THE life's work of one of east London's most prolific and collectable artists remains hidden in storage in Newham.

Madge Gill hoarded thousands of drawings over a period of 40 years, but hardly ever exhibited during her lifetime and never sold her work.

Today her art is highly prized by a cult following willing to pay thousands of pounds for a full-size piece, and much of it is owned and carefully kept by Newham Council's Heritage Service.

Due to its physical fragility and the lack of a space to show it, the collection is seen by the public almost as rarely as when the artist was alive, hiding it away under her bed and in her wardrobe.

Today Madge Gill is typically referred to as an Outsider Artist, as she was untutored and had worked more for herself than for public exhibition.

Her pictures are apparently inward-looking and private in meaning, and cannot be fitted into any wider artistic movement or category.

They do not appear to be influenced by the work of other non-Outsider artists whose work, however personal, is produced with the purpose of communicating with the world outside.

During her lifetime she was virtually unknown to the mainstream art world's network of galleries, exhibitions and critics.

Madge Gill was born Maude Ethel Eades in 1882, but as an illegitimate child she was hidden by her mother and sent to an orphanage, aged nine.

After a stint as a farm servant in Canada, she returned to east London to stay with an aunt, and at 25 married her cousin, a stockbroker named Thomas Edwin Gill.

However Madge showed no interest in drawing until her life was turned upside down by illness and personal tragedy.

Although it is always lurid, tacky and useless to explain an artist's work using nothing but a few sketchy biographical details, there are some key events in Madge Gill's life that at least give us a starting point for understanding her drawings.

Reggie, the second of her three sons, died in the global Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, and the following year Madge gave birth to a stillborn baby girl before becoming ill herself, losing sight in one eye and being confined to bed for several months.

As she recovered, she began delving into the spiritualism her aunt had introduced her to years earlier and started producing drawings in the fluid, near-abstract style she used for the next 40 years.

Madge regularly held seances and maintained that her drawings were not her own work, but that of her spirit guide, Myrninerest, whose signature can be found on much of her work.

Although she occasionally exhibited at the Whitechapel Gallery's annual East End Academy, she refused to sell her work, as she was reluctant to take ownership of it.

Often worked in bed by the light of an oil lamp or in total darkness, Madge Gill rendered her drawings in black or coloured inks on "found" materials including postcards, cardboard and in one case, a roll of calico more than 40ft long.

Her homes were in Plashet Grove, East Ham, and Thorngrove Road, Plaistow.

Her work is described as "mediumistic", and she apparently believed herself to be channelling images and symbols from an alternate reality where physical objects - such as fragments of architecture or the female form - break down into abstract lines and twisted geometerical shapes.

Although her drawing technique was not advanced, the work shows an expert eye for composition and arrangement of form and line.

A near-constant in Madge Gill's output are repeated, disembodied and doll-like faces. Although it is tempting to assume they represent herself, or the spirits of her children whose deaths apparently caused her to draw, she made very little public comment on her work and kept its meaning to herself.

In 1958, her son Bob died, and Madge Gill abruptly stopped drawing and turned to alcohol.

She died three years later, and after her death her work was donated by her family to the former County Borough of East Ham.

It first gained public recognition in 1979 at a Hayward Gallery show of Outsider Art. Since then it has been loaned for exhibition around the world, most recently at the Whitechapel Gallery's show, Inner Worlds Outside, which closed in June.

A few pieces are on permanent display in the Collection de l'Art Brut, Lausanne, and others are held by Outsider Collection, an archive donated to the Tate Gallery last year, but the vast majority is still owned by Newham Council.

When sold, pieces change hands for as much as £2,000.

Additional images courtesy of the Whitechapel Art Gallery. We would like to clarify that in last week's feature on Jack Cornwell, all images were contributed by Newham Heritage Service.