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.

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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.

 

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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.

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

Stained Glass and Birmingham School of Art

large_book4.Yesterday I attended the launch of a new book, Stained Glass Window Makers of Birmingham School of Art. Written by Roy Albutt (who is a member of the Pre-Raphaelite Society), the book examines the work of 11 stained glass makers all affiliated to the School of Art, some of whom may be familiar names to visitors to Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, such as Florence Camm and Sydney Meteyard. The book offers information on each individual, including a brief biography and the other arts in which they worked, and cover their training at and relationship to the School of Art in some detail, alongside a description of their works and a helpful Gazetteer which details where their work may be found. Importantly, for a book of this kind, it is also well-illustrated, with 51 colour plates which demonstrate the vibrant appealold-church-smethwick-149x300 of these works. It is likely to appeal to enthusiasts of stained glass and ecclesiology, as well as those interested in Pre-Raphaelite-style work, but it also offers the challenge to those in the Midlands to visit the places listed and admire the beautiful works in person.

Roy is keen to stress the importance of the Birmingham School of Art. Certainly, from the nineteenth century until well into the twentieth, the Arts and Crafts-style work it produced was hugely popular and influential, and Roy hopes that his book will inspire others to research this overlooked area of art history. He made considerable use of the archives and researchers at the Birmingham Institute of Art and Design (BIAD), part of Birmingham City University, which carries forward the work of the School of Art, and I hope his work will inspire further interest in this area. Years ago I did some work on The Quest, the Pre-Raphaelite-style magazine produced by the School of Art, and I am inclined now to consider returning to it.

The book is available from Roy’s website for £12.95.