The mysterious and enigmatic artist Madge Gill (1882-1961) defied all expectations of being a working class woman in the early 20th century. Hidden away at home, she produced a seemingly endless wealth of unique artwork almost entirely away from the public eye. Gill had no formal training, she produced the work on her own terms outside of the male dominated mainstream art world, while connecting to spiritualism in response to her own psychological turmoil. In doing so, she became one of the most subversive stitchers to date, challenging all preconceptions of her supposed role in a gendered society.

Madge Gill at the Eades Family Home c.1904. Courtesy Betty Newman.

By the time Gill began creating work aged 38, her disjointed and eventful life had paved the way for her to begin an incredible creative journey. Born an illegitimate child in 1882 in Walthamstow, London, Madge Gill had a disjointed childhood and life of personal tragedy. It was these experiences that inspired her to begin making art, producing thousands of intricate ink drawings and embroideries, many of which reflected her obsession with spiritualism.

Gill’s childhood saw her move from Walthamstow, to Barkingside and later on to Canada when she was 14 to work on a farm, after her family realised they weren’t willing to support her and placed her in an orphanage. Gill remained in Canada until she was 18, she moved back to London in October 1900 and became a nurse at Whipps Cross Hospital in Leytonstone. 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. Gill’s health deteriorated in the years to come with a lengthy illness resulting in the loss of her left eye.

Madge Gill embroidery, rediscovered in 2018.


It was around this time Gill, now 38, began to create her art, which often resulted in a flurry of seemingly unending drawing activity. This activity, Gill explained, was encouraged by a spirit guide she came to embody called Myrninerest. Shortly after the start of her prolific artistic production she gave birth to a stillborn girl in 1921. Her grief manifested itself in a deep depression and she underwent treatment in Hove for an undiagnosed psychiatric condition. Here she was encouraged to keep creating her artwork as a means of processing her traumatic experiences.


After finding this creative outlet Gill continued to make work for the rest of her life. While living 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 giant 30ft calico drawings. 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 figure was – perhaps it was the spirit ‘Myrninerest’ or even herself.

Madge Gill embroidery, rediscovered in 2018.

Gill’s childhood saw her move from Walthamstow, to Barkingside and later on to Canada when she was 14 to work on a farm, after her family realised they weren’t able to support her and placed her in an orphanage. Gill remained in Canada until she was 18, she moved back to London in October 1900 and became a nurse at Whipps Cross Hospital in Leytonstone. A few years later she married her cousin, Tom Gill and the couple went on to have three sons. However, they 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.

Complications proved almost fatal and a lengthy illness resulted in the loss of her left eye. Her grief manifested itself in a deep depression and she underwent treatment in Hove for an undiagnosed psychiatric condition. It was at this time Gill, now 38, began to create her art, which often resulted in a flurry of seemingly unending drawing activity. This activity, Gill explained, was encouraged by a spirit guide she came to embody called Myrninerest.

Now living in Newham, Gill instinctively made inspirational and intuitive work; drawing in ink and pencil on what she could find and construct, from postcards to giant 30ft calico drawings. 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 the spirit ‘Myrninerest’ or even herself.

Madge Gill embroidery, rediscovered in 2018.

Gill’s embroideries are mesmeric explosions of colour, free flowing pattern and seemingly infinite threads. They present a self-taught and unrestrained stitching technique which uses a repetitive method, layering the threads over and over, blending the freeform patterns and colour to make the fabric appear almost painted. Enormous quantities of thread were used to complete each unique item, the untied threads spill out over the edges and her stitches fill every inch, overflowing their framework of calico or torn bedsheets and giving the impression of no beginning and no end to the embroidery. The threads are so tightly stitched that the calico foundation is no longer visible on the reverse of each work and the final pieces often warp and pucker. These undulating waves in the fabric create a hypnotic landscape of colour that bring her patterning to life.

Gill’s embroidery technique is undoubtedly intertwined with her drawing style; intricate, repetitive with a feeling of horror vacui. Her instinct and eagerness to make is reflected in the foundations of her work, she drew, painted and stitched on whatever she could, from postcards to 50ft lengths of calico. Working to such enormous scales makes you wonder how far she could go if there was no boundary at all. The majority of these wildly expressive acts were kept behind closed doors. This however clearly did not impact the artistic quality of her revelatory work.

Madge Gill embroidery, rediscovered in 2018.

Her boundless freedom of expression and the sea of colour she worked with stood in complete contrast to the oppressive environment outside of her home. Living in a working class area in Newham throughout the 2nd World War, life outside her terraced home was far more conservative, rationed and restrained. Her creative outpouring proving to stand against the restricted and limiting expectations of her time. As the Art Historian and psychotherapist Rozsika Parker famously wrote in the foreword of her landmark publication The Subversive Stitch: Embroidery and the Making of the Feminine, 1984 ‘…to know the history of embroidery is to know the history of women’. During this time, embroidery was considered a female endeavour for house wives for the purpose of passing time as a hobby, fixing domestic items or to create something functional. Madge Gill’s extraordinary and overlooked textile work stands in stark contrast, there is no functional purpose, no precision and no obvious relation to the fine art world. Gill’s pioneering and even revolutionary work offered a means of psychological repair for the troubled artist and transcended the norms and expectations of the time.

‘Madge Gill by Myrninerest’, edited by Sophie Dutton

To read more about Madge Gill’s life and hear about upcoming events please visit worksby-madgegill.co . Or pick up a copy of ‘Madge Gill by Myrninerest’, edited by Sophie Dutton and available from Rough Trade Books.

All artworks featured in the article are from a collection of 11 embroideries, that had not been seen since the artists death in 1961, and were uncovered during Sophie’s research into Gill in 2018. They were exhibited for the first time at the landmark exhibition ‘Madge Gill – Myrninerest’ at the William Morris Gallery in 2019.  Collection Patricia Beger. Photography Paul Tucker.

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Words: Sophie Dutton

About: Sophie Dutton is an Art Director, Graphic Designer and Curator based in London. With a passion for exploring and celebrating marginalised artists, Sophie founded Works by Madge Gill with the aim to share the artist’s work and story with the communities she was originally connected to.