The First World War produced something of a sea-change in how British people remembered their war-dead. Instead of being memorialised in relatively austere, classical-style monuments, the dead began to be remembered more personally as identifiable men, who had given their lives “in sacrifice” for their country.
Public war memorials began to list not just the officers who had died in conflicts, but also the ordinary privates –by name, for the first time.
The usual stone monuments of town squares, remembering generals or military campaigns in general, were now joined by rolls-of-honour boards, which appeared in work-places, churches and schools – remembering the real individuals who had once lived or worked in that particular community.
And, inevitably, church stained-glass, which has a unique condition of combining both a sacred function and startling imagery, became almost the art-form of choice for the families wishing to pay tribute to their young sons killed on the battlefields.
Margaret Rope, only three years into her career when the Great War started, designed and created a number of such war memorials.
Family at war
Marga did not, we believe, experience the effects of war at first-hand.
However, four of her siblings certainly did: Irene saw the horrors of the Balkan Front up-close serving as an ambulance driver there, while Michael joined the Royal Naval Air Service. Marga’s sister Monica, who had joined the Sisters Of Charity as a nun, ministered to wounded soldiers as did her doctor brother Denys. Her cousin Margaret-Edith volunteered to be a land-girl.
Because almost no letters written by Marga survive, we shall never know what her attitude to the war was. We shall never know how she reacted to the accounts her siblings came home with. There is no evidence that she chose to serve the war effort in any capacity.
However (if one can deduce such a thing from the amount of war memorial work that she did), she did seem to feel deeply the loss of such young men.
Margaret clearly was responsive to the public’s need for war memorials.
In St Mary’s Church in central Shrewsbury, her altar-front (1919?) includes a painting of a ‘Tommy’ marching toward the figure of the Risen Christ; and the painted figures on the honour-board she designed for Shrewsbury Cathedral show a pieta scene, of a distraught Our Lady with her dead son.
She also accepted commissions from families grieving for their fallen sons. (Nearly all the stained-glass makers of the time did war memorial windows. There was, as you’d suppose, much work for them).
No doubt the grieving families would have felt a particular solace in the idea of a religious artwork dedicated to their dead placed prominently in a parish church, in the midst of their local community. Such a work would express the continuity of existence, while simultaneously acknowledging a grievous loss.
These windows would not have been cheap, so it is curious to think that we often know very little about the young men memorialised in these works.
One of Marga’s finest windows in Shrewsbury Cathedral, the so-called ‘Soldier Window’, is dedicated “for the soul of Sidney Cox”.
Sidney Cox “of Schools Cottage, Kingsland, Shrewsbury”, a private in the Irish Guards, died on 15 Dec 1917 from wounds suffered at the Battle of Cambrai. In Marga’s magnificent window, he is seen receiving a martyr’s crown – symbolising his ‘sacrifice’ -, as two soldier saints of old (Saints Martin and Ignatius) look on.
But who exactly was Sidney Cox? Some family historians believe he was the son of a woman working at Shrewsbury School – but how could an ordinary working woman have afforded to pay for such a huge, magnificent work of art? A mystery indeed.
The total of memorial windows by Margaret is listed as an appendix in Arthur Rope’s outstanding book about her works; photos of almost all of them are there too.
At St Hildeburgh’s in Hoylake, one of the few Anglican churches in which one can see her work, there is the window in memory of James H Getty (1919).
At another Anglican establishment, the Michaelhouse School in South Africa, she completed seven windows remembering pupils of the schools who had died fighting in the war. Also in South Africa, she created the ‘Capetown Window’, which is now lost.
Other memorial windows by her can be seen at Llanarth Court in Gwent and at Geraldton Cathedral in Australia, where the Rebecchi Window, which is a fascinating composition, can be seen.
It is hard for us nowadays to grasp the sheer vastness of the death toll from World War one, or the bewilderment and grief that affected the public as it was faced with the enormity of the numbers.
While Marga was fortunate in that none of her immediate family were killed in the war, it is sobering to think that, through her work, she chose to take on and interpret the grief of families devastated by the overwhelming death-count of that war.
Five years after the end of the war, she made a life-changing decision: she entered an ‘enclosed’ convent as a nun.
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