One of the most significant ways in which Marga’s life and works intersected was in that she was a convert to Roman Catholicism. Her art not only concentrated on Catholic themes, but her faith seems to have informed her whole sensibility.
However, the Edwardian years were a very strange time for English Catholics.
The whole of the nineteenth century had been, for many English Catholics, a time of living under suspicion and prejudice. Though they had had freedom of worship since the beginning of the century, they were hardly integrated into society; and the epithet ‘papish’ still meant obscurantist and devious.
In fact, the opening of Shrewsbury Catholic Cathedral in 1851 was met with protest meetings – even in the liberalising atmosphere of the time.
By the time of Marga’s birth (1882) this overt hostility was wearing off, but, curiously, something else strange was happening. The most devout and populous Catholics in England were now the immigrant Irish, plus the peasantry from the ancient Northern ‘recusant’ estates. In other words, the balance in the English arm of the Catholic Church had switched to the poor.
So (this is a huge generalisation I admit!) the more ‘aristocratic’ English Catholics seemed to have responded from the 1830s onwards by creating their own separate identity, turning to a romantic, Latinate feel (unconsciously celebrating the feudalism of old?).
Thus, we see churches built by the Catholic architect Pugin and his followers, with their dazzling interiors & gilded medieval style, being endorsed and encouraged by Catholic church-building aristocrats (particularly the Earl of Shrewsbury).
Interestingly, the colour and sensuousness of Pugin’s work heavily influenced wider British society – the Pre-Raphaelites revolted, following Pugin’s example, against the sombre monochromes and muddy tones of mid-Victorian Britain, and bright-colour becomes the rage for radical artists in the last thirty years of Victoria’s reign.
Catholicism, artists & converts
If you will allow me to keep generalising…
Colour, sensuousness, a Latinate outlook and even a certain refined mysticism of mind have, by the late 19th century, thus all become vaguely associated, in England, with ‘aristocratic’ Catholicism.
And thus…. in a very odd way indeed, this brand of Catholicism is almost adopted by some individuals as a sign of their highly refined artistic vision (even if at the same time it is seen as ‘deviant’ by the bulk of English mainstream bourgeois society).
One may say that some of them were quite peculiar (or they were unique, depending on your point of view). Baron Corvo, Lionel Johnson, Ronald Firbank, and GK Chesterton made their adopted Catholicism a weapon in their different routes to creating their own powerful individualities – it very much helped them to ‘resist’ any absorption into society at large.
It’s no surprise that even Oscar Wilde (right: credit: Wikipedia) seriously considered conversion (even getting as far as the moment of baptism before pulling out).
And so (yes, eventually…!) we come to the Rope Family.
What’s interesting is that, in her reminiscences, Dod Rope (Marga’s sister-in-law) claims that the family’s conversion to Catholicism was based on Marga’s mother’s feeling that the Reformation was simply “wrong” – that somehow History had taken a wrong turn 500 years ago, into vulgarity and materialism.
(I wonder how much she’d absorbed the ‘medievalist’ art of the previous fifty years (?). We shall never know of course).
Baptised into Catholicism
The family’s baptisms into Catholicism took place in 1901, when Marga was eighteen. Presumably, this only occurred because the father (Henry, a strong Anglican) had died, still only in his prime, in 1899; and now they felt they could decently move to the religion of their choice.
Only one of the six children, Denys, decided he could not join them. (It’s an interesting reflection on the times that Dod says he would not convert “out of loyalty to Queen Victoria”).
In Marga’s own field, stained-glass, one high-profile convert to Catholicism had been the leader and doyen of the glass Arts & Crafts movement, Christopher Whall. He had undergone intense spiritual turmoil when young and said he found the ‘mysticism’ in Catholicism appealed to his nature.
In the England of the time, one feels that – outside of crank cults – a person with a mystical vision might have found no other home than aristocratic Catholicism…
Would, young Marga, about to embark on a study of the stained-glass arts, have known about Whall’s conversion, and may have been influenced by it (?).
It’s more likely however that her reasons were more closely allied with that of her mother’s – especially when one thinks of how often she depicted the ‘English Martyrs’, the men and women who were executed during the Reformation for their allegiance to the ‘old religion’.
The most devastating aspect of the family’s conversion must have been the knowledge that they would have been ostracised (probably) by many in the town. The very worst of this is that the patriarch of the family, and a very rich man, Edward Burd (Marga’s maternal grandfather), cut them out of his will for their disloyalty. This left the family (relatively) badly-off.
It also would be interesting to know how Edward Burd regarded the arty turn that his daughter had taken. By marrying Henry Rope (a young man from out of town) Marga’s mother Agnes had married into a very arty family indeed; and it seems the Agnes & Henry liked nothing better than to visit their refined relatives in Suffolk for their holidays.
Is it possible that, by cutting her and her family out of his will, Edward was punishing his daughter for her divergent attitudes, not just in religion but in her ‘Bohemianism’?
How Shrewsbury would have taken the conversion of a branch of one of its leading families is hard to tell.
It is true though that, Shrewsbury’s Protestant establishment – or its clergy anyway – was actually very high-church. At St Mary’s, Shrewsbury’s main Anglican parish church, the poet Wilfred Owen records in his letters that there were all sorts of conflicts over the number of ‘popish’ practices that were being introduced.
In fact, Marga was later commissioned to do an altar-front (above) at St Mary’s (around 1917), which can be seen there to this day. It’s assumed that this commission took place after Edward died, though the circumstances are currently lost to history.
Carving out a place for oneself
All of this preamble leads me to conclusions about how Marga wanted to see herself; a conversion to Catholicism in educated circles in England in these days acted as a beacon.
It would have indicated:
… an independence of mind, in face of society’s disapproval
… a regard for England’s ancient past
… a certain mysticism in outlook, allied with a regard for European Art traditions
… an embrace of marginalisation, even of Bohemianism
… even, a sense of wanting to identify with victimisation (?)
Sadly, we will never know what Marga thought, as she has left no records; and the one proper memoir of her is very short and lacking detail.
The only thing we can say for sure is that, in 1901 in England, Marga’s conversion to Catholicism would have signified to society at large her almost irrevocable determination to proclaim loudly both her spiritual and artistic vision, her strength of mind, and a view of her future role in society.
“Roads to Rome: A Guide to Notable Converts from Britain and Ireland From the Reformation to the Present Day” by John Beaumont (published by St. Augustine Press, 2010). The book contains entries for Margaret Agnes Rope, her cousin Margaret Edith Rope, and and her brother Fr. Henry Edward George Rope