The Clouds Will Burst and the Sun Will Shine Again
Words Tamsin Blanchard
The Clouds Will Burst and the Sun Will Shine Again – how to make art at home inspired by the outsider artist, Madge Gill…
The work of Madge Gill is mysterious, obsessive and strangely compelling. Once you see it, you don’t forget. It gets inside your head. There’s a certain rhythm and energy about the work, whether it’s the small postcards filled with decorative marks and patterns, or the large scale embroideries that are so heavily worked, at first glance look like a cross between tapestry and felt, stitched obsessively without seeming to follow any plan, pattern or established technique.
There’s a joy and freedom in the use of colour, as much as there is a sense of unease that this work was a result of her early childhood experience when, born in 1882, an illegitimate child, she was taken to Barnardo’s at the age of nine and shipped off to Canada to live with a foster family.
For many, the first encounter with Gill’s work was at an exhibition of her work at the William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow (where Gill was born) in 2019. For the exhibition’s curator, Sophie Dutton, Gill had got into the head of her late father who had discovered her work hidden away in the archives of Newham Council. Intrigued by her father’s fascination, Dutton made an appointment to see some of the work, and so the Gill worm worked its way inside her head too. “Obsessed with spiritualism, she often attributed her inspiration for these thousands of intricate ink drawings and embroideries to her ethereal guide, ‘Myrninerest’, and the channeling of this spirit gave Madge Gill a new outlook and energy which shaped her life’s work,” writes Dutton in the introduction to the book that accompanied the show which is currently being celebrated by its publisher Rough Trade Books.
As we emerge from lockdown, the work of Madge Gill, who was self-taught and literally couldn’t stop herself from drawing, writing, stitching, painting and even singing, producing endless works of art at home, seems to be particularly relevant at a time when craft and art have become an outlet for so many as a release of anxiety and a way of maintaining control over a situation beyond any of us.
In her essay in the book, Cathy Ward writes: “To me, Madge Gill was a witness to a world turned inside out, and was trying to make sense and repair it.” Gill started her prolific career in 1919, after WW1 and the Flu pandemic. “The outside world was grim and often a shattered broken environment but she populated it with a buoyant thriving inner world of spirited ladies or moon-faced infants. Was she resurrecting the lost?”
The link between mental health and craft are of course well known today and Gill’s own doctor at the time, Helen Boyle, who treated her at the Lady Chichester Hospital in Hove encouraged her to work on drawings and paintings. Boyle later went on to set up the charity Mind. Heaven knows how much work she would have produced if she had been alive over the past three months. One rug Gill created contains at least two million stitches and was the result of six months’ work.
In an article on supernormal art in Prediction Magazine in Gill talked about how she began to create in 1919, in her late 20s. “I then had an inspiration to take up my pen and do all kinds of work of an artistic type. I felt that I had an artistic faculty seeking expression. First of all knitting, doing pieces of knitting on one knitting needle without any pattern.” She went on to produce an enormous body of work including ink drawings, murals, textile pieces and embroideries as well as making items of clothing.
In Dutton’s book there is an interview with a fashion designer Jenny Kee who recalls buying a Madge Gill dress when she worked at the Chelsea Antique Market with her boss and mentor, Vern Lambert. He bought it around 1968: “I was fascinated by the wild embroidery and knew it was by a medium called Madge Gill who used to embroider whilst in a trance. That excited me even more.” She acquired the dress and says she wore it only once because it was very fragile. “ I loved the fact it was on muslin fabric, with wild and uneven stitching, just how I would love to embroider if I could,” she writes. Reading this story made me realise who the women Gill drew reminded me of when I saw them at the William Morris Gallery – the naïve portraits brought to mind the late Italian Vogue fashion editor, eccentric and collector, Anna Piaggi. Piaggi was good friends with Vern Lambert and I am sure would have been familiar with – and fascinated by Gill’s work. I am surprised she didn’t buy the dress herself.
As it is, in the spirit of Grayson Perry’s Art Club (he is a fan, of course, saying “Madge Gill teaches us that you can produce a gorgeous and prodigious body of work, self-taught from home, also the power of art to deal with painful experiences”), Rough Trade Books have made Madge Gill their focus for the summer. Aimed at the many people who have been furloughed or facing a long summer ahead, they are put together a series of online workshops, including poetry led by Charlotte Newman inspired by Gill’s automatic writing, embroidery and dyeing workshops by Lola Lely, (Hole & Corner regular as well as artist at residence at the William Morris Gallery), and patchwork sound-art by Susanna Grant and Joey Morris based on a quote from one of Gill’s postcards: “The clouds will burst and the sun will shine again.” All of these activities can be done at home and the publishers are encouraging creative souls and Madge Gill disciples to get involved and share your creations using the hashtag #MadgeGillArtAtHome.