has hitherto been downplayed. As is perhaps befitting to the context of the publication in which her article appears (‘a review of psychic and spiritual knowledge and research’) a little more than half of the text is devoted to Gill’s relationship to Spiritualism and esoteric subjects. Although this has been noted in the past, writers have tended to suggest that this was a passing interest or not particularly structured; a result of the trauma of losing two children and a kind of creative alibi. Roberts demonstrates not only that Gill and members of her family were deeply interested in psychic studies over a number of decades, but also that she was publicly involved, both as exhibiting artist and psychic. So, besides Gill’s submissions to the East End Academy exhibitions at the Whitechapel Gallery through the 1930s and 40s, we learn about her showing artwork in Spiritualist churches and her inclusion at an exhibition held as part of the International Spiritualist Congress in Li├Ęge, Belgium in 1922. As an introduction to Madge Gill's journey Roberts' article is an excellent contribution.

Madge Gill, Red Woman (detail), showing early stages of working (installation photo, Madge Gill. Myrninerest)
Madge Gill by Myninerest is really a compendium of images and text related to the artist, including contributions by Vivienne Roberts on Spiritualism, Sara Ayad on the importance of Gill’s doctor, Helen Boyle as supporter and, in some ways, protector. It includes reproductions of the work included in the William Morris Gallery exhibition, together with documentary photographs and reproductions of letters and historical texts, including the broadsheet, Myrninerest. The Spheres, published in 1926 by Gill’s eldest son, Laurie (also reproduced full-page by Roberts). There are also four loose leaf inserts – interviews with Sir Peter Blake, Michael Morgan, and Patricia Beger, whose collection of embroideries by Gill has only recently come to public light, and a series of photographs of the artist at work from 1947 by Edward Russell Westwood. As such, the book is a rich resource that serves as both Wunderkammer and, hopefully, stepping off point for further study and exploration.

Madge Gill, Untitled, colour wool embroidery, Collection de l'Art Brut, Lausanne (installation photo, Madge Gill. Myrninerest)
The exhibition itself, which continues at the William Morris Gallery, London E17 4PP, until 22 September 2019 is well worth the visit. In some ways it is an assault on the senses. Sophie Dutton has amassed a substantial selection of important work, including the calico drawings, 18 drawings on card, a showcase containing Gill’s earliest known drawings, examples of automatic writing and postcard drawings, and 12 colour embroideries, including 10 owned by Patricia Beger (see layout diagrams and list of works at the end of this article). All of this is shoehorned into a single space. However, although given the option one might have curated the show over several rooms or in a much larger space, since Gill’s work itself is characterised by dense, shallow pictorial space and a horror vacui, there is something somehow fitting about this hang.

Installation photo, Madge Gill. Myrninerest, showing part of Wall 2 and wall 3
Installation photo, Madge Gill. Myrninerest, showing part of Wall 3 and Wall 4
My morning with Madge Gill left me feeling much better informed about the person and her life. It also got me thinking that there is much more to be said about her art itself. It has left me thinking that I need to go back to the actual works (rather than reproductions) to examine their physical construction and the creative means of their production. It has also left me wanting to investigate Gill’s iconography more deeply. Now that we have much more context for the life, it is perhaps time to engage head-on with the art.

Vivienne Roberts, 'The Art and Spirit of Madge Gill', Light, Vol. 140, June 2019
Sophie Dutton, ed., Madge Gill by Myrninerest, London: Rough Trade, 2019

Below: Exhibition layout and list of works

1 comment:

Michael J Reiss said...

I thought the Morris exhibition and catalogue were both tremendous.