The life of artist Madge Gill

Barbican’s assistant curator, Charlotte Flint, explores the backstory of Madge Gill, the late, Walthamstow-based artist featured in their new exhibition…

A blue plaque dedicated to Madge Gill in 2018, located in Waltham Forest (Credit: Wikicommons/Spudgun67)

The artist Madge Gill was born in Walthamstow, East London in 1882. Aged four, she was signed into the care of Dr Barnardo’s Girls’ Village Home, when her family were declared unfit to care for her.

On 30th July 1896, Gill and 253 other children were transported to Canada by Barnardo’s to find work. Anxious to return home, Gill came back to London in 1900 and started working as a nurse at Whipps Cross Hospital.

She married in 1907 and gave birth to three sons: Laurie, Reggie and Bob. While her husband, Tom, was serving in the Royal Air Force during the First World War, Reggie died from Spanish flu-related pneumonia aged eight, a loss that left Gill devastated.

In early 1920, she experienced her first vision and an overwhelming need to make art, which prompted an outpouring of work: ink drawings on paper and calico, pages of writing and numerous textiles.

A work of art by Walthamstow’s Madge Gill, on display at the Barbican in 2021

The trauma of her son’s death – paired with Gill’s severe health problems and the birth of a stillborn daughter in 1921 – led to her being admitted to the Lady Chichester Hospital in Hove, East Sussex. Her husband was quoted describing her as “queer in her mind”.

Run by the progressive doctor Helen Boyle, the hospital encouraged Gill in her art making, and she continued producing work after she was discharged.

Often rejecting authorship of her works, Gill attributed them to a spirit guide called Myrninerest: “Sometimes, at his dictation, I write for hours covering hundreds of postcards with a strange script.”

After her death in 1961, hundreds of works were found in her home, piled up in cupboards and hidden beneath the bed.

In 1968, British art dealer Victor Musgrave wrote to French painter Jean Dubuffet, offering his Madge Gill artworks to his Art Brut collection. Dubuffet replied swiftly, delighted with the offer.

The acquisition of Gill’s artworks was one of the most significant in Dubuffet’s second phase of collecting Art Brut. As he wrote to Musgrave in 1969: “Those different pieces of work greatly amazed me… I’m very happy to see them integrated into our collection.”

Some of Madge Gill’s work can be seen at the Jean Dubuffet: Brutal Beauty exhibit at Barbican Art Gallery, until Sunday 22nd August 2021. Book your slot at the Barbican website here