Madge Gill, Spiritualism and Outsider Art

Our current exhibition British Outsider Art (which runs until 3 November), includes three works by Madge Gill, an artist whose drawings are also currently on display at the Nunnery Gallery. This Madge Gill Retrospective takes the form of three exhibitions, each one co-curated by a contemporary artist, with works drawn from the huge – and rarely seen – collection of drawings held by the London Borough of Newham (where Madge lived for much of her life).

The exhibition catalogue includes new research into Gill’s life and work byDeanna Petherbridge, Sara Ayad and Gary Haines. This includes information on her exhibitions at the East End Academies (her works were present in all but one show between 1932 and 1947), and reflections on her position in British Outsider Art, in addition to a chronology of her life personalised by details from letters. Her prolific creations, which she felt emerged under the influence of a spirit guide name Myrninerest, seem to have been an ongoing puzzle to herself and others. Thirty-five years after beginning drawing and painting, Madge wrote that “here I am with it still unsolved, & I seem to be losing my hold on life.” She died seven years later, aged 79, her house filled with the artworks she refused to sell, claiming them to belong to Myrninerest. This is reflected in the design of the exhibition itself, in which the centre-piece (pictured below) is a large bed: pull-out drawers in the frame filled with intricately patterned postcards.

Historians have often suggested a connection between spiritualism and feminism: in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, mediumship was one of the few fields in which women could gain considerable power. Many mediums, both on the public circuit and working with scientists and psychologists in an effort to document the phenomena (and mental states) arising, were female and often achieved considerable acclaim, something well-documented in Alex Owen’s The Darkened Room: Women, Power and Spiritualism in Late Victorian England (1989). The wistful quotation from Gill at the beginning of the exhibition catalogue certainly strikes a chord in this respect: “If I had been a man I would have gone abroad & studied botany.” While spiritualism is a notion that frequently receives derision today, in its heyday many people found the concepts comforting and liberating.

The Madge Gill Retrospective at the Nunnery Gallery takes place in three stages:

Friday 15 June – Thursday 16 August

Friday 24 August – Thursday 1 November

Friday 9 November – Thursday 17 January

For more information, visit the Bow Arts website.

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