▪Detective work with Chesterton’s Father Brown

It is a source of great frustration that we know so few of the details of Margaret Rope’s life. But the flipside of that is that extraordinary finds are being made all the time, some of them quite new, and some of them just, well, new to us.

For instance, some windows in Yorkshire, once attributed to Burne-Jones, are now thought to be by Marga; and it turns out that, in designing them, she may well have become friends with the man on whom the great fictional detective, Father Brown, was modelled!

Father O’ Connor … Father Brown

Many people will have heard of the Father Brown stories in which an apparently simple, ordinary parish priest solves crimes using his understanding of the human soul.  The stories, written by GK Chesterton in the early years of the twentieth century, are delightful and clever.
The latest dramatisation of the stories is showing on BBC TV at the moment.

Portrait by James Gunn
Chesterton, with Hilaire Belloc and Maurice Baring (standing) – detail from the portrait by Gunn

Chesterton admitted that he’d got the idea for the character from observing his friend, Father John O’Connor, a parish priest at Heckmondwike in Yorkshire. Despite being ‘just’ a local priest, Father O’Connor was hugely energetic and had a cultured turn of mind, and yet also seemed to have a spiritual understanding of ‘the darkest recesses of men’s minds’.
A recent book, The Elusive Father Brown (Gracewing, 2010), by Julia Smith, explores the pair’s relationship … which is where Marga comes in.

Re-discovery

Julia points out in her book that Father O’Connor made many friends in the intelligentsia – including Bernard Shaw, the sculptor Eric Gill, and crucially for us, the poet, historian and fellow priest Henry Rope.  Henry was Marga’s brother.
Julia believes that when Henry came to visit in Yorkshire in 1912, he may have suggested his sister should design and make some windows for the new church that Father O’Connor was building.

The three lunettes at Heckmondwike
The three lunettes, above the main altar, at Heckmondwike

Sure enough, when the Holy Spirit Catholic Church in Heckmondwike was opened in 1915, the local paper of the time reported that Margaret Rope was the artist who had contributed to the small windows above the High Altar.
Julia’s research for her book also found a memoir of Fr O’Connor written by Henry Rope for the Venerabile Journal – in it, Henry repeats that “his sister” (Marga) was the artist for the stained-glass in the church.

Arthur Rope, who maintains the official Margaret Rope website, credits Julia with re-discovering this important addition to the Marga catalogue.
(However, there is some confusion, even to this day, as to whether all three lunettes at the east end of the church are hers or just the central one.  Because none of them really resembles the rest of her work, some more research may need doing on this).

Window/s

The three circular stained glass windows above the High Altar depict a Dove, the symbol of the Holy Spirit (the central one), St. John (on the left) and St. George (on the right).

The Dove lunette at Heckmondwike Church
The (central) Dove lunette at Heckmondwike Church

Strangely, the St. John and the St. George were attributed, back in the day, to Burne-Jones, even though they are nothing like Burne-Jones’ work, and he’d been dead since 1898…

What Marga made of Father O’Connor, and what he made of her, would be fascinating to speculate.
Someone with a doctoral thesis to write may one day take up the research (we hope) and find out the full story!

References: 
Who was GK Chesterton’s Father Brown? – from Catholic World
Holy Spirit Parish, Heckmondwike – A Centenary of Change by Peter Moreland is a beautifully researched and thorough history. Only available through the church or by contacting the author
Holy Spirit Parish, Heckmondwike – the website

If you’d like to leave a comment, please use the comments-box further down this page.

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4 thoughts on “▪Detective work with Chesterton’s Father Brown

  1. Another piece in this jigsaw is Benedict Williamson, who was, like Fr Harry Rope, a convert to Roman Catholicism, and Harry’s predecessor as editor of the ‘Catholic Review’ in the second decade of the 20th century. I found one reference to Benedict Williamson being Hilaire Belloc’s priest, but I have found no confirmation of that. He was also an architect of a number of churches. See Benedict_Williamson on Wikipedia.

    Fr O’Connor is reminiscent of another priest & architect, Monsignor John Cyril Hawes, designer of Geraldton Catholic cathedral in Western Australia, for which Marga made several windows. John Hawes, a powerful personality and creative energy, was another friend of Harry Rope’s. (See John_Hawes on Wikipedia)
    pangapilot

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  2. Thank you for publishing the first clear picture of Marga’s central Heckmondwike window that I’ve seen.
    Though it is small, she has, as usual, filled it with symbols.

    It depicts the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove, as described in the Gospel account of the baptism of Christ. The dove has a cruciform halo around its head, a sign that the Holy Spirit is one of the three persons of the Holy Trinity. There is blue, the colour of water, in the centre of the window: in the story of creation in the book of Genesis the Spirit is hovering over the waters. The dove is surrounded by flames, and red, the colour of fire, is predominant throughout the window: at Pentecost the Holy Spirit descended on the apostles as tongues of fire (Acts 2). The blue colour is also a reference to the waters of baptism, through which, Catholics believe, candidates receive the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit. These gifts are represented by the seven red arrows radiating from the dove: they are listed in Isaiah 11:2-3 and are Wisdom, Understanding, Counsel (right judgement), Fortitude (courage), Knowledge, Piety (reverence) and Fear of the Lord (wonder & awe).
    Roger Hall

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  3. Here’s another connection with GK Chesterton: part of the premises in Church Street, Woodbridge (where the Carmelite nuns lived before the Second World War), was used for undisclosed military purposes during the war, then was used as a factory for making Culmak shaving brushes, with input from the Suffolk architect (later painter) Maurice Chesterton, including a Venetian window, now part of the dwelling house 9A Church Street. Maurice Chesterton was the cousin of G K Chesterton!
    Also at this time a pair of drainpipes was installed on either side of this window with the hoppers showing shaving brushes in a cross formation, which I like to think was a tribute to the nuns by the brush manufacturers!
    Garry Humphreys http://www.garryhumphreys.com

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    • There is an excellent biography of Msgr Hawes:The Hermit of Cat Island, by Peter Anson.It mentions both Fr Rope and Fr Benedict Williamson.
      The late Fr Brocard Sewell, author of many out of the way books, was going to write a biography of Fr Benedict Williamson but found it too hard and didn’t get very far.
      Alan Robinson

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