▪Shrewsbury scenes in glass

It seems to be clear that Marga felt some affection for the area of her birth & upbringing – at least if that can judged by the number of times depictions of it crop up in her work.
If you care to look for them, behind the antique saints and sacred scenes can be seen sights and views of modern Shrewsbury as well as the landscape of the Shropshire countryside…

Shropshire

Those who can tell one hill from another are absolutely convinced that the Shropshire hills crop up in her work more than once – most recognisably in her St Winifrede window in Newport (which shows Caer Caradoc) and in the background of the Visitation Window in Shrewsbury Cathedral (which, says Fr Phillips in his monograph, “looks suspiciously like the Stretton Hills”).

Meanwhile, above St Oswald (in the Shrewsbury Cathedral West Window) are, quite clearly: the walls and spires of Shrewsbury town, one of the town’s bridges, and its Abbey Tower.
Indeed, one of the main themes of this West Window in Shrewsbury Cathedral is its celebration of saints & martyrs associated with the county of Shropshire.
In the window we see not just St Winifrede and St Oswald – both claimed by Shropshire – but also two Reformation-era martyrs who were locally born – Blessed Robert Johnson (who was executed for his faith in 1582), and his contemporary Edward Campion (who was born in Ludlow in south Shropshire).

Old London/Shrewsbury Town

There is less clear evidence perhaps for the belief that Marga drew on the cobbled back-lanes of Shrewsbury as inspiration for her depictions of sixteenth-century London (which can be seen in her Martyrs Roundels series at Tyburn Convent).
However, why not? There is enough of a likeness to mean that the theory cannot be dismissed!

Jennifer Farlow, author of the Guide To Shrewsbury St Marys, even speculates that the background buildings in the Tyburn roundels can still be identified with ones in Shrewsbury Square and in Wyle Cop (a well-known Shrewsbury street), and one may even be Abbots House (in Shrewsbury’s Butcher Row) …. though with some artistic licence!
Other commentators see Shrewsbury’s Fish Street in the roundels – particularly the St John Roberts roundel.

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Interestingly, these depictions of Shropshire scenes come early in her career – when the memory of them, one supposes, was still fresh.

Traditional… modern…

While Margaret Rope is hardly unique as an artist in including recognisable modern backgrounds in ostensibly ‘historical’ scenes, she is actually quite unusual for her own time in doing it.

One might speculate that she saw herself returning to the outlook of the great Renaissance painters who did it as a matter of course.
Or (quite the opposite!) that she saw a blending of current sights with ancient sacred stories as a deliberate, ‘Arts & Crafts Movement’-type response to the twentieth century – i.e. an injection of the real present-day into the imaginative past-time.

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▪The tale of the severed head

In her art, Margaret Rope was as much attached to saint symbology as any religious  painter of centuries past.
As befitted her outlook, mostly it was traditional symbols – lilies for purity, a palm branch for a martyr – but sometimes, rarely, she would do the unexpected.

In one depiction of the Reformation-era saint, St John Fisher, she shows him holding a severed head. This depiction – in Our Lady Church, Latchford – seems to be the one and only time in art that he is ever given this ‘attribute’. Either Marga knew something we don’t, or she went deliberately out on her own with this.

Head

Latchford Church, Fisher and More

It is curiously hard at first for the observer to work out that St John F (left, in the pic) is actually carrying a head. The window’s height, and the dark colours of the severed head, mean, to the observer, it could be almost anything – a bundle of some sort perhaps?
So… is it possible that Marga is a little shy about her departure from tradition and thus deliberately makes the image obscure?

It is a peculiarly odd head too, being black-indigo in colour and looking almost like it is made of dark stone – not the usual drained, stark-white colour given to such images in art. What is going on?

Baptist

Roger Hall, who is the expert in Margaret Rope’s symbology, and has written a good deal on it, has come up with a theory though, that very much seems to solve the puzzle.
Roger believes the severed head belongs to St John The Baptist. The parallels are there: both saints are called John, both were beheaded on the orders of a tyrant king, both executed for speaking out against an ‘irreligious’ marriage.
It all fits.

St John Fisher contemplates the head of The Baptist

Now one knows that, one can just make out the platter that the Baptist’s head was presented on to the tyrant King Herod (according to the Biblical story).

If you want to read Roger’s full exposition of this idea (and his commentary on the extensive symbology in the rest of the window), click here.

But the question of motivation remains. Why did Marga choose this ‘new’ symbol for St John Fisher? The saint is not without plenty of symbols already.

A time of turmoil

This Latchford window was completed in 1939, and even behind the walls of her enclosed monastery, Sister Margaret must have heard the rumours of war approaching. Her beloved Catholic Christendom must have looked in turmoil.
Is the head simultaneously a death’s head? One discoloured by decay and signifying the end of things?
On the other hand, St John Fisher has an expression of steadfastness – he is not afraid to contemplate the apparition in his arms; by his expression, he seems to see it as a comforting inspiration. The Baptist’s face is young, beautiful and undisturbed.
So, that interpretation of despair does not work.

Maybe then – this is pure speculation (and, after all, one may speculate in a blog such as this) – was Marga perhaps commenting on a marriage situation gone wrong that she knew of – or was serving a warning on one about to go wrong?

If she is not referring to a personal situation, it could even be that she is picking up the theme of the Ss John. The question of kings & divorce (again) had only been in the news a few years earlier (1936) with the ‘scandal’ of Edward VII and his mistress, and, in a parallel to Henry VIII’s time, had threatened a split in English society.
The darkness of the head’s colouring maybe expresses her concern about that moment in English society… maybe.

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Our Lady Church closed in 2010 when a new parish church was built in Latchford. If you do decide you want to see these windows for yourself, you will need to request access in advance.

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▪Shrewsbury Cemetery – the Marga connection

Within Shrewsbury Cemetery are buried some of Marga’s closest friends and relatives: her parents and grandparents are buried here as are one of her brothers and a nephew. They are all very close together, with the four Ropes in fact in a shared grave.
Her great mentor and patron, Bishop Moriarty, is interred only one hundred yards away across the cemetery.

Surprisingly, she herself is not here at all – as a dutiful Carmelite nun, she was buried alongside her sister religious at Quidenham Monastery in Norfolk. In fact very few have seen her memorial stone; as the Carmelites are an enclosed order, no one is allowed in to the monastery, even to go to the graveyard, except under very special circumstances*.

Cemetery

Shrewsbury Cemetery was opened in 1856 to serve the needs of a growing populace. The graveyards of the town’s ‘four great churches’ (Ss Chad, Mary, Julian and Alkmund) were simply too small to cope, while the town’s cathedral was built without a graveyard at all.
The cemetery, which was built a couple of miles outside the main town, at Longden Coleham, is curiously short of the great & grandiose monuments you might expect in a Victorian cemetery.  Mostly, the monuments are relatively restrained – which perhaps reflects the attitudes of the town’s society at the time, which was very conservative in outlook.

The four members of the Rope family here share the same memorial, a dignified simple black cross on a plinth (see pic below). The names of the interred are marked on the four sides of the plinth, one for each side: …
Henry Rope (died 1899), Marga’s father, is here; also Marga’s nephew, who died as a baby, Herbert Vaughan (1921); her mother Agnes (1948); and her brother Denys (1965) – a span of over sixty years. The plot is also quite ecumenical, in that it commemorates two Catholics, two Anglicans!Rope family grave, Shrewsbury Cemetery

Baby Herbert actually died in Gibraltar, where his army father was stationed, so presumably Irene (Herbert’s mother and Marga’s sister) brought the body home for burial.
It’s intriguing to think that Marga must have attended the funeral; as later she was to make a stunning window which remembers Herbert.

Llandovery detail, showing Herbert Vaughan
Detail of Our Lady window at Llandovery, showing Herbert Vaughan

The next plot along from the Ropes grave remembers eight members of the Burd family, a prominent Shrewsbury family of the time.
Marga’s mother was a Burd – so this plot commemorates her grandparents, Edward & Elizabeth Ellen, among others.

Two bishops one grave

Whilst there is no Catholic section as such in the cemetery, there does seem to be a Catholic ‘corner’, and it is here that a possibly unique grave is to be found.
Two of the Shrewsbury Catholic Diocese’s most long-serving bishops – Bishops Webster and Moriarty – are to be found sharing the same grave under a most modest stone (see pic below). One could easily walk past it without noticing it.
Surely there is no other grave in Britain shared by two bishops…(?)The two bishops' grave, Shrewsbury

Moriarty and Webster pretty much between them defined Shrewsbury Cathedral as the building and institution it became during the twentieth century, largely unchanged until this decade.

Moriarty, who was Webster’s nephew, commissioned the church’s Great West Window in 1910 in tribute to his uncle.
As we know, Moriarty gave the responsibility for the window to … Margaret Rope. It was a courageous decision: Marga was very young and it was her first commission. Indeed, it is the biggest single stained-glass piece made by a woman in that era.
Sadly, we do not yet have documents to prove it, but it is a strong guess that the two remained life-long friends, and that Moriarty was probably Marga’s mentor as well.

*Footnote.      In fact, as a one-off, the nuns did allow a BBC film crew in to photograph Margaret’s grave, in 2016. The footage became part of a TV documentary about Margaret Rope.

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▪Signing windows… or not

From the Victorian period onwards, it became the norm for artists to sign their work. At first this was mostly a matter of provenance, but increasingly it symbolised the idea that a work of art was more than just itself – it was also a reflection of the genius of the person who made it.
The custom was picked up in the stained-glass field by many Arts & Crafts Movement makers, who felt that, though a window is the product of many hands, theirs was the foremost mind that made the window what it was. Even Margaret Rope’s cousin and fellow stained-glass maker Margaret Edith Rope adopted the idea.

Coppenhall Camm signature
Florence Camm, a Marga contemporary, signed her windows at Coppenhall Church

Yet, during her whole career, Margaret Agnes Rope only ever tagged one of her windows.

Rebus, monogram

It wasn’t that Marga didn’t have a monogram or rebus.

Early in her career, we see a monogram: it features on a woodcut from which were printed family Christmas cards, probably made sometime shortly after 1901. A later version crops up as a tag on one of her glass-making tools (date unknown), and then finally in 1913, on a window at Blaxhall Church.
Arthur Rope, who has carried out an exhaustive study of Marga’s works, says he believes the Blaxhall window is the only occasion when she identified a piece of work as her own.

Obviously, Marga had a symbol near to hand on which she could pun her name (a ‘rebus’) which she could use as identification – in her case, a rope. Sure enough, a rope is pointedly in the tracery of the roundels series she did for Tyburn Convent (1912).
There are many other ropes in her works of course. However, it’s difficult with them to be sure they are not just a necessary part of the scene.

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So why, bearing in mind that she had the example of her fellow practitioners and already had designed her monogram and used it, did she not carry on ‘signing’ her windows after 1914, only three years after entering on a professional career?

Self-effacement

It has already been noted on this website that Marga’s deep religious leanings appeared to make her very wary of the sin of pride.
It also seems true that she was very private (shy?), and simply felt happier out of the limelight. Self-effacement seems to have even infringed on her professional outlook.
Did she therefore decide that signing her work, even indirectly through a rebus, was too much both for her faith and her personality?

Later of course, she was actually ordered not to sign her work.
After she became a nun in 1923 – but continued to produce stained-glass – it was part of the Carmelite code to refuse acclamation, and to choose the greatest possible humility.
We know this specifically, because in one letter from Marga to her brother, Father Harry, she asked him not to mention in public that she had made a particular window – as her Mother Prioress said her work had to be anonymous.
And anonymous she became.

It is curious to think that if only she had not chosen to make her works, and her life in fact, so hidden in anonymity, she would be so much more well-known today.

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▪Orchard comes back as Cafe

The opening of a new professional cafe on the same site as seven of Margaret Rope’s finest windows moves them into the category of a fully-fledged ‘Shrewsbury tourist attraction’…
The Orchard Cafe is Shrewsbury’s newest eaterie, open seven days a week – and is just a one-minute stroll away from Marga’s glass.

Redevelopment

The £500,000 redevelopment of the Shrewsbury Cathedral site has seen the creation of new visitor facilities (including a car park), meeting rooms, and a ‘piazza’ open-space – as well as the cafe.

The Orchard Cafe is a professional operation run by Clive Szczepanek and his team. Although it is based on the cathedral site, it is open to all; and hoping to attract tourists and residents from across the region.
As such its menu includes gluten-free specialities and hand crafted coffees; and Sunday lunch items are all gluten-free!

The cathedral includes seven stained-glass windows by Marga, including the giant West Window, which is among her finest achievements.

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With Shrewsbury Cathedral being open in the 2017 summer months 1pm-4pm each weekday (10am-4pm Saturdays), it’s hoped that more stained-glass enthusiasts will feel more drawn to visit, knowing that quality refreshments are on hand. And vice-versa of course: it’s hoped that the curious gourmets who come to visit the cafe will take the time to visit the cathedral too.

And here’s a little fun-fact: the Orchard Cafe is so-called because the cathedral was built on the site of a pear orchard. When the orchard was cut down to make way for the church, the wood was used to create art-pieces for the church, thus preserving a sense of continuity.

Facilities

All the details of the cafe are to be found on its Facebook site. However, it’s as well not to rely on finding a parking space in the car-park, which is very small.
Outside tables are provided – and the view of the flower-beds is free!

A small shop, selling mostly religious gifts and items associated with the cathedral, is inside the cafe confines.

▪Shrewsbury Cathedral evolves

It is a pure coincidence – but a serendipitous one – that the site of some of Margaret Rope’s greatest works, Shrewsbury Cathedral, has been undergoing major alterations in this same year when  Marga’s achievements are really getting the wider exposure they deserve.
As a result of the changes, the cathedral is now a more attractive proposition to both heritage-visitors and worshippers alike.

The cathedral’s frontage has been re-designed and re-ordered – moving the entrance to a more open and central position, and enabling much easier disabled access.
The new approach also means there is now a professional cafe on site (called The Orchard Cafe, and open seven days a week) and a small car-park.
See “Cathedral opens new facilities”

Over the summer of this year (i.e. until October), the cathedral will be open to visitors from 1pm-3pm weekdays, and 10am-4pm on Saturdays. Volunteers staff these hours, and it’s thanks to them that so many visitors who come to Shrewsbury can get in to the church at all to see the great seven windows by Margaret Rope.

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History

It is interesting to consider the changes that the cathedral has gone through down the years, some of which are outlined in a fascinating booklet, ‘Sacrament In Stone’ by Judith Hall.  Judith is the head of music at the cathedral, so she has a professional interest in the ‘shape’ of the cathedral’s interior as well as a simple love of the cathedral’s very being.

It was the great architect of nineteenth-century Neo-Gothic, Augustus Pugin, who created the original outline design for the cathedral.  However he died before the project really got off the ground, and his son Edward took over the work and adapted his father’s designs.
As Judith points out in her booklet, Augustus Pugin’s design had called for a large tower and spire (which would have been 300 feet high), but it transpired that the foundations simply wouldn’t have supported such ambition, and idea had to be abandoned. (Judith Hall, pg 23).  Shrewsbury town lies on a bed of soft sandstone & clay, with any sturdy rock far deep down below, so the ground would simply have not been hard enough for such a tall structure.
If the large spire had been built, the cathedral would simply have slid down into the river…

English: Photograph of Shrewsbury Roman Cathol...
Shrewsbury Roman Catholic Cathedral (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Unfortunately, this lack of a spire means (to my eyes at least) that the cathedral is rather unimpressive from the outside. If one sees it from a distance, i.e. from across the river, it does look rather squeezed into its own space … and even squat.

Within

Of course, the true glory of the cathedral is within anyway.  Notwithstanding the Margaret Rope windows, it has a quiet repose, and feels uplifting (almost literally, as its long narrow dimensions emphasise the height).

What is disappointing to a modern church-crawler is that, as Judith remarks in her history, the cathedral was re-painted in 1950s, and the turn-of-the-century stencilled figures on the chancel walls (designed by Gabriel Pippit) painted out.  I’m told that they were fading anyway, but it’s a shame that no decent colour photos remain to tell us what it all looked like. (Judith Hall, 29)

Far-sighted thinking also seems to have been missing in 1975… when Canon Welch had a new organ installed, which “seems to have been badly sited” (Judith Hall, 31). The thumping great instrument is so placed that it (partly) obscures part of Marga’s magnificent West Window.

Fortunately, the current alterations will not create similar issues. I’m happy to say that no hasty decisions haves been made in the current re-design, so expect no howlers of the sorts of fifty years ago.  In fact, the whole process of refurbishment over the last twelve months was much slower than expected – because of the concerns of conservationists.
The former porch/entry (to the right of the body of the cathedral) has been closed off, and now converted onto a memorial chapel.  Thus, the current war memorial in there (designed by Margaret Rope) will be able to stay where it is.
And the Hardman windows are unaffected also.

Today

Canon Jonathan Mitchell, the Dean of the Cathedral, is to be congratulated on seeing the work through to this stage of fruition.

The ‘visitor-experience’ at the cathedral is now much enhanced (and more is to come): so it’s now even more worth a visit…   Let us know in the comments section below if you agree!

References
Historical Profile of Shrewsbury Cathedral
Judith Hall:  Sacrament in Stone (out of print)

▪The Geraldton windows

As pointed out in our previous post, you’d have to travel to the other side of the world to see the furthest away of Margaret Agnes Rope’s windows. They are in Geraldton Cathedral in Western Australia.

Facts have become a little hazy over time, but archivists in Geraldton are pretty sure now that five of the cathedral’s windows are solely the creation of MA Rope, while a sixth is probably a collaboration (with her cousin Margaret Edith Rope). But… while Marga may have made them, is she their sole ‘author’?

Style

All the windows but the Bishop Kelly Memorial Window (i.e. five of them) appear to have been installed in 1919 – see The WA Record Newspaper for October that year.

As the cathedral had only just started to be built three years earlier (in 1916), as the 1914-18 World War had only just come to an end, and as one window was a memorial for a soldier who had died only two years before (in 1917), that’s a fast turn-round…
Admittedly, some of these five windows are very small – just lancets really – but they contain a lot of detail.

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Thus, as one looks more and more at the windows, it becomes fairly clear a second hand is at work: one that may have sketched out (at least) the designs, and even encouraged Marga to take up different stylistic approaches.
And there is now a strong assumption that Monsignor Hawes, the man who was building Geraldton Cathedral, and a man of some taste himself, may have ‘helped’ – and speeded – the process along.

Certainly, Geraldton’s archivists are pretty much convinced that it was Hawes who designed both the Le Caille and the Rebecchi Memorial window, and then had them painted & manufactured by Margaret Agnes.

There’s no doubt that sponsors could (and would) often request of the artist that they incorporate certain ways of looking at a subject; and Marga, admittedly, in these pieces, does seem to be taking quite new paths for her.
Was Hawes demanding from her a more visionary treatment than she normally would have contemplated?
According to those who have seen the windows, they glow with gorgeous, dense colouring … were they also partly designed by one who knew how best to use the strong Australian sun?

(Incidentally, it’s interesting to speculate on Marga’s first reactions to such a ‘hands-on’ stance. After all, Arts & Crafts Movement artists like her prided themselves on their artistic independence…)

It is only in the Bishop Kelly Memorial Window (installed later, probably 1922/23), that we see the Marga style we recognise once again.

Collaboration

Of the six windows ascribed to Margaret Agnes Rope, the one that is now thought by experts to be a collaboration with her cousin is the Virgin Mary/St Michael window. Experts still argue over who did the faces (my money is on the cousin – but that is a minority view!) while Marga’s handiwork is most recognisable in the edging.

If it is a collaboration, it must have been one created under some pressure as the cousin (MEA Rope) was in the Women’s Land Army during the 1914-18 War (…though research has yet to find out at what point she left it) and would barely have had time to change into her civvies in order to come and help!

Future

The good news is that Geraldton Diocese is one that fully appreciates its heritage, to the extent of preserving it as well as it can.
We’re told that, in recent years, the strong sun has finally worn down the lead lines in the windows, and the 100-year old works are in need of repair because the windows have bulged. However, we’re told that money has been made available for their repair, and restoration should be complete by the autumn.

As usual with Marga Rope, one leaves a subject with more questions than answers. We wish the Geraldton historians & archivists all the luck in finding those answers.
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Many thanks to Arthur Rope and Roger Hall whose amazingly dedicated researches helped fuel the thoughts in this article

Copyright of photos in this article is to Geraldton cathedral.
For those who like detail, the six windows are: The Rosa Mystica/Turris Davidica; Sacred Heart of The Risen Christ; Father Le Caille Memorial; Revelation/Our Lady/St Michael (collaboration); Patrick Rebecchi Memorial Window; and the Bishop Kelly Memorial Window (1922)

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