Celebration of Walthamstow artists’ life marks beginning of a series of events, writes Sophie Dutton
Self-taught artist Madge Gill, born in 1882 in Walthamstow, created thousands of meticulous ink drawings during her lifetime, many of which reflected her obsession with spiritualism.
A disjointed childhood saw her move from Walthamstow to Barkingside and later on to Canada after her family decided they weren’t willing to support her and placed her in an orphanage. Gill remained in Canada until 1900, before moving back to London and becoming a nurse. A few years later she married her cousin, Tom Gill, and the couple went on to have three sons. However, the couple had a difficult marriage and suffered a number of tragedies. Their second son sadly died in 1918 during the influenza pandemic and a year later, Gill gave birth to a stillborn girl. After this fourth pregnancy, Gill’s health quickly deteriorated.
Coming close to death, she was left with multiple issues including losing her left eye. It was at this time Gill began to create her art, which often resulted in a flurry of seemingly unending drawing activity. This activity, Gill claimed, was encouraged by a spirit guide she came to embody, called ‘Myrninerest’.
Living back in East London, in Newham, Gill instinctively made inspirational, intuitive and beautiful work; drawing in ink and pencil on what she could find and construct, from postcards to a giant 25-foot calico drawing. She also produced various intricate embroideries as well as various pieces of hand-woven clothing.
Her artwork would often feature a young woman dressed in flowing robes, but never gave any indication of who this haunting figure was – perhaps it was her still-born child, the spirit ‘Myrninerest’, or even herself.
To commemorate Madge’s extraordinary life, a blue plaque will be unveiled at the flat she was born in at 71 Walthamstow High Street, at 4pm, Thursday 8th March. This marks the beginning of a programme of events taking place between now and 2019.
After becoming aware of the large quantities of Madge Gill’s beautiful work hidden away in Newham’s archives, I began developing a project in 2014. Working as an independent researcher I wanted to find a way to bring them out of the archives and to share Gill’s story while engaging with the communities she was originally from. The project, Works by Madge Gill, plans to reach a wide audience in Walthamstow, Leyton, and Newham.
Waltham Forest Council is supporting the programme with an art development grant and mapping and heritage trail, with art walks around key sites associated with the artist. We are creating an interactive digital heritage map, freely accessible online, tracing Gill’s places of residence, work and séances – telling the story of her life and art through archival photos, videos, reproductions of artworks, and commentary.
This programme will culminate in an exhibition of Madge Gill’s inspirational rare textiles and prints in 2019.
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