▪Blue plaque for Margaret

Another small milestone has been passed in the campaign to get Margaret better recognised in her home-town of Shrewsbury. The local civic society has formally honoured her, by installing a blue plaque on the house she lived in for twenty years with her mother.
The plaque is now securely attached high on one of the exterior walls of Shrewsbury College (Welsh Bridge campus), and can easily be seen by passers-by walking the river path.

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The ribbon-cutting ceremony took place in the afternoon of November 1st with a gathering of the great & the good.

Extraordinary Woman

A most moving speech at the ceremony came from James Staniforth, the Shrewsbury joint-colleges principal. He said that, in approving the project, he thought of his own daughters, who didn’t have to face the societal prejudices that women such as Margaret Rope had had to face one hundred years ago. Nevertheless, he said, it was well to remember the example set in the strength of lone women such as Margaret – and that the struggle for women’s equality was not yet fully achieved.

The event was timed to be part of the Civic Society’s celebration of ‘Extraordinary Women’.
The nationwide Extraordinary Women initiative was organised by the Heritage Days project to celebrate the 100th anniversary of women getting the vote in Britain.

Priory

The eighteenth-century building now called Priory House is so-called because it’s on the site of an Augustinian Priory which was there in the middle ages.
It was the home of the Rope family from 1901. Mrs Rope and some of her children, including Margaret, moved in there two years after the death of Marga’s father Henry Rope.
On the house’s large kitchen table, Margaret is said to have created the designs for her first commission, the Great West Window at Shrewsbury Cathedral.

In 1911, when she was 29, Margaret started to rent a studio in London at the ‘Glass House’ run by Lowndes & Drury. However, she never seems to have taken up a permanent residence in London, and most likely lodged with her aunt, in Putney, whenever she needed to use the studio.
As Margaret Rope historians will know, any records relevant to her are very unclear, and no family documents exist from this period (except a family Christmas card made by Marga in 1915 – see pic right)Ropes 1916 Christmas card, so establishing exact dates for Margaret’s life at The Priory’, as it was called back then, is virtually impossible.

What we do know is that after 1921 she started to spend more time in Suffolk, where she was able to study the life of the convent that she was to enter in 1923.
Mrs Rope continued to live on at The Priory, and may even have run a home for girls there; the census records are frustratingly unclear!

In fact Mrs Rope seems to have been something of a revisionist in her traditional ways (much as her son Henry was), being remembered as ‘the woman with the lanthorn’: in the winter months, she would walk up from The Priory to Shrewsbury Cathedral (where she worshipped) holding a candle-lit lantern to light her way.

After Mrs Rope’s death in the early fifties, the building appears to have been bought by the local authority, became a school, and was absorbed into the complex of buildings in that neighbourhood run by the authority.

(Photos by Simon Caldwell St Gabriel Press)

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▪A little-known soldier

Among Margaret Rope’s many wonderful stained-glass works in Shrewsbury Catholic Cathedral is one dedicated to a lowly, virtually unknown soldier – Private Eugene Cox, who died in the Great War aged just 20.
The window shows scenes from the lives of St Martin and St Ignatius (who were both soldiers themselves), and ranks among Marga’s best, especially for its exuberant colouring.
Historian Arthur Rope dates the window to 1919-20.

The work is very large – some twelve feet in height, made up of two main lancets plus smaller pieces of tracery and two topmost lights – and fills the north side of the cathedral’s Sacred Heart Chapel.  (Click here to jump to an image of the window at the bottom of this page).
It is full of careful details and thoughtful images. Among the well-researched images are ones connected with the Irish Guards, Eugene’s regiment; in fact one of Marga’s trademark ‘hidden references’ is present – in the dog by the horse, an Irish Wolfhound.
It is one of a number of war memorial windows completed by Marga.

But this is not a usual war memorial window. Usually such a window featured a Biblical scene or saint, with the only reference to the soldier who died being in the dedication scroll. However, in this window, in both of the two topmost lights, we see Eugene Cox himself, in his soldier’s tunic.
This would seem to be a very personal, and unique, work.

Mystery

Whatever else it is, it is a very ambitious venture – and surely must have been very expensive to commission.
Yet… and here’s a great mystery … it was commissioned by Eugene’s mother, a poor widow working as a shopkeeper…

Maude Cox, Eugene’s mother, had arrived with her family in Shrewsbury sometime around 1910. She was an Irish Catholic by birth, and appears to have worshipped at Shrewsbury Cathedral.
With her husband, Sidney James Cox, she was given the management of the grocery & tuck shop at Shrewsbury School, the famous public school in the town, probably around 1912. (She took up residence at ‘Schools Cottage, Kingsland, Shrewsbury’, and was to continue in this post until her retirement in 1939).

But her husband died (aged just 42) in 1913, leaving her with a young son and daughter as well as the business to look after.
Which begs the question: how could a poor widow, far from home, possibly have afforded to commission a grand window?

A humble private

There is no clue to the answer in any profile of Eugene. In fact we know almost nothing about Eugene. (Another Eugene Cox was quite a well-known hymn-writer, but that is not our man).
Apart from the fact that the census records him as attending St Bede’s School in Manchester for a while, and that he served in WW1, he is lost to history.

His military record is thin too.
We know that Eugene enlisted for service in World War One in Shrewsbury, and chose the Irish Guards for his regiment – presumably because of his mother’s nationality.
Next we know is that, in 1917, dispatches state that he was badly wounded in the Bourlon Wood engagement (part of the Battle of Cambrai), taken prisoner by the Germans, and then died, two weeks later, on December 15th.
Cambrai, which lasted three weeks, was a brutal encounter, resulting in nearly 50,000 Allied casualties and some 9,000 taken prisoner. (Rudyard Kipling gives a full account of Bourlon Wood in his history of the Irish Guards).

So, Eugene’s military experience seems to have been short and sad, and (as far as we know) he earned no particular accolades in his time in the army.

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Certainly, the cathedral’s Roll Of Honour mentions many others of the congregation who were among the fallen during WW1, so Eugene was not unique in that sense.
So we must look elsewhere for reasons for the creation of this window.

Determined

There seems to be little doubt that Maude was a determined woman.

We see this characteristic come out in her extraordinary decision to exhume her son’s body from its military grave, and have it transferred to a nearby civilian grave.
Eugene had originally been buried in 1917, in Fourmies Communal Cemetery in France, in a ‘war plot’, where there are a number of British WW1 graves. But Maude appears to have decided that this wouldn’t do, and in 1920, Eugene was exhumed and reburied a few yards away in the adjacent civil plot, i.e. in a private, family-owned grave among civilians.
On the face of it, it is a strange and puzzling decision: and what’s more, a very expensive, bureaucratically-fraught process.

Maude wasn’t to stop there in ensuring her son was to be properly remembered.
Another project of her’s (though she may have been aided by her uncle) was to create a full monumental gravestone in Dublin, remembering her father, husband and son all on one stone. (At first, the inscription even leads one to believe that Private Cox is buried there – but this is what is known as a ‘cenotaph grave’, in that it commemorates someone buried abroad in war).

With this sort of driving force in her, did Maude ‘persuade’ the cathedral to create a window for her son?

Eugene

There’s no doubt that the window is a very personal tribute.
In one light there is a portrait of Eugene hearing mass at the Cathedral, and in the other he is depicted as receiving a ‘martyr’s crown’ from Jesus as Saints Martin and Ignatius look on approvingly. Quite a remarkable tribute to a young man!
Soldier Window - detail, Cox lightsRoger Hall also identifies a tiny piece of text (hard to see with the naked eye) across the altar cloth in the left-hand light. It reads: Mitis Sum et Humilis Corde (“I am gentle and lowly in heart” – Matthew’s Gospel 11;29).
Can one deduce from this that Eugene was also much loved in his community? With Margaret also a strong member of that cathedral community, she too may have admired his ‘gentle and lowly’ qualities and been moved to offer her talents.

But… we still don’t know who could have paid for the window. Margaret, though a professional working woman at this point, was not rich enough to have provided the funds, even if she had put a ‘discount’ on her own fee.
Also, so far no ‘faculty’ for the window has been discovered (a faculty being a document that explains the need and the finance for a church project). Such a document, if ever found, might explain the puzzle.

We are in the dark.

Speculation

One game for the amateur historian is informed-speculation. While there is little proof for the speculation I’m about to produce, it might be a research-line worth following.

One person who could have afforded to pay for the window was the administrator of the cathedral, Canon Moriarty. Not only was he very ambitious to promote the cathedral (which was less than 70 years old) as a great church integral to the region, he was also Margaret’s patron, having commissioned a number of windows from her already, including the cathedral’s Great West Window, and a rich man in his own right.

He may also have been aware that political rights had been given to Catholics in England only some 90 years before, and Catholics were still regarded suspiciously at the time. The rebellion in Ireland in 1916, right in the middle of World War One, had given rise again to the thought that Catholics might not be as loyal as they professed to be – especially those of Irish ancestry.

But this ‘Soldier Window’ proves the opposite point: that Irish-ancestry Catholics were just as ready to lay down their lives for their country as any other community. Did Moriarty ‘select’ Eugene – at Eugene’s mother’s strong prompting perhaps – to be the figurehead in a great & prestigious illustration, one which would prove to the town that Catholics now deserved to be accepted fully into English society?*
Certainly, many of the Catholics worshipping at the cathedral would have been Irish, or of Irish ancestry, following a wave of immigration into the region in the 1850s.

Much research still needs to be done. With such a cupboard bare of facts, this article can only be the first part of this project. So – any more information would be very welcome! If you can help with comments or your own research, please email us.

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Research that this article drew upon must be credited to, among others: Roger Hall, Jane Morgan, Anne O’Donoghue, John O’Grady and Bill Pearson. Thanks to them all.
Roger Hall’s booklet ‘Letting In the Light of Christ’ gives a detailed two-page account of the Soldier Window.

(* The cathedral was marginalised by the town even until the 1950s. See Cathedral neglected)

Soldier Window, Shrewsbury Cathedral
The ‘Soldier Window’, Shrewsbury Cathedral. Photo copyright: Arthur Rope

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▪Extraordinary Women

The most fascinating thing about the Ten Extraordinary Women of Shropshire exhibition which is on at the Bear Steps Hall in Shrewsbury right now (Sept 2018) is that highlights an amazing generation of women. Six of the women featured (including Margaret Rope) were born within twenty years of each other.
This was the generation who grew up as second-class citizens in the Victorian era, only to then refuse, as adults, to accept the oppressed status they had been born with.
Because these women all would have lived only miles from each other, Margaret Rope would surely have come across almost all of them.

Pioneers for equality

It’s hard to imagine how depressing the era must have been for women. When a ‘feminist’ such as Arnold Bennett can still be writing, in 1920, a whole book explaining (“kindly”!) why women are intellectually inferior to men (famously refuted by Virginia Woolf*), then you see the issue.

Margaret Rope seems to have approached the issue with a non-serviam attitude – by moving (at the age of 29) to a woman-friendly set of studios in London, refusing to marry, refusing to take part in the (male-dominated) ‘art-scene’, and then eventually joining an all-women community.
But the five contemporaries of Marga featured in this exhibition also “did it their way” – even though each had a different solution.

Eglantyne Jebb - pic from WikipediaThe suffragist and social reformer Eglantyne Jebb (born in 1876, six years before Marga) was already heavily involved in social reform work before the Great War.
She became increasingly horrified by news of the desperate state of children in war-damaged Germany and Austria, and founded the Save The Children organisation to help them. Amazingly, in an England which had grown to hate the Germans, she managed to raise large sums of money from the British public for this! One can only guess at the energy, commitment and powerful personality which she must have shown…

Katherine Harley too was already active in public life by the time WW1 came round. She had greatly dismayed her family by leading national votes-for-women marches, but when the war came she was told to “go and wait at home, woman!” by the British authorities when she asked to establish nursing units – so, she took her (all-women) volunteers group to Serbia, where the government was hugely grateful for her offer to set up mobile hospitals alongside the battlefields.
She refused to take a behind-the-lines role, and died in a bout of enemy shelling.

Teresa Hulton (later Lady Berwick of Atingham Park) was another contemporary of Marga’s. Born into money, she could have settled for a quiet life, but she is another for whom World War One was a catalyst. Like many young men come 1914, she was one of the young women who yearned for ‘action’, and her change came when a friend wrote and asked her to join an ambulance unit on the Italian front line saying, “we also have daily air raids, generally one for breakfast and another for tea, and two bombs have been dropped not far from our little chalet. But I don’t suppose that worries you.”
(Incidentally, Marga’s sister Irene was another woman whoo refused to sit on the Home Front, and who also joined an ambulance unit, in Serbia).
Teresa also took part in some secret intelligence work, of which little is known. She went on to become Lady Berwick and spent much of her life restoring Attingham Hall, which is now a National Trust property.

Mary Webb the author was born in 1881, just one year before Marga, and is best known for her ‘free spirit’ novels, in which a young woman finds freedom and purpose only in nature and natural behaviour. Three of Webb’s novels have been reprinted by Virago.

Agnes Hunt (born 1866, thus sixteen years older than Marga) became disabled early in life, suffering osteomyelitis of the hip. This didn’t stop her (in fact, it probably inspired her) to take up the cause of disabled children, and she eventually opened a convalescent home for them.
This home was affiliated to the Salop Infirmary hospital at Shrewsbury, where Margaret’s father was a surgeon working extensively in paediatrics. It’s quite possible that the young Marga may have even met this extraordinary woman.
Agnes Hunt went on to develop the home as a virtual mini-hospital of its own before founding another establishment, the Orthopaedic Hospital (RJAH) in Oswestry in north Shropshire.

Exhibition

The exhibition at the Bear Steps Hall is in the form of information boards rather than cases of artefacts, but, in that much of the information will come as revelations to most of us, it is still fascinating. The curator (and Civic Society member), Bibbs Cameron, is to be congratulated on the astonishing researches she’s undertaken.

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Designed to tie in with the national Heritage Days appeal for nominations of ‘forgotten’ extraordinary women, the exhibition fulfils the brief exactly.
This exhibition has also been a moment to pause and think in this year of the 100th anniversary of the granting of the vote to women in Britain. It is incredible to consider that, as little as one hundred years ago, people of this great energy & creativity could be denied political equality on the basis of their sex alone.

Anyone who missed the exhibition will be glad to know that the displays will not be taken down until December (2018) but you’ll need to make an appointment to see them as they are being kept in the ‘Rex Connell’ gallery, which is usually locked. Contact Bibbs Cameron to ensure the gallery is opened up for you.

Apart from the six women already mentioned, there are displays featuring another four other women associated with Shropshire: –
Ethelraeda (aka Æthelflæd) warrior queen; the indefatigable Julia Bainbrigge Wightman, the temperance-movement leader who wrote the astonishing work ’Arrest the Destroyer’s March; or, Lift Ye Up a Banner’ in 1877; Edith Pargeter (Ellis Peters) the historian born in 1913, who also wrote the Cadfael Chronicles; and Esmeralda Lock (born 1854) the gypsy free-spirit who scandalised Society with her ‘wild’ ways.

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*Footnote. You’ll find the refutuation in Virginia Woolf’s collection of essays called Killing The Angel In The House

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▪National stage for Margaret Rope lecture

The news that the national Stained Glass Museum is to stage a lecture in October (2018) about the works of Margaret Rope is another milestone in the slow rediscovery of her achievements.

Despite producing stained-glass works of the highest quality & art across three decades in the first half of the twentieth century, Margaret Rope has been virtually ignored by art-history since (see ‘Neglected’).
(Although her work has featured, in the last forty years, in two exhibitions, sadly neither of the museums that showed her work were central.)
This lecture is part of the process to right that wrong.

Arthur Rope

The person selected to give the lecture could hardly better chosen. Arthur Rope is a cousin of Margaret Rope and grew up hearing stories about her, her strange life, and the band of female artists that surrounded her in her early years.

His interest piqued, he has spent years researching her life and works, and is now the definitive expert. His website is the go-to place for Marga facts and details. He has visited virtually all the churches in the UK holding Margaret Rope’s works – and photographed them.
Thanks to him, previously undiscovered works have been identified and added to the canon.

Arthur Rope at a book signing
Arthur Rope at a book signing

His efforts majorly contributed to the success of the Margaret Rope Exhibition in Shrewsbury (the only time such a large range of her works have been shown); and he has been the driving force behind the recent establishment of a custom-built space for the Margaret Rope archive.
He has published a number of books on both Margaret Rope and her cousin, the stained-glass M.E. Aldrich Rope (who acted on occasion as Margaret’s collaborator).  Arthur is something of an expert on the latter’s work too.

Lecture

An integral part of the lecture will be the showing of many of Marga’s works – not just church windows, but also pieces from private collections. The display-screen in the room will be a dazzle of colour!

Mr Rope will be endeavouring to show not just Marga’s mastery of colour and line but also how she fitted into the ‘Later’ Arts & Crafts tradition.
Arthur is a stained-glass artist himself, and so is well-equipped to explain the unique way in which A&C artists approached glass-working and why it was so different from what had come before – or later.

Inevitably, there will be a discussion of Margaret’s life. Little is known of the details of it, but there has been intense research by enthusiasts over the last ten years, and new facts are coming to light all the time. Some of those will be outlined.
The new research helps a little to explain why she did religious subjects almost exclusively, and how a deep understanding of religious symbology informed her work.

Stained-Glass Museum

For those travelling to the lecture, you could consider spending the day in the town. The lecture takes place in the afternoon (2pm), so you could build your visit around that.

The Museum itself (see pic below) is housed in the triforium of Ely Cathedral and displays around one hundred works of glass, from across the centuries, in the most up to date conditions. (Although no works by Marga are there, there are some small roundels by her cousin M.E. Aldrich Rope).
Stained Glass Museum, Ely
Ely Cathedral itself is a huge joy (literally!) for any church-crawler, and there is a perfect cup of tea to be had in the tea-rooms that lie across the cathedral green.
The town-trail is small enough and quaint enough to complete in two hours.

The lecture takes place on Wednesday October 10th 2018 at 2pm.
Tickets are £9 (discounted for Museum Friends) and are available in advance – see https://stainedglassmuseum.com/lectures.html

One thought…. before attending the lecture you may want to familiarise yourself with Margaret Rope’s artworks. Arthur’s own photo-book of her works is available on mail-order for £10, though, in this online age, you can now download a digital version if you prefer that.
Copies will also be available for sale at the lecture.

▪Shrewsbury Cathedral, the experience

Shrewsbury Cathedral, which contains seven of Margaret Rope’s finest and largest windows, is now a familiar stop on the tourist trail around the town.
This is because the cathedral authorities have decided to make the building very user-friendly to visitors. Stewards are on duty every afternoon Mon-Sat during the high season (and also mornings on Saturdays); and the adjacent cathedral-cafe The Orchard, which opened last year, makes the tourist experience even more comfortable indeed!

For a Margaret Rope enthusiast, the glory of the cathedral must be the startling Great West Window, though the recently created War Memorial Chapel also features a small Pieta sculpture by her.

The exact visitor opening-hours are 1pm-4pm Mon-Sat (also 10am-1pm Sat), but not Sundays. These are the hours up until October 31st.

Brilliant light

It’s a strange thing, but the way Shrewsbury Cathedral is aligned is almost perfect for anyone wanting to see Margaret Rope’s great ‘West Windows’ in their full glory.
The fact is that the cathedral is not in the traditional East-West orientation for a church. The nineteenth century designers, including the great architect, Edward Pugin (son of Augustus), had a very narrow space in which to fit the building, so it is actually aligned almost North-East to South-West.
(So, although everyone refers to the large windows at the end of the building as the ‘West Windows’, this is not strictly correct!)

And why is this better for us?
Well, usually to see a West Window in the full glow of the sun you need to turn up sometime just before sunset of course.
But with a south-west facing window, it is only necessary to be there in the late afternoon. And, in this instance, that is fortuitous… because the cathedral is only open until 4pm!

West Window Shrewsbury Cathedral
West Window Shrewsbury Cathedral (photo: A Rope)

So, especially in the six months of the summer-season, visitors get the chance to see Margaret’s masterpiece in its full glory if they go along any time after 2pm.
It could not have been planned better…

Guide

For stained-glass enthusiasts, there are more than just the Margaret Rope windows, wonderful though they are.
There are some Hardman windows too and a fascinating large east window. The latter is not of the quality of the Rope windows… but then, that would be a hard ask.
On quiet days, the stewards may even be persuaded to show you the ‘hidden’ St Ambrose window, which is not usually seen by the public.

Shrewsbury Cathedral war memorial chapel
The new war memorial chapel at Shrewsbury Cathedral

The newly-created War Memorial Chapel which lists all of the congregation’s members who fell in the two world wars has been designed as a quiet place of reflection – all are welcome. The pieta that you see above the roll-of-honour board was sculpted by Margaret Rope; it is a little battered now, but it is still recognisably her style.
For local people, the St Winefride Chapel is another great draw, as Winefride is the patron saint of Shrewsbury.

Guided tours do take place occasionally; pipe-organ societies and stained-glass groups often request them.

Canon Mitchell tour
Canon Mitchell leads a tour of the cathedral

A guide book is available for £2.50 – but the stewards are often very knowledgeable, so it’s also worth asking them if you have a question.

West Window

So… if you are in Shrewsbury, especially on a sunny day, make your way to the cathedral, located on Town Walls (SY1 1TE).

This description by Mother Mary McMonagle sums up the vision that Margaret was trying to put over in the Great West Window – :
“The height and depth, the length and breadth of Margaret’s spiritual vision is revealed in the West Window of the cathedral.
It is a window on to the universal dimensions of our holy religion, portrayed on several distinct but inter-related levels.
At the apex is the symbol of Christ as the Lamb, slain yet standing above the heavenly Jerusalem, in the heavenly firmament.
Below the entire universe is found – the vast oceans, celestial lights – sun, moon and stars; dry land, plants, seed-bearing trees with fruit; song birds and flying birds.
Then too the angelic choirs and heavenly song.
This is the full chorus of Creation praising God.”

2018 Opening Hours: Shrewsbury Cathedral is open to visitors (from Easter through to the end of October) Monday to Saturday 1pm-4pm, and Saturdays 10am-4pm. On Sundays, visitors are welcome to a Sung Vespers service at 6pm.
From November 1st to Easter 2019, the cathedral is open Saturdays only, 10.30am-3pm.
To volunteer to be a steward, contact Gerrie Hadfield

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▪The Suffolk Ropes

If geneticists are looking for proof that a gene-pool can often concentrate certain talents, it might be worth their looking at the Rope Family.
As family research into Marga’s life continues, it becomes very clear that many of her immediate relatives were more than usually accomplished and strong-minded.
It is also interesting to note that most of these gifted relatives were women.

The Suffolk side

The artistic gifts in Marga’s extended paternal family first become most clear with George Thomas Rope (1846-1929), Marga’s paternal uncle.
The paternal branch of her family was based in Suffolk (her father, Henry, left Suffolk as a young man, to set up in practice in Shrewsbury).

The wealth of talent among the Suffolk Ropes is evidenced in the work ‘Suffolk Painters’, which lists no fewer than six artists related by blood to Marga! See them listed below.
The most famous of them are Ellen Mary Rope, who exhibited internationally, and Margaret Edith Rope, a fellow stained-glass artist.

Ellen Mary Rope – sculptor and designer of ceramics; aunt to Marga. Below you can see her memorial to her nephew.

Dr Henry Rope Triptych

Margaret Edith Aldrich Rope – stained-glass artist who was as well-known as Marga and even more prolific; Marga’s cousin
Dorothy Anne Aldrich Rope – another cousin, almost exactly the same age as Marga; she pursued her art career (sculpture & ceramics) by moving to London with Ellen Mary (her and Marga’s aunt). It’s possible that Marga and she shared lodgings in the early days in London
George Thomas Rope – Marga’s uncle, who exhibited at the Royal Academy in his lifetime, and whose landscape and wildlife watercolours can still be seen today at Ipswich Museum & Art Gallery.
Edith Dorothy Rope – aunt to Marga
Emmeline Anna Rope – Marga’s first cousin once removed

Yes, it’s possible that genteel Edwardian ladies may have had few other permissible outlets than art for their ambitions, but for the majority of them to also achieve national profiles is surely unusual…
Whether through the influence of genetics or environment, or both, this is certainly an outstanding pool of artistic sensibilities and talent!

The other notable characteristic of the women listed here is that all of them chose to remain unmarried (as did Marga).
Is it possible that these women, who lived at a time when women’s emancipation was on the rise, chose deliberately to eschew the doubtful privileges of marriage, and also reinforced each other’s choice? If so, it shows quite a collective strength of mind…

Shrewsbury relatives

A similar pattern emerges with Marga’s maternal extended family, based in Shrewsbury, though, in this instance, it is a startling sense of drive and ambition that emerges rather than an artistic sense.
But, yet, again, it is the women who stand out most.

(An accompanying Shrewsbury Relatives post is in the process of being written. Watch this space.)

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▪Hoylake’s mystery knight

In St Hildeburgh’s Church at Hoylake is a lovely war memorial window by Margaret. It shows a medieval knight holding a shield with a red cross. Behind the figure are lilies, and boats crossing a seascape. Above are doves, and below an inscription, ‘Put on the whole armour of God’.
St Hildeburgh's Hoylake knightAs befitting an ‘Arts & Crafts’ period church, the window is low on the wall in the side-chapel, with the bottom of the light at eye-level, and the figure is life-size.

And it is a mystery.

Questions

Who is the knight? Is the knight male or female?
What do the elements in the window represent?
The light is a companion piece to another window (by a different artist). Why did Captain James Getty – to whom the windows are dedicated – require two window memorials, side by side?
Why is this window here at all? It is in an Anglican church – yet, apart from this instance, Marga took commissions only from Catholic churches (unless there was a family connection).

St Joan

First – who is the figure?  The red cross on the shield would indicate St George, but there is no dragon. Anyway, there is already a stained-glass St George in the church.
So art-historians Pevsner and the Armstrongs simply describe the figure as “a knight”. The cross on the shield thus becomes just simply a symbol of Englishness.

But… yet… the excellent guidebook to the church describes the figure as St Joan Of Arc …!
Joan Of Arc was the fifteenth century female warrior saint who led French armies in battle (and wore armour).
We visited Hoylake to speak to the church’s current archivist, who explained that the attribution is one long-held in Hoylake, but that the last archivist, who might know the secret of why this is, had recently died.

Could it be St Joan??
The fact that the figure is medieval and a knight is not really an indicator. In fact, at this time, artists looked back to the Age of Chivalry in many war memorials. (It seems rather bizarre to do this, when one remembers how brutal WW1 was, but they did.)
However, the face of the figure is certainly androgynous.

Hoylake church knight detail

The lilies in the background are symbols of virginity (as well as France), both attributable to Joan, and they also remind us of her personal battle-standard – because Joan “…had a standard whose field was sown with lilies”.
The inscription, ‘Put on the whole armour of God’ (from the letters of St Paul) echoes the divine instructions that Joan heard in her internal ‘voices’.
Apart from the doves (of peace?), there is no overt reference to World War One.

And by the time this window is said to have been created (in 1919?), St Joan was on a roll.
Actress as Joan Of Arc 1911In fact, the figure of St Joan had become incredibly popular by the early 1900s, not just in France but England too. She was being adopted by ‘new women’ as a representation of female strength, independence and ability.  Actresses (such as Ellaline Terriss, right, in 1911) lined up to have themselves photographed as Joan.
Joan was adopted by the suffragette movement in the decade up to the First World War.

In the Catholic faith (Marga was Catholic), Joan’s popularity was so prevalent that she was beatified in 1909, and canonized as a saint in 1920. (However, Anglicans revere her too).
Another allusion to consider is that by this time, even Catholic women, usually so conservative, were actively taking part in the suffrage movement, having formed the Catholic Women’s Suffrage Society in 1911. The society was re-named The Saint Joan’s International Alliance in 1923…

In the art of the time; St Joan was equally popular. She was even depicted by the great Christopher Whall – another convert to Catholicism – in a famous 1922 stained-glass piece.

Could Margaret, by ‘hiding’ St Joan in this window, have been making a veiled reference to women’s equality in this window?*

It’s tempting to read these sorts of allusions into this window. Artists have, for centuries, buried hidden meanings into their artworks, and Marga was not only well aware of this tradition; she practised it quite a lot, too.
But, it is all speculation until further research is done.

Features

The window contains other features that need explaining.
The field of pansies at the knight’s feet: pansies are often used as symbols of remembrance, which would suit a memorial window of course.Hoylake church knight details 2
The boats & seascape behind the knight (see pic above): Hoylake Church is at the far end of the Wirral Peninsula and less than a mile from the coast. Was the infantry captain James Getty, to whom the window is dedicated, a keen sailor in peacetime?
The other window dedicated to Getty in the chapel: this shows an angel crowning a young man, a more typical subject for a war-memorial window of the time. Why did Getty’s parents want a second window, and why did they agree to Marga’s very ambiguous artwork?

Art

In the end, though, past all the puzzles, the window is also a lovely work reminding us that Margaret was at the height of her powers around this period.

The metallic blue tinge of the armour is finely created in glass, while the detail of the armour is painstakingly painted.
It has to be seen in sunlight of course…when the red and blue colour combination produces an intensity of power ‘behind’ the strong stillness of the human figure.

Perhaps, taken all in all, it is an amalgam.
It seems to be depicting, in both the art and the meanings, an idea of the Glory Of Service In the Pursuit of Right – something that Captain Getty, St Joan and also Margaret herself would have seen as a central driving force to their lives.

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ADDENDA – thanks to everyone who has contacted us with more evidence of the place of St Joan Of Arc, during Marga’s lifetime, in inspiring women seeking equality.

~John Tober said: “You may be amazed (I was) to know that there is a photograph from 1895 of Sainte Thérèse de Lisieux – dressed as Jeanne d’Arc!” Saint Therese was one of Marga’s role-models.
~MConnell pointed out that suffragettes were often seen dressed as Joan Of Arc in demonstrations pre-1914. The two most famous were Elsie Howey from Cradley (in Staffordshire, less than 100 miles from Marga in Shrewsbury) and Marjorie Annan Bryce, who, as well as dressing in ‘armour’ would each ride a white horse too!
~In 1896, when Marga was fourteen, Mark Twain published his last novel, Joan Of Arc, a surprisingly sympathetic account of the saint’s story.
~George Bernard Shaw’s play is, arguably, the most famous Joan Of Arc artwork of the time. It could not have influenced Marga’s depiction of the knight though, as it was only performed in 1923, four years after it’s thought that the window was installed. But – it does reinforce the fact that the Saint Joan figure was in the zeitgeist.
~SK quoted for us the words of The Suffragette magazine from May 1913: “Joan Of Arc is the militant women’s ideal… they recognise [in her] the same spirit as that which strengthens them to risk their liberty and endure torture for the sake of freedom.”

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If you wish to comment on this article, please leave your thoughts in the comments-box below. All comments welcome!

Once again – my apologies for some of my photos. Stained-glass, in its lit form, is very hard to capture well!  Thanks to Arthur Rope though for the one decent photo…

*(See also our article on Marga & The New Woman).