One thing we can infer about Margaret Rope’s adolescence is that she was used to travelling the Shropshire countryside, either with her father on his medical visits or later alone on her famous motorcycle.
Did she one day decide to make a visit to the little village of Peplow (just north of Shrewsbury) – to see the Douglas Strachan wall painting there? It would be good to think so.
British stained-glass work of the early twentieth century did not much reflect what was going on in painting, driving its own experimental line instead. However the Scottish glass-painter Douglas Strachan comes closest to the feel of the period’s avant-garde painting with his jagged streaks of colour and his disdain of naturalism.
Seven years older than Marga, he had one of his greatest moments in 1913 when commissioned to make the official British Commonwealth submission to the glass in the Peace Palace in The Hague (though he also went on to complete a number of bigger commissions).
Peter Cormack regards him as second only to Christopher Whall in that turn-of-the-century group of leading stained-glass makers.
He is now categorised (as is Marga) as a ‘Later Arts & Crafts Movement’ practitioner – another reason she might have wanted to call in to see his work at Peplow.
Peplow’s Chapel of The Epiphany is a tiny estate church, set in the middle of fields, designed by the famous architect Norman Shaw and completed in 1879.
Shaw’s churches are the antithesis of Victorian Gothic, being deceptively plain and simple. However, their functionality disguises a harmony of line and structure that makes them immediately attractive and pleasant on the eye.
The Strachan wall painting therein is almost an oddity here in being almsot the one concession to overt ‘artiness’.
Actually, it is not a wall-painting at all (though it is described as such). It is actually a large canvas, in two parts, pinned to the wall adjacent to the altar. Signed by the artist, it dates to 1903.
It is not in great condition sadly, and moves are afoot to try to conserve it before it deteriorates further. It is on the Church of England’s ‘endangered treasures’ list as an early work by a great artist.
It is clearly an accomplished piece. Although Strachan was only in his mid-twenties when he completed it, it has a sureness and wholeness in its composition and tone that is admirable; a tribute to his training.
It is well worth arranging to visit the church, if you can, just to see it.
Of course the question is: is it great? There’s no doubt that Strachan would eventually become a fascinating artist in glass, but this painting is actually pretty conventional by ‘greatness’ standards, even bearing in mind that it’s an early piece.
I’m biased however. I have never been a fan of the Arthurian/medievalist tendencies in Victorian/Edwardian art. Although a dominant and popular theme of the era in art, to me it is an almost perverse and deliberate turning-away from realities. And although the subject of Strachan’s work here is the visit of the three kings to see the baby Jesus (the Epiphany), it is definitely ‘Arthurian’ in tone.
By contrast, one approach that Margaret Rope eschewed all her working life was the ‘Arthurian’ (though she had one lapse – with her medieval knight figure at Hoylake Church!). The misty romance of such scenes clearly did not appeal to her; instead her work would have a base in real people, and in real and sometimes even horrific scenes (albeit from the Bible, or from accounts of antique saints).
I have a feeling that, had Marga visited Peplow, the painting may well have served to remind her of the kind of approach she did not want to pursue.
(And, to be fair to Strachan, he didn’t pursue it much longer himself…)