Depending on your viewpoint, it’s either puzzling, ironic or just plain annoying that Margaret Rope appears to be so ignored in her home county. After all, it’s very easy to make a case for her being the greatest artist that Shropshire has produced, yet she barely gets a mention anywhere in the region. For example: the Shrewsbury Civic Society’s ‘Famous Shrewsbury Folk’ webpage does not list her in their honorees at all (though it does cite ‘Shrewsbury Biscuits’…!!).
This exclusion is all the more ironic when one realises that there is at least one artist who does get some pointed recognition in Shropshire – Randolph Caldecott. Randolph, who lived during the mid nineteenth-century, turned to illustration after failing at painting; and then became wildly successful, ending his days a rich man.
In north Shropshire, the Whitchurch town museum (a very smart, community-run museum) now devotes one of its rooms to objects and artworks associated with him; and indeed the town’s old library was named after him, as is a local children’s club.
You’d think, bearing in mind that kind of evidence, that Caldecott must have been something of a local hero. However, the facts are oddly at variance with that conclusion. The truth of it is is that Randolph (who was living in Chester) only came to Whitchurch to take up a job (as a bank clerk). He had an undistinguished six years in the town before moving on to Manchester to another job, and it would be another five years after that before he produced his first commercial illustrations.
So – why is Caldecott so honoured in Shropshire? It’s an extraordinary puzzle … at first.
As is so often the case, things often all depend on who your advocate is.
What happened was, simply, that Whitchurch’s most prominent (i.e. richest) nineteenth century citizen, EP Thompson, was an avid fan. He collected as much Caldecott memorabilia as he could, even though he had only been a baby during Caldecott’s brief sojourn in the town.
Mr Thompson then clearly used his influence and sponsorship to ensure that Caldecott’s memory lived on in Whitchurch, also leaving the town his very valuable Caldecott collection.
It might be interesting if a contemporary Shropshire sponsor, like EP Thompson, appeared – and could give Margaret Rope’s place in history the boost it deserves.
In the meantime, we will continue to press her case for recognition whenever we can!