A personal journey through the extraordinary archives of one of Britain’s most creative and visionary self-taught artists, Madge Gill by Myrninerest, edited by Sophie Dutton, is the latest publication from Rough Trade Books. David Keenan reviews.
Madge Gill – self-taught artist, otherworldly channel, embroideress, clairvoyant, recording angel – was one of the “friendless”; abandoned by her mother, her father unknown, given up to care homes and shipped to Canada to work as a maid. On her return she heard the voice of God, and Christ and his angels appeared to her in a vision, alongside a beaming Dr Barnardo. She married her cousin, lost a son at a young age, suffered miscarriages, gave birth to a still-born baby and lived through two world wars. As she came under the spell of her presiding demon, Myrninerest, she began to write in an automatic script that she was vouchsafed that, when decoded, would reveal the true story of what happened in Eden. And she began to paint, and draw, and write, and sew, obsessively.
Her drawings are noumenal, geometric, architectural; more of the generation of matter than matter itself, of form eternally coming-into form. One of her most arresting works, the painting, on the back of a postcard, entitled “Egyptian Mumies Cave ind les gurdein of Eden”, depicts what could be a womb or a tomb, a repository of uncanny forms that, autobiographically, at least, would seem haunted by her lost and stillborn children.
Madge Gill by Myrninerest, a beautifully-assembled collection of reproductions, interviews, memorabilia and writing on Gill’s work, is released to coincide with a major exhibition at the William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow, London, where Gill lived for many years.
Her work ranges from gnomic black and white sketches on postcards and massive, unfolding scrolls – like the obsessively intricate (and 36-foot long) “Kharma” – through dresses, blankets and multi-coloured psychedelic embroidery, all, Gill claimed, in the service of God.
Still, near the end of her life Gill admitted that she never “solved” her art, never received the revelation that it seems to intimate. And so commentators read it backwards, as if the answer to Gill’s art, the solving of it, lay in autobiography, in trauma and in loneliness. Her obsession with Eden, her fellowship with God, lay in her loss, and was psychological; a mechanism, and understandably so. But it is possible to read it poetically, magically, too: her visions commence with the removal of her left eye and its replacement with an eye of glass.
In her friendlessness, and its seeming centrality as engine-of-creation, she has much in common with outsider artists like Morton Bartlett and Henry Darger (whose “Vivian Girls” series her long-form scrolls sometimes resemble), and there are visual similarities to Adolf Wölfli, too.
But there is something more, something that draws you deeper, a presence in the work, just like Gill claimed, that goes beyond mere psychologising. An uncovering of a way of coming into being that is somehow less than, and simultaneously beyond, materiality. The endless reproductions of her own blank face in her work (or so it would seem) sees her reappear as an angel to herself, as co-conspirator. I, God, she signs some of her works. And sometimes the angels look worried and shocked, and sometimes they look like they might smile, even as they are imprisoned in impossibly dense geometries, in the repeating shapes of biology, and of inescapable biography.
The book is ingeniously designed, in a way that parallels the multiple proposals that Gill’s work offers, with pull-out and fold-out sections, reproductions of newspaper cuttings, close-up colour photographs of the warp and weave – the very systole and diastole – of her long-lost embroideries.
An embroiderer is someone who bigs up a story, who inflates the facts until they speak like poetry, and Gill was the embroiderer of her own life, and of God and the Fates, too. Which is the poetry of Gill’s work, and the feeling that stays with you as you come under the spell of this beautifully produced book; a presence that is neither of, nor not of, this world.
Madge Gill by Myrninerest is out and available here, priced £24.99.