The BBC Radio Four programme ‘Woman’s Hour’ was looking for ideas from its listeners for good stories.
Perhaps my suggestion, an item about a neglected artist & nun who died 60 years ago, and who worked in a visual medium, was not the best for radio – but Woman’s Hour accepted the challenge…
I met reporter Tamsin Smith at Tyburn Convent, which is by Marble Arch in London. Strangely there is very little of Margaret Rope’s work in London, but the small panels by her in the crypt windows of this convent are not the least of her work.
Mother Xavier McMonagle, the sweetly-spoken and hospitable New Zealander abbess, showed us round. The amazing Mother McMonagle and I recognised each other quickly as two members of the (unofficial) Margaret Rope fan club.
Somehow, two hours went by. There were a lot of questions that needed answering: who came to see the windows, and why?; can one see in Margaret’s work a respect for the sacred that is not there in other church stained-glass?; is Margaret now so neglected because she was a woman and a nun in a secular man’s world?
Tamsin patiently recorded our conversations…
Then it was on a train to south-west London to meet Caroline Benyon. Caroline is a stained glass artist herself, and was one of the last people to work at the famous Glass House studios before they closed down. Margaret Rope worked at The Glass House between 1911 and 1923, and memories of her time there have echoed down the years… so much so that Caroline felt an almost personal affinity with her antecedent.
The Glass House, because of its set-up on two floors, was a god-send to women artists in the Edwardian and inter-war eras, as it meant there need not be too much obvious inter-mixing between men and women. Quite a few women worked there: “They were stroppy women,” said Caroline “…but in a quiet way…”
In Caroline’s new studio, in Hampton, she showed us the intricacies of glass painting; and reflected on the shamefully marginalised status that glass-painting appears to have. The neglect of Margaret, even in Margaret’s home-town of Shrewsbury, almost did not surprise her.
In England, the light comes down early in late November, so Tamsin and I left with twilight on the horizon.
Did Tamsin have what she needed? She said yes – very pleased.
Of course, it is great to have a prestigious programme like Woman’s Hour looking into this subject, but it is only one stepping-stone along the way to some formal recognition of Margaret Rope in some way in the future.
Let’s look forward to that moment.