Heavenly Lights: A life in stained glass

20161008_115303At Shrewsbury Museum at the moment (until January 2017) there is an exhibition of the stained glass of Margaret Rope. Rope, known as ‘Marga’ (1882-1953) is frequently overlooked (I expect most people reading this won’t have heard of her) but she produced a large and wonderful body of work across her long and interesting life. Her biography, on the Museum’s website, tells me that

‘Marga’, as she was called, was an instinctive rebel – known for smoking cheroot cigars, riding a motorbike and wearing her hair short – in an era when women were largely suppressed. Without backing from a patron, rich family or husband, she made her own way in her career, one of a new generation of artists as much at home in a workshop as in a drawing-studio.

However, she went on to become a Catholic nun, in an enclosed order, though continuing to design stained glass in a studio in the convent. She was educated at the Birmingham School of Art, where she imbibed the Arts and Crafts principles which are also apparent in the work of other stained glass makers such as Florence Camm. (In fact some of the images used in the exhibition come from the Birmingham City University Art & Design archive, which I have recently been exploring).

The exhibition contains a wonderful range of her works, both in design and in glass: seeing the two side-by-side is an illuminating experience, emphasising the vision needed to design a window on paper and be able to imagine its effects in coloured glass with light shining through – and the effects are stunning. The images below are of her 1923 work ‘Lumen Christi’ (The Light of Christ’) and depict members of her family in a religious procession.

The draughtsmanship of her work is remarkable, the colours in the designs pale and fragile next to the illuminated jewel colours of the stained glass, but the designs have a delicate beauty of their own (though I heard several people there say that the works on paper leave them cold). Stained glass is so often celestial, though, its beautiful colours uplifting the spirit, and these are wonderful examples.

I was very taken with her window ‘The Goblin Market’, based on Christina Rossetti’s poem. This was a student work, c.1908, and demonstrates a strong Pre-Raphaelite influence on her work. The animal-like goblins appear very much as Rossetti described them, their faces leering at the viewer disturbingly while the girl (presumably Laura, the one who took the fruit) seems calm, dressed in a period style. The patches of green are beautiful, where leaves and trees appear in the background, but this is not a conventional representation, and differs in style and content from other illustrations of the poem.


Most of her works have religious subjects, however, from Judith and Holofernes to the Catholic Martyrs. Her close engagement with her faith, as well as her artistic work inspired by the Arts and Crafts movement, gives life to her designs. There are several Rope works to be seen in situ in Shrewsbury – in Shrewsbury Cathedral, there are seven windows, and in St Mary’s there are painted carvings. These, along with the exhibition, are well worth a visit, for they give a great sense of the breadth and style of her work.



Hidden treasures in the archive

Recently I seem to have had a lot of sneak previews of things I find exciting. Last week, I visited the Art & Design archives at Birmingham City University (where I work). The contents include the Birmingham School of Art archives, and the archivist had contacted me to say:

We have some 60+ historical studies, a large number of which are of medieval scenes with a strong Pre-Raphaelite influence. However, we also have examples of stained glass designs, designs for metalwork and jewellery, illustrated books, calligraphy and greetings card designs that show just how influential the Arts and Crafts tradition was at the School of Art in the late nineteenth century.

This was enough for me to be very keen, but the contents are broader than this:

Our largest collection is the School of Art’s own archive, which contains a significant number of student artworks in a wide variety of genres, including metalwork, jewellery and stained glass designs, mind and memory drawings, exercises in creating patterns, illustrated books, calligraphy, work produced by students of the School of Printing under the direction of Leonard Jay, fashion designs and botanical illustrations as well as examples of fine art – portraits, life drawings, historical studies featuring medieval legends, etc. The collection is strongest for the Arts and Crafts period, i.e. 1880-1920. We also have a large collection of London Transport posters which have already attracted the attention of colleagues from Visual Communication.

I was really struck by the amazing breadth of works by Florence Camm. Clearly a great deal of her work was preserved for some reason, and there were numerous sketches and cartoons for stained glass (for which she is most famous). A true daughter of the city, living in Smethwick throughout her long life (1874-1960), she was born into a family of stained-glass makers, and despite being a woman was encouraged to study, work and exhibit, which she did prolifically. The Birmingham Municipal School of Art, as it was then, was receptive to female students and permitted her more or less the same opportunities as the male students. The works of hers in the archives demonstrate her growing skills at draughtsmanship – you can see how she struggles with certain aspects of her drawings, for examples, and how over time she improves. Camm’s wonderful stained glass can be seen at Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery (see below: the Dante and Beatrice windows) as well as in churches across the West Midlands.

The strong Pre-Raphaelite influence on her work can be seen here, as in her other works, though some seem to be gesturing towards a more Modernist approach.

There are some wonderful calligraphic pieces by unknown students, with illuminated letters (annoyingly I don’t have images to share); many of the quotations are from Ruskin, Shelley and Tennyson, and the ornate borders, gold leaf overlaid for a 3-dimensional effect, are startling to see, their colours still strikingly bright. I’m also interested to know that there are photographs of student life in the early 20th century, including a wonderful common room (sketches of designs for the walls are also in the archive, and they are beautiful period pieces).

More information about the archives, including how to book a visit, can be found here. Do go and see them if you’re interested; there is so much scope for new research to be done here. There is also a brilliant blog about the different ways the archive has been used in teaching and research.


Florence Camm, Preliminary drawing and colour scheme for stained glass design featuring the story of the Prodigal Son, 1901.

Gothic exhibition at the Library of Birmingham

_GBP3778Last week was the launch of Gothic, an exhibition of work by students at Birmingham City University. We’ve been working towards this for a while now and the exhibition, curated by Grace Williams, represents some of the fantastic work done by our students as well as offering a fascinating perspective on Gothic in the 21st century. Gothic is endlessly inspiring, it seems, and appears in our arts and culture in very different, unexpected ways, and this exhibition, which includes photography, painting and jewellery, reflects this and the ongoing relevance of Gothic as a cultural influence.

Last week saw the opening event of the exhibition, which was pleasingly well attended, and we ha_GBP3716d the opportunity to enjoy readings of creative writing by School of English students Charlotte Newman, Bex Price and Abigail Cooper. The exhibition itself provides some excellent examples of the way in which artists can reinterpret or be inspired by Gothic themes.

Exhibiting artists include:

Jivan Astfalck, Sally Bailey, Rachel Colley, Alessandro Columbano, Gregory Dunn, Jodie Drinkwater, Joanna Fursman, Anneka French, Bruno Grilo, Ole Hagen, Hannah Honeywill, Shelley Hughes, Sevven Kucuk, Jo Longhurst, Amy Lunn, Paul Newman, Wendi Ann Titmus, Cathy Wade, Grace A Williams and Rafal Zar.

Ther_GBP3700e isn’t space for me to comment on every work included, unfortunately, but it’s fair to say that the macabre and unsettling is a feature of most of the works included. There is jewellery which includes vintage stones, in a beautiful, unusual pendant by Jivan Astfalck, and Rachael Colley’s ‘Sovereign’, a ring set with sawdust and blood, a macabre echo of the hair mourning jewellery popular in the nineteenth century. More traditionally, Jodie Drinkwater’s ‘Something Wicked This Way Comes’ is a pen and ink drawing of a monstrous figure of a man on the rooftops of a Victorian city, indicating the fear of the unknown which can penetrate the familiar.The beautiful often contains the terrible, as Sevven Kucuk’s ‘Still Life with ApplesGBA_3530 – but no Oranges’ indicates (the title referencing Cezanne); the image of the glowing fruit in an urn-like container recalls Renaissance memento mori, reminding us that decay is present in everything.

The historical echoes of Gothic in the nineteenth century are all around even in this new work. As Julian Wolfreys points out in Victorian Hauntings, the Victorian period is, culturally, what we picture when we think of Gothic:

‘…all that black, all that crepe, all that jet and swirling fog… These and other phenomena, such as the statuary found in cemeteries _GBP3699such as Highgate, are discernible as being fragments – manifestations of a haunting, and, equally, haunted, “Gothicized” sensibility.’

Grace Williams’ print ‘Escamotage’ references a nineteenth century ‘vanishing trick’ in which the female body appears to disappear from under a Persian rug, which both reveals and conceals the female form. Gothic, with its complex relationship to the position of women – historically both reinforcing the subjection of women and simultaneously offering them a freedom as ‘other’, as deviant from the norm – provides a context to the image which makes it all the more disturbing. Wendi Ann Titmus’s mixed media images ‘Intellectual Uncertainty’ similarly disconcert the viewer, blurring boundaries between innocence and the macabre, reality and fantasy, and even fear and humour._GBP3696

These and many other exhibits are worth taking time over, considering how they relate to Gothic and also how they reflect the uncertainties we feel about the past as well as the anxieties of the present. Do go along to the Library of Birmingham and have a look at the exhibition, which is on the 3rd floor and runs until May 2nd.

All images (c) Graeme Braidwood Photography.

Gothic in Birmingham

Gothic Poster 150dpiI’m very excited to be organising an event and exhibition on Gothic at the Library of Birmingham. With help from students, I’m putting together a day of talks on Gothic from literature to Goth culture, open to everyone and free to attend, while an exhibition will feature work from BCU students which relates to Gothic. I haven’t yet got a completed programme for the day, but below is the press release, plus the beautiful poster designed by Grace Williams, who is also curating the exhibition. If you’re interested, please follow us on twitter @gothicinbrum, find us on facebook (https://www.facebook.com/groups/843422549049077/?fref=ts) or look at the blog: http://www.gothicinbirmingham.wordpress.com.

Library of Birmingham turns Gothic for an exhibition hosted by Birmingham City University.

Press Release by Holly Barry, student in the School of Media.

On Saturday 2nd May 2015, BCU will be hosting an Interdisciplinary Gothic Event  at the Library of Birmingham, showcasing all things Gothic. There will also be an exhibition, running from 7th April – 2nd May to accompany the main event, both organised by Dr. Serena Trowbridge from the School of English with support from second year English student Bex Price.

The event will consist of several talks about different areas of Gothic – fashion, architecture, literature, photography and more. The exhibition is being curated by Grace Williams, a PhD student in the School of Art, and will include a wide range of works by BCU students.

Serena Trowbridge, the organiser, tells us about how the event came about: “I’ve just started teaching a new module on Gothic as part of the BA English, which has been really popular with students. The subject has such a broad appeal as Gothic reinvents itself for every generation.”

Shannon Kooner, a student of the School of English agrees: “Whilst studying the Gothic, I felt the texts specified for us to study were extremely interesting as well as covering a diverse range of topics which worked interchangeably with the Gothic. I would gladly study this module over again!”Gothic Icon

Another student also confirmed: “One of the most interesting modules I’ve studied. I was really surprised by the texts- when you think of Gothic you expect everything to be very cliched, which was absolutely not the case! Great range of ideas and texts covered, extremely interesting.”

Serena says the event should prove popular with the public: “Gothic is a very interdisciplinary subject which also has a wide popular appeal so it’s ideal for a public event. I’m extremely excited about it!”

Dr. Trowbridge’s book, Christina Rossetti’s Gothic, which was published in 2013, grew out of her Ph.D. thesis which she completed at BCU.

As well as the exhibition itself, there will also be a blog dedicated to this event where there will be regular posting of news, updates and any written work revolving around the Gothic theme. You can read it at www.gothicinbirmingham.wordpress.com, or find more information on twitter @gothicinbrum. There is also a facebook group: https://www.facebook.com/groups/843422549049077/ for contributors and attendees.

Serena adds: “The event and exhibition as a whole will be an incredible way to showcase work for BCU students, to network across the Faculty and to be involved in a fun cultural event. We have some fantastically talented students in the Faculty and it will be great to display their work to the public.”

The event will be open to anyone and admission is free.

Book Reviews and Reviewing

imagesThe Institute of Creative and Critical Writing at BCU holds some excellent seminars with established writers in different fields, and they are always thought-provoking. The most recent featured Nicholas Lezard, who is a literary critic for The Guardian, among other things (and described himself as one of the half-a-dozen people to actually make a living from reading books). He began by reading from George Orwell’s ‘Confessions of a Book Reviewer’ (which you can read online, and I recommend you do as it’s both true and funny), and will be familiar to anyone who has reviewed books, particularly books in which they weren’t very interested:

Half hidden among the pile of papers is a bulky parcel containing five volumes which his editor has sent with a note suggesting that they “ought to go well together”. They arrived four days ago, but for 48 hours the reviewer was prevented by moral paralysis from opening the parcel. Yesterday in a resolute moment he ripped the string off it and found the five volumes to be PALESTINE AT THE CROSS ROADS, SCIENTIFIC DAIRY FARMING, A SHORT HISTORY OF EUROPEAN DEMOCRACY (this one is 680 pages and weighs four pounds), TRIBAL CUSTOMS IN PORTUGUESE EAST AFRICA, and a novel, IT’S NICER LYING DOWN, probably included by mistake. His review–800 words, say–has got to be “in” by midday tomorrow.

Lezard’s view is that when writing a review, one must be able to ‘look the author in the eye’, which is sound advice, I think – although I like the review attributed to Dorothy Parker that ‘This is not a book that should be tossed aside lightly; it should be images (1)hurled with great force’, such reviews don’t help. And while personal opinion can hardly not come into a review, it still needs to be sufficiently critical to be of use to readers. More useful than Parker’s comment is William Burroughs’ suggestion that a review should ask, ‘What is this book trying to do, and does it succeed?’ Having written a fair number of book reviews, both academic and general, I wondered whether the reviews I write are in themselves interesting, which was another point. I will perhaps pay a little more attention to my style in future!

Most of all, book reviews are a chance to make a material difference, Lezard says; to small publishers and to readers in search of books they will enjoy. I wonder sometimes as I read reviews whether some reviewers have long forgotten this. I was particularly interested in the suggestion that academic criticism and general book reviews were divided by the rise of theory, and as a result some academic criticism becomes virtually impenetrable to the lay reader (and often to other academics, too). The role of ‘expertise’ in book reviewing is (marginally) under threat by the rise of the internet reviewer, the multitude of reviews on Amazon and so on, and yet the ‘expert’ who can review a book well and with knowledge and experience is still required. I wrote about this issue a couple of years ago in ‘Book-blogging‘, and this is something I still feel strongly about; reviews which do not rely on personal interest or a vague ‘I liked this’, ‘It’s a good read’, ‘This is boring’ or ‘I didn’t like the characters’ are provided by trustworthy reviewers, ones whose opinions readers value and return to. (Having said that, I have recently finished a novel which seems to have been well-received by most reviewers, but I really disliked it – and have decided not to review it).

In Defence of English

The_MonkRecently I was interviewed by a journalist from the Daily Mail about Gothic literature on university courses, inspired by Manchester Metropolitan University’s forthcoming MA in Gothic Studies. The article was published on the newspaper’s website (you can read it here) and is, in itself, fairly bland, though it does prioritise Twilight over any other form of Gothic fiction. I suppose I should have seen it coming – ‘Degrees in Twilight!’ is the overall message, and one which Daily Mail readers seem to have lapped up. The comments on the article are fascinating: though there are one or two voices of sanity, most are horrified, along the lines of ‘These students will never get jobs’, ‘It’s a Mickey Mouse degree’, ‘This isn’t an academic subject’, etc. As someone whose research interests cluster around Gothic, it is rather sad to see the complete misunderstanding of English Literature as a subject, let alone Gothic as a part of the subject, by some people. On the other hand, it’s good to know what people think of it, in order to address such misconceptions, because many of the comments made seem to be attacking English degrees in general, as though reading books is just a hobby and not something to be taken seriously. As students get their A-level results and prepare for university, this is something to ponder – what is the value of an English degree?

English Literature degrees are something to be taken very seriously, and those who think that they are an easy option which don’t lead to a job are missing the point. It’s true, of course, that English is not a degree which is vocational and leads directly to a career. Rather, graduates of English develop a range of transferable skills which enable them to find work in a variety of careers. An English degree encourages careful reading and serious and logical thought; it encourages students to reflect on the world around them, and to engage with many different viewpoints. Students of literature should be able to write well, fluently and for a range of audiences, and analyse concepts clearly in their writing. These are just some examples of the skills students might gain which are useful in the workplace. Many of my students go on to be English teachers; many also go into journalism, but ask around and you will see how many people, from administrators to politicians, directors of companies to editors, marketing and PR executives to librarians, have English or Humanities degrees. Often, the flexibility of approach and range of skills and interests and English degree develops makes graduates more employable than those who have very specific, vocational skills which quickly go out of date.books

However, I am not writing just about employability. A passion for your subject is vital, and doing an English degree is much more than hoping for a job after you graduate: it is also about helping students to find their own interests, to develop their own reading and writing styles, and giving them the opportunity to explore the world which literature opens up. Literature genuinely enriches lives: it changes people’s minds, transforms us, and it can be a part of social change, too. Literature, like all the arts, not only reflects society but can also be an agent of social change; it can start revolutions. Yet it is not just of its time, but can speak to future readers, too. A degree in English Literature will cover not only poetry, novels and non-fiction such as autobiography and essays, it will also encompass history, sociology, art, psychology, science, religion, and many other things besides. It is completely eye-opening.

The underlying structures and assumptions and forms of the writing produced in a culture reflect the structure and assumptions of that culture. Reading, deeply and thoroughly, permits us an understanding of the world around us, and the worlds that went before: a good historical knowledge and understanding of literature means that we can appreciate how we got where we are now. The new (or old) ideas that literature exposes us to are vital for developing our own thoughts and for beginning to understand society, people, relationships, emotions. Studying literature in this structured and informed way does much, much more than fitting graduates for a job; it offers a rounded education which allows us to develop ourselves as well as our careers. It also gives students the ability to distinguish literature which is ‘good’, whatever that means, from that which isn’t, and permits a fresh and informed perspective on popular books as well as classics.

Of course, books are something that everyone can enjoy, and this, I suppose, is where people think that literature is more of a hobby than a subject for serious study. But the depth of reading and understanding that an English degree requires is something that few are have time to athe-mysteries-of-udolpho-by-ann-radcliffechieve as a hobby. It is a discipline, both in the academic sense and in the moral sense, and reading, understanding and preserving our literary heritage is very important; moreover, our creative cultures are vital for society.

I must also say a little in defence of Gothic, since it seems to be so widely misunderstood. Gothic literature has always been not only a mode of telling a ripping yarn, with a great deal of symbolism and narrative strategy woven into it, but it is also a literary way for expressing the suppressed: from politics and religion, to same-sex desire or forbidden love, to family secrets and women’s oppression, the Gothic offers a vehicle for things that we can’t always say out loud. This is perhaps the most important reason that it is important, because what a society represses from the mainstream is almost more significant than what is apparent on the surface. So whether a Gothic novel is from the 1790s or the 2010s, it’s likely to be not only an interesting novel but also a kind of social document, which tells us about literature, society and the human condition.

If you are still not convinced, you might want to have a look at Why Study English?, a website supported by the Higher Education Academy. I’d also strongly recommend ‘The Humanities Matter’, a great infographic from UCL.