Those who have the opportunity to look deeply into the details of Margaret Rope’s work come to realise that her work gets extremely personal at times.
It appears at first that she completely disguises herself in her work.
Symbolic of this is that she never signed her pieces, and only extremely rarely left a monogram on them, and – as far as we know – left no notes or documentation explaining any of her works (which is why there are still puzzles as to what some of the less obvious pieces actually represent). The scenes in her windows are largely of traditional subjects and without obvious personal meaning.
However, on close examination, one can see that there are in fact many references in her works to her family, to memories of her childhood, and to her beliefs. And, in that mix, there are also two self-portraits – but they are very strange, and almost shocking.
Actually, they are really not self-portraits as such, but what her brother Henry referred to in his diary as her “ferocious self-caricatures”.
The first, and better-known, is the image of herself that appears in the ‘Lumen Christi’ window in Kesgrave RC Church.
The scene is a real event, of a holy procession in the Catholic calendar, and the onlookers seen in it are the Catholic members of her family (i.e. everyone except her father and her brother Denys).
To the furthest right, at the back of the action, Marga has depicted herself (see right). In contrast to the fresh, attractive faces of her siblings, she has drawn herself most harshly, and really as almost grotesque… a “ferocious caricature” indeed.
(Incidentally, in an interview with Arthur Rope, Marga’s sister-in-law Dorothy claimed that the gesture of the figure, rubbing her eye, is meant to show that Marga was still at this time only half-sure of her desire to become a nun).
Why has she depicted herself as so ugly? It’s quite odd.
The second instance of a ‘self-portrait’ is something of a mystery, as, this time, the caricature is only seen in the preliminary design of a particular window, the Madonna & Child (memorial) panel at Kesgrave Church – but it does not appear in the finished piece! When the installation was finally made, the caricature has unexpectedly been removed and replaced with a different image.
The ‘cartoon’ for the Madonna & Child panel* quite clearly shows a small detail – of a kneeling figure dressed in some sort of shift, hair shorn roughly, and (judging by the grille), in a monastic cell. The figure is seen with the instruments of an artist’s profession.
The face of this figure and the one in the Lumen Christi are almost the same: another “ferocious caricature”. So this must be Marga, and she has depicted herself as extremely shabby and unattractive, head bent low.
However – and here is a real mystery – by the time the window gets to be installed, this design has been replaced, and we have a much more dignified figure: a kneeling nun in full robes looking up full-on to the Virgin Mary.
The reason that this change of figure is such a mystery is because the cartoon-stage of the stained-glass process is not that of some simple early sketch, it is in fact the very last stage before the design is translated into glass. It is the point at which the sponsor knows exactly what the window will look like. To radically change the design at this point is highly unusual.
So, even at this late stage…. did someone persuade Marga that such a depiction of self-abasement was simply not on? Or did the sponsor of the piece (the Rope family) simply refuse to allow it – and demanded a new, more dignified depiction?
Again, we just don’t know. We can only draw inferences.
Though we have virtually nothing in writing of Marga’s own thoughts, we do know from others that she took seriously the idea of ‘self-effacement’. As a good religious, she seems to have been concerned not to glorify herself or her achievements or to take pride in any praise she received – but maybe, like one of her favourite subjects, St Therese of Lisieux, she went even further in her attempt at Humility… to the point of wishing to quite abase herself…
Marga would have known well the writings of St Therese, who was a near contemporary, and indeed both St Therese and Marga were nuns in the Carmelite order.
It takes a degree of toughness to be so hard on yourself, and we do know that Marga’s life-choices indicate she had a tough, independent side, that refused to do the expected.
Her self-demeaning caricatures may reveal – strangely, paradoxically – something of that tough side.
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*Note: the cartoon for the Madonna & Child panel was seen in the 2016 Margaret Rope Exhibition in Shrewsbury. It is now kept at the Rope Archives in Suffolk