Even though most of Margaret Rope’s windows can be found in the UK, you would have to travel 10,000 miles to see the ones furthest away.
Six of her works (including the fascinating Rebecchi Memorial window) are to be found in the splendid and idiosyncratic Catholic cathedral at Geraldton in Western Australia. This church was built by a hugely energetic visionary architect/priest called John Hawes in an unusual Moorish style, replete with dome.
Monsignor Hawes must have been an extraordinary and forceful character: he was an Englishman, coming late to both the Catholic priesthood and to the coast of western Australia, yet his influence is widespread and still evident in the region, culminating in the opening of the John Hawes Heritage Centre last year (2016).
As well as a man of serious belief (like Marga, he came to believe that he had to leave the Church Of England, and converted to Catholicism), Hawes appears to have been a man of the arts.
He is known to have encountered and appreciated contemporary Arts & Crafts Movement works; and as an architect himself, built over a dozen places of worship, all with his quite individual approach.
After what must have been an exhausting career, he chose to retire to become a hermit in the Bahamas where he died in 1956.
So how did Monsignor Hawes come to commission glass from Marga from so far away?
It’s fairly clear that the mediator between the two must have been Marga’s brother, Father Harry Rope.
Harry had a predilection for the world of belles-lettres and corresponded with many famous men of his day.
As Harry explains in later writings, he had met John Hawes in Rome, where they both attended the Venerable College, a seminary for Englishmen training for the priesthood, during the First World War. The two hit it off and seem to have corresponded for the rest of their lives.
It appears to be beyond probable doubt that Harry must have suggested to John Hawes that a good artist to create a stained-glass series for the new cathedral would be his sister. Marga was notoriously self-deprecating, despite her talent, and Harry seems to have taken on a sort of role of promoting her work to his friends in the wider Church.
Interestingly, Marga’s windows for Geraldton (1919-1922) are somewhat different to her output up to this point. Her genius for portraiture hardly comes into play at all at Geraldton – though, admittedly, these windows are smaller than she usually made -, and the scenes in these six windows have none of her historical or pedagogical bent.
If anything, the six windows seem to be meant to induce a spirit of introspection, not study.
The colours burn and fuse with a mystic import, and are other-worldly. It’s tempting to wonder if this is because John Hawes specifically asked her to change her normal approach to suit his own more contemplative idea of religious faith. (The only window with her usual ‘actual-life’ atmosphere is the Agony In The Garden window).
Other ‘evidence’ of Hawes’ input may be the Australian images that appear in some of Marga’s windows.
Hands across the sea
One pleasing aspect of the Margaret Rope Exhibition at Shrewsbury Museum in 2016 was that it attracted visitors from afar – both enthusiasts for the Arts & Crafts Movement, and for the stained-glass of Marga in particular.
The visitor who travelled the furthest specifically to see the exhibition was surely Fr Robert Cross. He is Director of Heritage and the Archaeologist & Ecclesiastical Cultural Heritage Consultant for the Geraldton Diocese.
As he told us, archivists in Australia have barely scratched the surface in attempting to work out just exactly how and why the six windows by Marga came to Geraldton.
But then, as we know (!), a dearth of facts, when it comes to the career of Margaret Rope, is not limited just to Australia!
So, research goes on… all over the world…
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