Art Exhibition Review – Madge Gill: Medium and Visionary – Orleans House Gallery

To mark today’s World Mental Health Day, which focuses this year on older adults, we’re posting a review of last night’s opening of Madge Gill: Medium and Visionary at Orleans House Gallery in Twickenham.

Madge Gill Invitation Illustration Henry-Boxer-Gallery

This exhibition brings together some 100 artworks together with supporting documents and photographs providing the most comprehensive overview of Gill’s work to date. Further information is supplied in an excellent catalogue compiled and edited by Mark de Novellis, who has curated this fascinating show alongside Henry Boxer, Roger Cardinal and Vivienne Roberts, all of whom have contributed to the publication.

From 1919 Gill produced works in various media, including knitting, embroidery, rug-making, and drawing in inks – this last proving her richest vein and being the main focus for the exhibition. Her output was achieved over a forty year period, with the most prolific phase taking place in the 1950s.

It is fitting to start with Madge Gill’s own words: “It was in 1919 when I first started my work. I then had an inspiration to take up my pen and do all kinds of works of an artistic type. I felt that I had an artistic faculty seeking expression. It took various forms. First of all, knitting – even without any pattern. Then came a flow of all kinds of inspirational writing, mostly Biblical.

madge gill floral abstract_resizeThen I felt impelled to execute drawings on a large scale on calico. I simply couldn’t leave it and I did on average 20 pictures a week, all in colour. All the time I was in quite a normal state of mind and there was no suggestion of a ‘spirit’ standing beside me. I simply felt inspired. Sometimes I would be dissatisfied with the work and tear it up or burn it. But I felt I was definitely guided by an unseen force, though I could not say what its actual nature was. “  Extract from an interview in Prediction Magazine, 1937.

Madge Gill 151 Black ink on board Abstract circle 20 24 inchesFor Outsider artists more often than not the creative process is an internal exploration. Gill later spoke of hearing voices throughout her life and of the spirit which propelled her creative urges, known as Myrninerest. Most of her artwork is unsigned but where it is marked, credit is given solely to her spirit guide. She refused to sell her pieces on the basis that the work didn’t belong to her but to Myrninerest. There is evidence that she was known as a psychic and medium, certainly a visionary in some respects. It has also been suggested that she may have been schizophrenic but no diagnosis was made. She did have a spell in the Lady Chichester Hospital for Women and Children in Hove, an establishment focused on the ‘borderland’ between wellness and ill health, more specifically mental health. Certainly her life, both the traumatic early years and the periods surrounding the stillbirth of her daughter and the death of one of her sons at the age of 8 would suggest that she suffered from depression. Her family as an adult however seemed to accept her as she was, this despite a strained relationship with her husband. In later life her sons supported her and embraced their mother’s strange and often compulsive behaviour, enabling her to continue to produce work until she died in her seventies. By that time she had amassed a couple of thousand artworks, with over 1200 bequeathed by her son Laurie to their local East Ham County Borough Council, now looked after by the London Borough of Newham. Many of these works have been included in this exhibition.

Madge Gill selfportraitMadge Gill was born in 1882 and died in 1961. A short biography, written by Roger Cardinal is available on a website dedicated to her work and life. Cardinal, who is currently working on a full biography, is an acknowledged expert on Gill and more generally on Outsider art, an expression he coined in 1972 when his seminal book of the same name was first published covering what had previously been described as ‘Art Brut’. As Cardinal writes in a comprehensive essay in the exhibition catalogue’s introduction: “Creative inspiration can travel down unsuspected paths and sometimes visits individuals who know nothing of art history and who have little idea of the world of high art frequented by intellectuals, critics , connoisseurs, teachers and cultured enthusiasts. Such individuals need no training and are often satisfied with a minimum of acclaim, for their commitment to personal expression thrives independently of the interest or approval of others. Outsider artists, as they have come to be called, enjoy their idiosyncratic approach to creation and operate with sublime self-assurance, ignoring the beaten track of the art class and the public gallery. Madge Gill was one such exponent of self-justifying and unmonitored art-making, and today long after her death, her reputation as an outstanding example of creative individualism continues to grow. This long overdue retrospective honours her as a rare exemplar of self-reliant artistry.”

Madge Gill Three draped figures in a chequered settingSpeaking at the exhibition opening Cardinal suggested that the presence of a spiritual guide in Gill’s life might have provided the permission she needed to give herself to dedicate most of her time to her art: “She was minded to do it,” he said. He also points out that “Gill’s craftsmanship is characterised by dogged perseverance.” Later on she worked on rolls on canvas that she had no hope of viewing in full in the small room that she worked in at home. At this stage she agreed to exhibit her work publicly perhaps with the sole aim of seeing these large pieces in their entirety. One of these, a monumental pen and ink work on calico entitled The Crucifixion of The Soul, measures 11 metres and is displayed in the Orleans House show.

Madge Gill artwork untitledWhat shines through in this inspiring, extensive yet intimate exhibition, is Gill’s unstinting dedication to making her mark, her obsessive attention to detail and her almost unerring need to cover every centimetre of the surface. A proliferation of faces, watchful eyes, geometric shapes and intense surface decoration permeates almost all the works – a veritable outpouring of creativity. There is a good cross section of monochrome works interspersed with many of her sensitively coloured pieces, displays of her postcards, found in numerous boxes under her bed following her death. The attic and virtually other rooms held more caches.

The arts team at Richmond Upon Thames Borough and the co-curators have created an extraordinary testament to this extraordinary woman. Thanks to a grant from the Wellcome Trust, the Orleans House Gallery exhibition and accompanying catalogue has also enabled new multi-disciplinary research into Madge Gill’s creativity via a team which includes Dr Paul Camic, Professor of Psychology and Public Health and mental health historian Dr Rob Ellis.

MadgeGill abstract blue yellowAs Dr Camic writes: “Wellbeing is not a fixed place that, once we arrive, remains constant. Our wellbeing is something that fluctuates depending on the challenges we face and the resources we can muster. Madge Gill faced an enormous number of challenges in her life. Her art-making can be seen as a kind of comeback to these challenges and appreciated as a creative and life-affirming response to external events and the internal emotional upheaval which they caused. While the meaning and purpose of her art-making was multi-determined and multifaceted, there are two fundamental ways in which it can be psychologically understood; how it helped to form an important element of her resilience and how it was used as a resource that contributed to her fluctuating sense of wellbeing.”

This brings us neatly to another constructive spin off afforded by the Madge Gill retrospective: Richmond Borough’s Art & Soul Project.  Members of this already well-established group have been working on their own pieces, informed and inspired by Gill’s artwork. A section of the space at Orleans House Gallery displays some of their exciting new work. This member led organisation aims to provide a positive framework in which people with mental health issues can express themselves, develop new skills and make a positive contribution using active participation and the group experience to give many a needed boost in self-confidence and self worth during difficult periods in their lives. One might suggest that first and foremost though participation in the project  offers a chance for self-expression and creativity, a compelling sometimes healing life force which Gill’s outstanding and extensive oeuvre amply illustrates.

Review © Emma Boden, Armadillo Central

Text extracts: Madge Gill Medium & Visionary, published by Orleans House Gallery, ISBN 1-902643-17-8

Pictures courtesy of / © : London Borough of Newham Heritage and Archives; Musée de l’Art Brut, Lausanne; Henry Boxer Gallery; De Novellis Collection.

Madge Gill The SpiritualistMadge Gill: Medium & Visionary runs until the 26th January 2014 at Orleans House Gallery, Riverside, Twickenham, TW1 3DJ. Admission is free. Tuesday to Saturday 1pm to 4.30pm; Sunday and Bank Holidays 2pm to 4.30pm.

Find out more about:

Madge Gill

The Art & Soul Project

Madge Gill artwork b

Schizophrenia Shouldn’t be a Life Sentence (14 November 2012) – The Guardian by Zoe Williams

Did you know that schizophrenia is the most common cause of hospitalisation? While we wait for the Troubadour music benefit pictures to wing their way across the net, here’s a salutary reminder that our fundraising venture on Saturday was and remains crucially important. This piece follows the publication of The Schizophrenia Commission by Rethink Mental Illness earlier in November.

Article first published in the Comment is Free section of The Guardian on November 14th. See link below, well worth visiting for the comments. With thanks to Zoe Williams, British columnist and journalist and The Guardian newspaper.

© 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited

Creative Commons picture by Francesco de Comite

Creative Commons Picture by Francesco de Comite

Schizophrenia Shouldn’t be a Life Sentence. But it will be.

Patients used to be given only pills. They respond far better when asked about their lives – that’s the bit that costs, though.

They call it the Abandoned Illness, in the Schizophrenia commission’s report – but not, they emphasise, because it is an illness society can afford to abandon. In fact, schizophrenia costs the health service more than cancer or heart disease. It’s the most common cause of hospitalisation, and – since it won’t go away on its own – will last a lifetime with the level of care patients often receive.

There is a high level of coercion; every year, more people are admitted to hospital against their will as surrounding services are cut. The conditions in mental health units are so demoralized, overcrowded, grotty and often dangerous, that every time you’re admitted against your will, that experience in itself will make you progressively less likely to go in of your own accord. Coercive care is the most expensive form of treatment you could ever devise; last year it cost £1.2bn, about 19% of the mental health budget.

Patients are often put on drugs which then aren’t monitored. They’re given no access to talking therapies, and after a decade or two the side-effects of the drugs may have become more problematic and more defining than the illness itself. Partly as a consequence of this, partly because the time isn’t taken to involve them in the treatment of their physical health, people with severe mental illnesses die 15 to 20 years earlier than the rest of the population.

If engaging with the NHS is difficult, then engaging with the surrounding network, the benefits system, is rendered more so by an institutional dimwittedness that often sounds deliberate.

My stepmother, whose son has a diagnosis of schizophrenia, read me the questions on the disability living allowance form: “I am not motivated to wash: how often? How long each time? I am not aware of common dangers: how often? How long each time?; I might wander: how often? How long each time?” The traits ascribed to serious mental illness are often wildly off, as if the person devising the form couldn’t be bothered to look up the illness on Wikipedia and didn’t even aim for an internal logic to their own questions. And all that is pre-Atos, whose assessments on mental illness are so ignorant that in July the Public Law Project won the right to take them to judicial review.

Slipping through benefits assessments; being left on drug regimes that are accompanied by many other problems (weight gain sounds trivial, but as a cause of premature death, it isn’t); never getting the cognitive behavioural therapy Nice recommends – all these things heap on pressure, and the result is often crisis hospitalisation.

In a way, this situation is totally predictable. You take a diagnosis that is at once very fixed (a life sentence, incurable) but at the same time, very fluid (taking in so many symptoms, covering so much ground) and it is unsurprising to find its treatment marked by low morale and inertia.

But that’s nothing like the full story of this report. Nearly a decade ago an early intervention programme (EIP) was started whose defining features weren’t, as its name suggests, just arriving fast on the scene of a recent diagnosis. Instead, as consultant clinical psychologist Dr Alison Brabben explains: “It was quite a break away from traditional mental health services. Previously, schizophrenia was seen as a purely biological condition, the diagnosis was made and then people were given a pill to try to make the symptoms better. No one ever asked about people’s lives.”

EIP staff had small caseloads and were highly trained, and they could refer people to cognitive behavioural and family therapies – that’s the bit that cost the money. The part patients valued was that they were asked real questions about their concerns. Plenty of people can live with delusions and voices: it’s some other factor that makes their lives unliveable. It’s probably related to money or relationships, like everybody else’s problems are. It sounds so obvious, doesn’t it? When you listen to people they engage more, they can make use of the support you’re offering and they’re less likely to end up in hospital.

Nevertheless, it remains contentious, because part of the treatment involves allowing for the possibility that the disease was caused by trauma.

Medicine, and indeed society, frames its questions in a binary way: it’s either chemical or it’s psycho-social. It’s either incurable or it’s curable. In fact, it has been clear for a long time that the chemical explanation for psychosis was incomplete. If you look at the constituency of people with the diagnosis, black groups are far more likely to be represented, and yet these high rates aren’t found in Africa or the Caribbean. Being black isn’t the problem. It’s being black in Britain. Being poor, being discriminated against, being bullied. “If you could remove early adversity, you would probably remove a third of cases of psychosis,” Brabben says. And yet the trauma explanation isn’t complete either – what about the other two-thirds?

Ultimately, treatment will lie in the grey areas – the causes that remain unknown, the interventions that can’t be measured in milligrams, whose success is defined in terms of “personal recovery” and doesn’t look the same in any two people. More pressingly, local commissioning bodies must resist the urge to cut costs by driving up caseloads and driving down training; the process of sucking the time and warmth and energy out of the relationship which, in many places, has already begun. It might sound cheaper, but it won’t be. Local commissioners, it will get you where it hurts, right in your fiendishly expensive, locum-staffed secure units, which should be a last resort – and too often have been the only resort.

Link to original Comment is Free/The Guardian article here.

The Savagery of Schizophrenia (20 October 2012 – The Times) by Caitlin Moran

Powerful and utterly coherent, another re-blog, this time from an original piece by Caitlin Moran, author, broadcaster, TV critic and columnist at The Times.

The savagery of schizophrenia: ‘I have two people in my life with schizophrenia – one paranoid, one undiagnosed’
Caitlin Moran, 21 October 2012:
Read the article here:

© 2012 Times Newspapers Ltd. All rights reserved

Picture of The DNA Spiral by Charles Jencks - Free Pictures -

The DNA Spiral by Charles Jencks

Photographer: Ian Britton, 2001, from

Next Fundraiser for Mental Health – Time For A Rethink

It’s official: our next fundraising gig will be in aid of Rethink, who celebrate their 40th anniversary this year. They started out as the National Schizophrenia Fellowship, operating at a time when conditions such as schizophrenia and bipolar (then know as manic depression), were barely spoken about. Anyone diagnosed with or caring for someone affected by these wide ranging and often debilitating conditions was almost utterly bereft of any support, let alone information. Thanks to the work of Rethink, and that of a few other pioneering charities including SANE (the beneficiaries of another of our ongoing campaigns), times have changed.

Speaking of pioneering efforts and times changing, the now aptly renamed Rethink Mental Health and Mind’s joint campaign to address stigma, Time To Change, has had a massive and wide-reaching impact on people’s perception and understanding of mental health issues. Their approach has been inclusive and broad, bringing the stigma commonly associated with tackling mental health to the very top of the agenda on TV, radio and also crucially through social media channels and onto the internet. Thanks to the web, people from all over the world are now able to access resources which continue to improve almost daily.

Please take a few minutes to watch this powerful and ground-breaking film produced for the Time To Change campaign. It’s not just relevant to young people and clearly it doesn’t just concern the British population:

Time to Change film link: The Stand Up Kid

As I write, the number of viewers is 53,410 – this video was published on the 12th September 2012, 17 days and less than 3 weeks ago.

There are lots of interesting comments and currrently 504 likes and 21 dislikes – the latter making you wonder who and why they felt the need to disapprove. Therein perhaps lies part of the story about stigma. Anyone touched by mental health issues, whether personally or professionally, knows that stigma remains one of the biggest issues. This is no time for complacency. Whilst the dialogue is more open nowadays, we still need to keep talking. The Time To Change film highlights how difficult talking can be and how crucial it is, from both sides of the fence. The more we can communicate this to others the better. Please share this film and please keep talking.

Find out more about Rethink via our Charities page where you can also donate direct to any of the organisations that we highlight.

To find out more about our forthcoming music benefit for Rethink, please check back soon, join our mailing list thefinelineproject (at) gmail (dot) com or follow us on Facebook or Twitter.