Review of ‘Heavenly Lights’ – The Untold Story of the Arts & Crafts Movement Stained-Glass Artist Margaret Agnes Rope
This exhibition, which has just opened at Shrewsbury Museum, has really done Margaret Rope proud. Honestly, if she doesn’t get her rightful place in the Stained Glass Hall Of Fame after this, there is no justice!
The museum, which is a state-of-the-art building refurbished on a Victorian base, is really a lovely modern environment, so by the time one gets to the Heavenly Lights exhibition room, one is nicely relaxed.
A nice big space, broken up by partitions, manages to give a sense of both space and intimacy at the same time. Very clever!
Glass on show
Most people will not know of Margaret Rope, so there are ten large (beautifully-designed!) explanation-panels giving the basic details of her life, from a guide to the Arts & Crafts Movement right through to a look at the techniques of stained-glass making.
What is ingenious though is how the museum has got round the problem of presenting major stained-glass pieces. Obviously one can’t extract the windows from the churches where they are currently placed, so the museum has commissioned photographers to take sixty photos of some of the best of her glass, and created a high & large slideshow – which is projected up on to the gallery walls. By giving that part of the space a low-lit atmosphere, there is even a sense of the church environment in which this glass would be sited…
However – for those who want to study her techniques – there are also five (back-lit) stained-glass panels on show, mostly early pieces (see Judith panel, right), and one can get close enough to them to figure out how the painting and even the leading was done.
(Nevertheless, if you do want to see actual stained-glass, the museum has set up a partnership with the nearby cathedral, where seven of Marga’s finest windows can be seen. It’s worth the quick walk to go see them).
The immense research and persuasion that must have gone on to successfully source all the exhibits for this show is plain. Many of the items have never been seen in public before, and enthusiasts of the Arts & Crafts Movement will find lots to fascinate them. Though Marga’s windows could not be in the show, around a dozen actual-size ‘cartoons’ of them are. These cartoons were drawn up by an artist to give the patron some idea of the composition of the eventual window. Some of these – like the Vaughan Cartoon – are lovely works of art in their own right.
It seems that at least a dozen different collections have loaned works (in fact, says the exhibition guide, only two collections refused to loan items) so it’s virtually impossible that these items will ever be seen in the same space together again. Indeed, this eventuality is doubly unlikely as (in the way the art market works!) her value in the auction house has now shot up, making these works suddenly extremely valuable. Just in the last twelve months, one American museum has paid £30,000 for a small student work.
There really is a whole afternoon’s browsing to be done in this exhibition, particularly as the pieces are well labelled, and the guide (cost £1) is very informative.
Less obvious items include the small case of contemporaneous off-cuts of glass and some craft tools (from the Ark Archive), and the life-size Nativity made of painted plywood. This latter piece was not actually designed for public view, being made by Marga for the enjoyment of the nuns in her convent only – but it does add to the surprise elements that this exhibition possesses!
The museum curators are to be congratulated for a beautifully presented, well-researched, fascinating and professional show. With the added advantage of the fact the museum itself is the result of a recent £10million refurbishment, this effort is no ‘provincial’ affair but an exposition worthy of any metropolitan museum.
Incidentally, children are not forgotten either, with a dedicated play-area and quiz; though actually, the whole of the rest of this large museum, with its dinosaurs, Stone-Age Village tableaus and enormous Jacobean bed (!), will be a treat for them too.
What’s more, a specially-commissioned photo-book, depicting all of Marga’s main windows, is on sale – at the remarkably cheap price of £10 – so there is something beautiful to take away too.
Well-done to Shrewsbury!
The Heavenly Lights Exhibtion runs at Shrewsbury Museum & Art Gallery until January 15th 2017 (opne every day except Mondays. For the Xmas holidays openings, please check the exhibition page)
If ou have visited the exhibtion, why not tweet @artfund, or add your review to the Art Fund (Arts Council) website?
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