A Rope wartime Christmas

The Christmases of the First World War, one hundred years ago, were surely difficult ones for Agnes Maud, the mother of the Rope family.
Of her six siblings, four were directly involved in the war effort, and none was living at home with her in Shrewsbury.
It must have been in a spirt of courage then that she asked her artist daughter Margaret to design a special family card for Christmas 1916. Marga duly obliged, and the result you can see below.

Ropes 1916 Christmas card

Margaret’s father, Henry Rope, is absent of course. He had died, prematurely, at the age of just 50, nearly twenty years before. There is a plaque in his memory in St Mary’s Church in the centre of the town.


The card is a kind of visual update on the children’s lives.

Henry, the eldest, was studying to be a priest; he’s shown with his head in a book as he was a great reader. Later he also became a published poet.
Denys had become a doctor by this point, and it’s believed he spent a deal of the war abroad attending to wounded soldiers. This may explain the dots around his head – suggesting heat (?)

Michael had spent part of the war supervising railways in Africa, but by late 1916 he had joined the Royal Naval Air Service, a precursor to the RAF.
It’s interesting to speculate about the airship he appears to be holding: is it a German Zeppelin of the sort the air service had to combat, or is it a British navy ‘blimp’ airship? Michael became famous after the war as a designer of airships, but perhaps he was already working on airships by late 1916…

Irene, Marga’s sister, volunteered to go out to Serbia as an ambulance driver, joining an unusual group of women who just wanted to get involved in the ‘action’. You can see the full story of this remarkable woman by clicking here.
(Bizarrely, at one point during the war, in southern England, Marga and Irene were arrested as German spies. They were riding their motorbikes, and, as it was so unusual for young women to be doing such a thing, they were immediately held on suspicion).

About Monica, the Sister of Charity nun, very little is known. Family lore says that she was so badly affected by her war work – tending to damaged soldiers in a London hospital – that it unhinged her mental state. It’s said she never recovered and had to be looked after by her fellow nuns until she died.
And so to Marga herself. As usual she depicts herself as unattractive and last in regard (though she was actually second-eldest). The real fact is however that she was already running her own successful stained-glass studio in London; she was one of the main bread-winners for her mother.

Fortunately, all the family members survived the war.

Agnes Maud

As is fitting, Agnes Maud, the matriarch, fills most of the card.
She was, by accounts, a formidable woman, and some older people in Shrewsbury remember her still and tell stories about her. Apparently, she disliked motor cars, and even in old age walked up the steep hill to services at Shrewsbury Cathedral from her home (a house known as The Priory, which now forms part of the town’s Sixth Form College). On winter days, when darkness fell early, she would use an old-fashioned candle lantern to light her way.

… and the dog? Ah, whoever he or she was is lost in the mists of time….

This card is one of the interesting ‘surprise’ items on the official Margaret Rope website: http://www.arthur.rope.clara.net/oldsurprise2.htm
The card must have been copied and sent out to a number of people, as one than one copy survives. It can be see by the public at the Margaret Rope Archive in Suffolk.

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▪A private grave

It was sixty-four years ago today (5th December) that Margaret Agnes Rope died. However you will seek her grave in vain; only the permitted few are allowed to visit it.
And this is because Marga – aka Sister Margaret of The Mother Of God – died, and was buried, as she had latterly lived, away from public gaze, behind the walls of the estate of the convent of the ‘enclosed’ order of nuns that she had entered at the age of forty-one.
After her final vows, she lived without direct contact from very few but her sister nuns for thirty years.

Straw beds & six hours sleep

The Order of Discalced Carmelite Nuns is one that has a long history, and had a high reputation in the 1920s when Marga was looking for a religious life.

It is surprising that she did not join The Sisters Of Mercy or a Sisters Of Charity order – these were ones that a number of her relatives had joined. However, the Carmelite house at Woodbridge in Suffolk was near to where her paternal grandfather’s family lived, so it may just have been at hand, or Marga may have been positively attracted to the idea of leaving the public world behind – an aspect which the other orders could not offer.

Sister Margaret of the Mother of God
Sister Margaret, 1925

However, it was no easy life she was opting for.
A contemporaneous account of life at the Woodbridge Carmelite house describes a tough life:
“These Woodbridge nuns observed the liturgical hours of Church through an eighteen hour day which began at 4.45am when they rose to sing the prayer of the Church together in choir. Their day was divided into periods of time for solitary meditation, communal recreation, and work.
At night they slept on beds of straw palliasses (thin pads) laid on boards. In the day had no chairs but sat on the floor. They had two meals, one at 11am and one at 6pm. They ate no meat and grew their own vegetables. They exercised in the garden and needed also space in the convent for this.” (sic)

As we know, Sister Margaret continued at her stained-glass commissions even after she joined the convent (this was a way to bring much-needed funds into the community).  It’s extraordinary to think she could combine the physically demanding work of glass design with just six hours sleep, much intense prayer and just two meals.


No one can know if she pushed herself too hard, but she was in failing health by her mid-fifties, effectively putting a brake on her career.

During the war, the nuns had to move to a new convent at Quidenham, and it was here a decade later that Margaret died, from the complications of pneumonia, in 1953. Grave of Sister Margaret of the Mother of GodAlthough it is not permitted to outsiders to enter the convent-enclosure to visit the grave, it has been photographed.
It is a simple cross with a dedication on its base. The lettering of the dedication has become badly eroded but it is just still legible; the inscription on it is in carved Roman majuscule script and reads (in Latin):
Sister Margaret of The Mother Of God, born 20 June 1882, professed as a nun (monacha) on 1st July 1925, died 6th December 1953

The Latin on the cross-head reads Pax Christi – the peace of Christ.

Thanks to the St Thomas Woodbridge website for the excerpt; and thanks to Quidenham Monastery for the use of the photograph of Marga’s gravestone.

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▪Christmas in cards

As the festive season approaches, the usual quest for appropriate Christmas cards gets under way, and, yes – you can find some such cards using designs by Margaret Agnes Rope.
They are published and printed by the Carmelite convent at Quidenham, which was Marga’s home (as Sister Margaret Of The Mother Of God) between 1948 and her death in 1953. The nuns at Quidenham still honour her memory.

Curiously, only one of the five Marga Christmas cards printed by Quidenham features a stained-glass window – the ‘Paris’ Nativity window, created in the 1930s but since transferred to Quidenham Chapel (see pic, below, original copyright John Salmon).Quidenham Paris / Midwinter Madonna window, copyright John Salmon

Arts & Crafts

The designs on three of the other four cards were originally simply private seasonal cards specifically made by Marga for a limited circulation, ie among her sister nuns.

Marga designed many illustrated cards in her lifetime, but these should not be seen just as the casual works of a quiet moment. In fact, these ‘minor works’ reflect the Arts & Crafts ethos she learnt as a student: an ethos which called on artists to be pluri-disciplinary craftspeople, and to experiment with different media. For example, her ‘Bethlehem’ card (see below) is an example of a very innovative approach to the City Of God motif she depicted so often elsewhere but one that would not have worked in glass.Bethlehem Christmas Card Classic-75

The last of the Quidenham-printed cards is actually a photograph. It shows the life-size painted figures which make up a nativity scene put together and created by Marga. This collection of figures – about a dozen of them – was actually not seen in public until last year, when the convent loaned them to the Margaret Rope Exhibition at Shrewsbury Museum. Until then, the figures had been the Christmas highlight in the nuns’ private chapel.

You’ll find details of the five cards, and their prices, on the Quidenham website:
The Word was made Flesh / Paris (Classic 63); Bethlehem (Classic 75); Midwinter Madonna (Midi 37); Come and Adore (Midi 48); Margaret Rope Crib Figures (Midi 47).

In the archives

Of course, there are many more card designs by Marga, most of which are lying neglected in her unresearched papers.

One of the most exciting aspects of the recent news – that Marga’s papers are being transferred (as we speak) to a new, custom-built archives room – is that scholars will at last be able to sift through the documents properly – and will probably find unidentified drawings by her, including designs for cards.

One card that we are aware of, and believe will be there in the papers, is her World War Two Christmas card, which shows a soldier, sailor and airman approaching the stable (see below). It will be a revelation to see the real thing.Nativity + searchlights Christmas card

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▪Margaret Rope(s) photo-book published

It’s a happy day when one can say that one can get two Margaret Ropes for the price of one. And that is the case this month as the long-awaited photo-book of Margaret Edith Rope’s stained-glass works finally reaches publication.
Margaret Edith Rope is of course the cousin (younger by eight years) of Margaret Agnes Rope; and this book is the follow-up by Arthur Rope (a descendant, actually) to his earlier photo-book of Margaret Agnes’ works.
(Margaret Edith was also a stained-glass artist, which is why the two are often confused.)

The book comes in a number of formats (see below for details); and for those with deep pockets, you can even buy, in one volume, the earlier book (updated) combined with this later one.

The Two Margarets book
Margaret Edith, aka Tor

The two cousins were brought up on opposite sides of the country, but, thanks to the nature of their close extended family, would have known each other well. They would have used their family nicknames – Margaret Edith was Tor, Margaret Agnes was Marga.

There are amazing similarities to aspects of their lives – both called Margaret Rope of course, both took up stained-glass (which caused the younger cousin to call herself M.E.Aldrich Rope in professional circles, to distinguish herself from Margaret Agnes); both were born Anglican and converted to Catholicism, both were unmarried, and both mixed in the Putney artistic milieu of the 1910s/1920s.

Tor seems to have joined Marga at the famous Glass House Studios in London in 1911 when she was barely twenty and when Marga was already established. At the Glass House, instead of having to work within the restrictions of a corporate environment, young men and women glass-artists could carve out their own independent careers.
Presumably – no one is really sure – Tor acted as a sort of assistant to Marga for a few years, before striking out on her own.

Work & style

Like Marga, one of Tor’s greatest works is a very early piece, a huge set of window-lights – the East Window at St Chad’s in Leeds. It is a dashing, freewheeling, exuberant piece of work.
However, the exigencies of making a living may have been behind the way she started later to tone down her style, as it evolved into something – as befitted the new democratic era, perhaps – plainer, simpler and more accessible, while still keeping a mastery of form. (At worst though, even her admirers will admit that her work does become ‘charming’).
Did she envy her cousin Marga, one wonders? Behind her convent walls, Marga could insist on her own vision, one that permitted a sense of ‘mystery’, symbology and uniqueness, as Marga did not have to kow-tow too much to a paymaster.

Wistanstow - nativity in St Anne window
Wistanstow Church – Tor’s nativity scene in the St Anne window

Though one may argue about who is the ‘better’ artist of the two, Tor’s name is certainly to be found in art-history researches more often. She figures in newspaper profiles; two of her glass panels are now exhibited in the Stained Glass Museum at Ely; and the V&A keep some of her work. No similar accolades are accorded to Marga (see Neglected Marga).
Tor didn’t lack for work either – she was working into her seventies.
She died in March 1988, thirty-five years after her elder cousin.


Arthur’s book is the first time that Tor’s work has received such a comprehensive profile. Like his earlier book profiling Marga, nearly every page is covered in superb photographs of the works, which each have tantalising captions and informative descriptions.

Though not a work of biography as such, there is yet enough here about Tor and her life to make one wish that one had known her; she seems to have met and been friends with many of the great female stained-glass makers of the years between the wars.
Arthur is clearly a fan of Tor’s work, and he ensures it is given a fair airing.

Formats aplenty

Thanks to the joys of modern online publishing, the reader can choose in which format s/he wishes to purchase this fruit of Arthur’s labours.
Because this started as a self-generated online project, one can choose it as an ‘pdf’ e-version (for tablets, Kindles etc) – but one can also have a printed version.

And – joy of joys – one can even pick a version which puts the works of both Margaret Edith and Margaret Agnes into the one volume…  In other words, Arthur has managed to combine the works of both Margarets into a ‘double-volume’, so that his earlier profile of Marga’s works and the new profile of Margaret Edith’s works can be found in the one book.
Online publishing makes such things possible.

For myself, in acquiring the book, the format that worked best was the format that brought both Tor’s and Marga’s works together in one volume – and in printed form to boot. (Colours still seem truer on paper than on a computer screen).
To have Marga’s and Tor’s glass together in a printed book made it easier to compare and contrast their careers – a fascinating process – and this ‘double-volume’ comprises nearly 120 pages, so there is plenty to go at.
Click here for details of how and what choices to purchase.

The online-publishing platform which Arthur has used is Blurb.  One advantage of Blurb is that it provides previews of the pages within the books as well as views of the cover… so you can peruse first!
The disadvantage of Blurb is that it sets the price, so the large-format printed versions can run expensive.  But… they are things of great beauty…

Arthur Rope is to be congratulated on the achievement: stylish, professional and beautifully presented, any lover of Arts & Crafts Movement stained-glass will consider this work a must-have item.

▪Goblin Market – Christina & Marga

One of the pieces to attract much attention at the Margaret Rope Retrospective was her stained-glass window-panel depicting a scene from the poem Goblin Market.
It is curious to reflect on the unexpected parallels between the lives of the poem’s author, Christina Rossetti, and Marga herself.

Goblin Market

The poem itself, which is a long one at 600 lines, is very strange.
Published in 1862, though written earlier, it is a sort of fable telling of two sisters, Laura & Lizzie, the first of whom goes into the woods tempted to eat of the sinister goblin-animals’ luscious forbidden fruit. She surrenders a lock of her hair to taste the fruit, eats, and as a result begins to die. The only remedy for her is (bizarrely) a second taste of the fruit; so her sister runs the gauntlet of the same aggressive goblins and gains the fruit juices (without being forced into actually eating them, as they are only smeared over her skin), which Laura then “licks hungrily” from her face. All ends happily.

While the poem, by its form and its almost erotic sensuality, begs for some sort of interpretation (the perils of early sex? the sacrifices of saints? the balance of sensousness and spirituality? the love of women for each other?), Rossetti herself claimed it was just a fairy-tale, no more. Few critics believe that though…
Goblin Market panel by Margaret Rope

The first observation concerning Marga’s interpretation (above) is that she seems to have known the very famous, previous two sets of illustrations of the poem – the first by Christina’s brother, Dante Gabriel Rossetti (see below), the second set by Laurence Housman.    But, as she was making this panel during her period as a student at Birmingham School of Art in 1908, perhaps her tutors insisted she ‘acknowledge’ the antecedents.

Goblin Market illustrations by DG Rossetti

Yet, unlike in the previous illustrators’ work, Marga’s Laura is cool and almost stately, and looks calmly and directly at us from out of the scene. The other two interpretations show later scenes in the poem, where the girls are virtually overwhelmed by the goblins’ seductive belligerence – but Marga prefers the earlier moment, that is, the one of choice, not the ones of distress…
Marga is also unique among them (and probably right) in depicting the figure, who wears a smock, as a teenager, not a woman.

Another point is: it is unusual for a story-poem of this period in that no redeeming male figure appears. The sisters, who appear to be without family, let alone just fatherless, have to sort out their problem for themselves.
Parallel? Marga’s father had died, prematurely, ten years before she made this piece, leaving his family to fend for themselves.


Both Marga and Christina Rossetti were very intense in their religious faith. They both remained unmarried (thus avoiding any compromise of their strict principles); both remained very private. (Curiously also, Christina did service as a volunteer ‘sister’ in a religious institution; Marga became a nun).
Yet, their religion was clearly no bar to their delight in sensuousness – the word-torrents of Christina, the jewelled dense-colour effects of Marga’s windows make them related, passionate minds, whose work betrays the strong emotions that lie beneath the surface:

She gorged on bitterness without a name …
Like the watch-tower of a town / Which an earthquake shatters down,
Like a lightning-stricken mast, / Like a wind-uprooted tree
Spun about, / Like a foam-topped water-spout
Cast down headlong in the sea,/ She fell at last;
Pleasure past and anguish past,/ Is it death or is it life ?
(Goblin Market, lines 510-520)

Goblin Market panel - mushrooms detailDown in the corner of Marga’s piece (see right) are what appear to be hallucinogenic mushrooms, a common sight in English fields. Did Marga know that Christina relied on laudanum?


It is frustrating to have no letters or diaries written by Margaret. We’ll never know what made her choose Goblin Market for one of her first ‘mature’ pieces. But, working backwards, it seems clear that, right through her career, she chose the subjects of her art most deliberately. So, one can assume that this was no casual choice.
Did Marga see a reflection of The Woman Question in the poem – one that she identified with? Or was it the theme of sacrifice – which she would often come back to in her martyrs windows? Or was it the clash of sensuality and restraint that she so admired?

More to come

Interpretations of the poem have continued of course. It is far too intriguing a text not to attract modern interpreters. Some responses are quite disturbing – one of Arthur Rackham’s 1933 depictions shows what look like a prelude to a rape -, while other, lesbian interpretations are nowadays setting the pace.

And, there is even one interpretation that responds both to the poem and Marga’s picture at the same time!
The Shropshire poet, Kate Innes, visited the Margaret Rope Exhibition last year – and wrote a poem on seeing the Goblin Market panel.
Here is part of it:
But claws protrude / beneath their coats.
Their paws entwine / the lush grape vine,
gloating over / tender cherries
bursting berries / from some unnatural bush.
Kate’s words echo as well as respond to the breathless sensuality of the original.

And – there’s no doubt – the interpretations of this poem will continue … with Marga’s depiction now part of the debate.

(See also:  Fallen or Forbidden?)
Apologies for my poor photograph of Marga’s Goblin Market. Anyone got a better one that I could use?

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▪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…


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.


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?


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.

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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