Art historians love categories, so Margaret Agnes Rope is always classed as an ‘Arts & Crafts Movement’ artist (though the critic Peter Cormack qualifies that, by saying she is actually only part of the “later, second generation of the Arts & Crafts Movement”).
What is meant by the term though can be highly confusing.
It is doubly confusing in Marga’s case in that the ‘Arts & Crafts’ style in the world of English stained-glass does not seem to have related much to how the style was perceived in architecture, interior design, or even overseas.
In fact, the term “Arts & Crafts Movement” actually entered common parlance only in 1888, when the newly-formed Arts & Crafts Exhibition Society had its founding show in London.
However, its ideals had been in the air for some time. For some time, the artist & thinker William Morris had beeen championing the ideals of traditional craftsmanship and an emphasis on Nature, while also rejecting the popular (but formulaic) Gothic Revivalism styles of the time.
Morris published his great manifesto-novel News From Nowhere in 1890, outlining many of these ‘Arts & Crafts’-type ideals as well as other socialist aspirations. (Sadly, he died only six years later, aged 62).
Because of Morris’ massive influence on the post-1890 progressive artists, Morris’ own work – and that of his company – also gets labelled ‘Arts & Crafts’ too, even though (surely) his work is quite different in sensibility to that of the turn-of-the-century style. Quite confusing.
(There is a plethora of ‘styles’ at this time, just to make it even more confusing – Art Nouveau, Aestheticism, even Decadence).
But what was massively important in Morris’ outlook was that he was encouraging artists to get to know, and work with, the materials of their trade. He disliked the then usual separation between designer and maker, and wanted them to be one and the same. (Curiously enough, when it came to stained-glass, this was more an aspiration than a fact of life for Morris & Company…).
It is interesting to wonder if Marga ever read News From Nowhere. She would have been 24 years old and halfway through her college stint at the time of its publication. Just the right time to read News From Nowhere!
When it actually comes to thinking through whether she saw herself as a committed ‘Arts & Crafts’ person, one comes to a lot of unknowns. What we do know is that she does not seem to have signed up as a full member of the Arts & Crafts Exhibition Society, though she did exhibit at some of their shows (which continued until the 1920s). More research is needed on this.
It is odd that the student works of hers that we know of though (i.e. 1900-1909) are hopelessly post-Pre-Raphaelite (if that makes sense!) in style. Indeed, one student work – The Welle Of Love – is still ascribed to Dante Gabriel Rossetti by the Rossetti archive, and perhaps it is an easy mistake. One hopes that, as the Welle Of Love is a copy of an existing picture, that it was simply set as an exercise for her by her tutors.
What surely she could not have avoided is a truly significant Arts & Crafts publishing moment in 1905. In this year, the doyen of progressive stained-glass making Christopher Whall (1849‐1924) produced his book ‘Stained Glass Work’ which underlined the ideals of the Arts & Crafts concept, and insisted that any self-respecting stained-glass designer must get involved right down to the workshop level.
Marga would have been in her third year at Birmingham Art School when this book came out, and her teachers (Whall pupils themselves) would no doubt have introduced it to their classes.
Marga seems to have picked up on this ‘workshop’ approach very quickly. We know she rented a studio in Shrewsbury town centre round about 1906, and we also know that her mother allowed her to put together a studio in the family home. So Marga is no Edwardian lady-artist working from a drawing room.
Although the famous art-historian Nikolaus Pevsner is not talking about this aspect alone, it is easy to see why he once declared that Arts & Crafts practitioners were “proto-Modernists”. They were ‘auteurs’ – to use a modern term.
What is completely extraordinary is what happens next for Marga.
She spends ten years learning the practical and technical skills – and we then see a pictorial and design genius flower almost immediately! From being a lowly and unknown if accomplished student, she suddenly creates the magnificent Shrewsbury Cathedral West Window – working on it (as far as we know) almost completely alone, and from her home studio!
Not only is it stunning, the West Window is a brilliant example of Late Arts & Crafts style as well. All the identifiable A&C hallmarks are in the West Window – emotional power, human warmth, glittering sensuality, fascinating iconocism, renewed sense of colour, anti-Victorianism… and a certain modernity. It is an astonishing tour-de-force and one that must have hugely impressed her tutor, the artist Henry Payne.
Sadly, no contemporary reviews of this achievement, or even comments, have yet been discovered.
Art-historians cite as significant, for the development of her style, her next move.
At the age of thirty, Marga leaves the security and peace of her Shrewsbury family home; and takes a workshop in London at the famous and radical Glass House studios. She may (or may not) have taken lodgings with her aunt and cousin, also artists, who were then living in south London.
The Glass House was run by the partnership of Mary Lowndes & Alfred Drury, almost acting as patrons to a collective of like-minded A&C stained-glass artists. It was a boon especially to independent artists who did not have, and perhaps did not want, the backing of a major firm – particularly in the firing and leading of the glass.
Naturally enough, the Arts & Crafts philosophy (as well as its style) ran as a thread through The Glass House project.
These young, radical artists eschewed the major firms, which, by the late 1880s, had anyway become formulaic, and had developed rather dull ‘house-styles’ (even Hardman of Birmingham).
For her ten years at The Glass House, alongside innovative and exciting artists such as Karl Parsons, Caroline Townsend, Wilhelmina Geddes (who arrived from Dublin in 1923), and Mary Lowndes herself, Margaret was at the centre of progressive developments; and this must have reinforced her own A&C ideas.
The big question is: how much did Marga see herself as part of a ‘movement’? She never made (as far as we know) public pronouncements about art, nor (as far as we knew) did she get reviewed by the major critics of the time.
She clearly does fit, by style, the Late Arts & Crafts Stained-Glass label (though she has none of the effeteness of a Walter Crane or the lushness of a Christopher Whall or the progressive sensibility of a Karl Parsons) – but we may never know how much she publicly pushed the idea.
In fact, it is interesting to wonder if Margaret Rope was so tied in to her version of Arts & Crafts that – as the post-war art-world began to move in other directions – she positively rejected any further change.
Fellow glass artists at her studios, such as Harry Clarke and Wilhelmina Geddes, are already moving on to a more Expressionist version of A&C by the time Margaret elects to go into a convent (in 1923). Their experimentation, we may guess, is not something that she seems to have favoured.
So… as usual, labels are useful in helping to describe an artist’s approach – but are rarely the full story.
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Reference footnote: In autumn 1916 the 11th A&C Society Exhibition took place from 10 October to 2 December. Among the stained-glass artists exhibiting at it are Marga herself, her cousin MEA Rope, Florence Camm, Karl Parsons, Louis Davis, Mabel Esplin, Mary Hutchinson, Caroline Townshend, Christopher Whall, Edward Woore and Paul Woodroffe. However, though listed as members of the society are colleagues of hers – Karl Parsons, Henry Payne, her cousin MEA Rope and Mary Newill – Marga herself is not listed as a member.