Because so little is known about Margaret Agnes Rope, the small group of researchers who try to find out more about her indeed have their work cut out, scouring archives, private collections and even attics (!!) across the country.
And it is not surprising that, in the course of these researches, they find out other less well-known facts – including the fact that another Arts & Crafts Movement artist was, like Marga, born in Shrewsbury.
This has come as quite a surprise to local historians…
Belle Vue’s artist
It turns out that the designer-artist Georgina (‘Georgie’) Gaskin was born in the Belle Vue district of Shrewsbury in 1866. Her father (William France) was a farmer from nearby Plealey, and our researchers believe that the mother (Frances Cave) may have migrated to the town for work.
Georgie was born at Cliff Cottage (not far from the present site of Shrewsbury School), and her sister Emily was born there a year later.
However, Georgie’s connection with Shrewsbury lasted no more than her babyhood. The 1871 census shows the family living on a farm in Sutton Coldfield.
Like Margaret Rope, Georgie took advantage of the new freedom for women that came about in the 1880s; and she attended Birmingham School of Art (the same college that Marga attended later) to learn design.
Here she became a member of The Birmingham Group, a collection of the city’s artists who all showed the influence of the Arts and Crafts Movement.
At the art school she met Arthur Gaskin, who was teaching there, and they married in 1894.
You can find a lovely painting (see pic, right) of Georgie by Arthur in Birmingham Museum; it is called ‘Fiammetta’ – i.e. Little Flame in English. The title refers to her striking red hair, which, actually, was false, as she had lost her hair to illness at a young age…!
It is quite possible that Marga and Georgie may have met in Birmingham, even though Georgie was nearly twenty years older. The Gaskins started a jewellery-making partnership in Birmingham at the same time as Marga was studying there at the Art School; and they began exhibiting their jewellery in 1899.
Marga would surely have known of Georgie as a high-profile Arts & Crafts Movement designer.
Interestingly, Georgie is one of the best-known designers to have specifically created artwork for suffragists. Her jewellery-line in Votes For Women themes would have sold to women keen to display their adherence to the cause.
The atmosphere of suffragism was one that Marga would have been aware of.
The two also had a teacher in common – Henry Payne. Payne was a considerable artist in his right and his influence on both Georgie and Marga is marked. In fact, Georgie was one of Henry’s assistants in the project to paint the walls of Madresfield Court chapel.
The Birmingham Art School’s insistence on their students learning a wide range of crafts meant that both Marga and Georgie, while being essentially designers, also had a huge number of skills at their fingertips.
Each had talents in an astonishingly broad range of media – though each did settle for one ultimate career route of course.
And both were businesswomen in their own right!
However, very curiously, Georgie is much more famous than Marga. A whole permanent case at Birmingham Museum reflects her work; and a major exhibition about her and Arthur was mounted there in 1982, to be followed by another major exhibition, this time in Chipping Camden in 2013.
She also has an entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, a publication which Marga is inexplicably excluded from.
It seems to be an odd fact that fame is often more to do with accessibility than with recognition of genius. Birmingham Museum has a whole archive of Marga’s work (donated to it by Quidenham Convent in the 1970s) but this archive appears to have simply languished in the museum’s basement largely uncatalogued*.
In contrast, Georgie’s work in jewellery is much more easily collectable, and thus (one guesses) her reputation has been much more high-profile.
It remains to be seen: will the recent exhibition about Margaret Rope at Shrewsbury Museum, curated by her supporters, make a difference to Marga’s profile in art-history?
Who knows? Art-history can be most fickle in whom it chooses to be in its canon…
*Since this article was written, the Margaret Rope Collection has been transferred to the Kesgrave Rope Archive.
Thanks to Jane Morgan for the researches carried out in this article. Jane is still looking for facts about Margaret Rope’s life in Shrewsbury, as well as about Georgie. If any reader can help, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org