I was upset with life; I’d been having a really tough time. I travelled home from London to Essex for a day. In my old bedroom, I found the red tin I used to keep all my colours in. I decided I’d take it with me. That night, back in London, I listened to all my Dad’s Army tapes from childhood and painted all night. I felt much better. Ever since then I haven’t stopped. Painting feels natural. I don’t overthink or worry. I just find it very peaceful.”
Meet Madeleine Godsill, an Essex-born painter based in London. Madeleine creates bold portraits of women in which thick black outlines define clusters of vibrant watercolours.
You meet Madeleine at the speciality coffee shop in Chiswick. The coffee shop’s building has a charming workspace above the main café space. As you sit, the craning sun’s light diffuses through a blind onto solid wooden floorboards. Summer has been late in passing the baton to autumn, having held its grip so firmly for so long.
Growing up in Leigh-on-Sea, Madeleine’s was surrounded by a creative family, the focal point of which was, for Madeleine, her mother’s cooking. Her father is an architect, her sister painted at home and her brother had a passion for film which blossomed into a career in post-production.
Madeleine was involved in various creative pursuits from a young age, taking up ballet for 14 years, flute for 8, piano for 7. Her love of cooking, reading and writing combined, and taking particular inspiration from Jay Rayner, she became obsessed with becoming a food critic but struggled to find her voice in culinary culture.
Aged 18, Madeleine decided to pursue Comparative Literature at University of Kent. As she progressed through the years she found her love and appreciation for the written word kept growing. In her second year, Madeleine took a module called Women and the Body. The topic fascinated her. And in her final year, she developed her interests further with a dissertation on exploring the topic of sexuality in Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Death in Venice.
I recommend this to everybody: you have to read the first paragraph of Lady Chatterley’s Lover. They’re the most beautiful words ever. It’s a fascinating book. Of course, it was banned and seen as crude. But he was just trying to express sexuality via these characters.”
Following university, Madeleine went to the other side of the world. Living in Sydney, Australia, she worked in a hostel and coffee shop. Saving money with free rent, Madeleine finished off her trip with a tour of South East Asia—Thailand, Indonesia, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Singapore.
My mother called me a nomad!
After the expiry of her visa, Madeleine had to readjust to life at home. She lived at home and worked in a local bakery. She desperately wanted to write and started a blog, but eventually found that she couldn’t keep it going. Leigh-on-Sea didn’t inspire her enough and she began to feel London calling. London had opportunities—and more restaurants.
Madeleine took a job at a cookery school. She worked her way up from customer manager to events manager.
“The events manager role was being passed over an event, get numbers, payments, and upsell drinks packages. At Christmas, there’d be back to back events, 9am to midnight. As much as I loved the people and the food, after a while it broke me. At the end I was miserable. If you met me then, there would have been a little grey cloud above my head. It sounds quite negative. There were a lot of positives. I had to host events and classes. I had to do a speech at the beginning of everything, introduce myself and the cookery school. I had to do speeches in front of hundreds of people. I was quite shy, but it really got me out of my shell. You’d have to ding a glass and a hundred people from Facebook or from Google would then be looking at you.”
Before she knew it, two years had passed.
I think I was just existing. I’d get the bus to Shepherd’s Bush, get the tube to Bond Street, and go to work. I was drinking, working, drinking, working, and sometimes even drinking whilst I was working.”
Madeleine reached a crisis when, all in one month, she ended a relationship, left her flat and quit her job.
“It was like purging myself of all the negativity in my life.”
Madeleine sought refuge in the ruins of her past life. These ruins turned out to be the foundations for understanding herself in her new one.
“If I hadn’t had a failed job, failed flat, failed relationship, I wouldn’t be doing this now. You need certain triggers to break you. And then you build yourself back up again. I think I was finally realising who I am, or what I am, or that I can be this.”
With the red tin of colours in London, Madeleine began painting regularly. She also took a job as a barista in Chiswick. Not only did the coffee shop become a cornerstone of her support network, it also offered her a platform for her art: exhibiting her works in the main space, Madeleine caught the attention of, and was featured in, The Chiswick Magazine.
Taking inspiration from Rupi Kaur, Madeleine explored her emotions through poetry and writing. She took her writing to the depths of personal experience.
I do it just for me. I recently read stuff back that I had written last year and thought ‘Oof, that’s a bit emotional!’. It’s too exposing. I wouldn’t be able to write something that’s on the surface. It has to be personal and deep, and that I find too exposing.”
As she continued to write and paint, Madeleine discovered a plethora of different sources of personal insight in the form of writing and podcasts by other women—Charlie Cox’s book of poems She Must Be Mad.
I’ve read so many things by women. I think it’s finally clicked talking to friends. Maybe it’s the time that we’re in that people are just voicing what they’re actually feeling. There are certain things I’ve felt I’ve been doing and I thought they were normal.”
Through painting, exploring the female experience through podcasts, reading poetry, and writing, Madeleine had entered a period of self-discovery. Yet she still sought to shed the toils of a previous relationship. She found one experience particularly effective for reclaiming her sense of self:
“My grandma was shocked: I was really wanting to learn about myself and who I am—especially in relation to who I am as a woman, and the body. The woman and the mind and the heart—they’ve always interested me. But this is what I did: I took up life drawing —as in, I was the model.
“I did it for two reasons. One, because I was mad about a previous relationship where you’re just seen as a body and you’re objectified. I was trying to reclaim that I’m not an object just for your desire. And two, just to push myself because it was scary. I felt like I needed to do it. I was very angry with how I’d let myself be, who I’d let myself become, how I’d let myself be treated.
“It was all part of a process of rejection. And I was petrified. You know when you push yourself and you don’t know whether it’s actually going to happen. I sent out two or three emails. Someone replied and booked me in. It’s very empowering; it’s insane. I’d recommend doing it. It’s a lot harder than you think to stand still. But it’s a form of meditation. I’d go there for an hour or two hours. I’ve been an artist at a life drawing class before and for the first five seconds you’re like, ‘Holy cow, that person’s butt naked!’. But as soon as they make you draw, you just forget that they’re naked and you’re just drawing shapes. So I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m a shape’. I did it like four or five times and got it out my system.
Creative Londoners: What do you want people to take away from viewing your work?
Madeleine Godsill: I want them to find something in them. When I see things I’m drawn to them for different reasons. But I’m especially drawn to the beauty of characters. The point is to enjoy it. My work is quite simple. My subjects are all peaceful and introspective. But then you’ve got the bold colours. They’re melancholic yet vibrant. I just want people to like them. People say different things. My friend Suzy has quite a fiery personality, so I painted her with red, orange, yellow.
There’s a bee in a lot of the works because of Milk and Honey. It’s an ode to Rupi Kaur. It’s been like therapy for me. The way she expresses herself as a woman in a relationship. That’s what I’ve put on the page. Last year definitely. Now it’s about celebrating the beauty of the women I paint. So it’s been a transition from expressing what I was feeling. Now, I’m in a happier place. Before it was about trying to get something out that was my own.
Creative Londoners: What do you like about London—and what don’t you like?
Madeleine Godsill: I love that you can never get bored. There’s always a new restaurant, pop-up, supper club. There’s so much art. You can never get bored. The people you meet as well. Everyone’s here. Yet it’s also such a vast city. I dislike that my best friends live in east London and that that’s so far away. It’s very expensive. And the only way I’d be able to not live in a shared house is if I make loads of money or move with a partner. London’s tiring, though. When I had to commute on the tube it drained me—it can be very overwhelming!
Article and photographs by Oliver Gudgeon.