Wilhelmina Geddes: Life and Work, by Nicola Gordon Bowe, Four Courts Press, 520 pp, €45, ISBN: 978-1846825323
Wasn’t it decent of them to want to know my name …?
Thirty years ago Nicola Gordon Bowe, fresh from the success of a breakthrough book on Harry Clarke, sent in an essay to a festschrift for Anne Crookshank. Her subject then was Wilhelmina Geddes’s drawings of cats. Even back in 1986 she was asking why Geddes was not better known, or more visible in the canon of either modernism or Irish art. Despite suffering from criticism from contemporaries like Sarah Cecilia Harrison that she was too modern, her name does not appear in Brian Kennedy’s encyclopaedic Irish Art and Modernism, 1880-1950, for instance. Bowe attempts to correct that imbalance with this definitive monograph on Geddes, packed with three decades of diligent and enthusiastic research, with the stated aim of securing the international recognition that the artist’s work deserves. There is nothing modest about this aim and even less about the amount of knowledge and contextual reference that it contains about a stained glass art practice in the modern world. There was nothing modest about Sisyphus either, but that didn’t help him to get his rock to the top of the cliff.
Nicola Gordon Bowe has to storm several edifices, among them the level of recognition given to Irish women artists for most of the twentieth century, and as a subset of that, perceptions of stained glass as craft, and therefore somehow not art; its connection with churches in a post-Christian period, and from an international perspective, the general failure of Irish art writing to recognise or promote its best practitioners. That is closely associated with a kind of provincialism that elevates the mundane because we know the person who created it. And that is only the beginning.
Bowe’s book is not just a monograph about Wilhelmina Geddes. It is a journey into the world of stained glass design and production and it also takes an unflinching and non-judgmental look at the career of one of those Anglo-Irish Protestant women artists of which the early Irish state was so nervous. Much has been written, especially in recent years, about the position of women from a middle class Protestant background in Ireland, educated, travelled, not constrained as their brothers were by the need to support a family and therefore free to be experimental, often cushioned financially by their families and imbued with the confidence that privilege brings. It’s only when someone like Nicola Gordon Bowe looks in greater detail at one of those women artists that the chauvinistic blinkers begin to fall away and we start to get a fairer picture of the realities.
Like Bowe’s earlier books on Harry Clarke, this one tells the reader a tremendous amount about stained glass but what takes your breath away here is what it tells us about the challenge of survival in a restricted field, where aesthetic quality is no guarantee of financial stability. Geddes was dogged by poverty and ill health all her life. No amount of gentility can compensate for periods of degrading hunger; a middle class education for ladies does not prepare you for having to sell your beloved books and even your dressing gown in order to buy food.
During World War Two, when Geddes was already a woman in her fifties, she had to ask her mother in Belfast to send her the money to buy new glasses, only to be forced to spend the £3 on food instead, and to discontinue her subscription to the Arts and Crafts Society in London, which guaranteed her an annual exhibition slot, because she couldn’t afford the membership. Were it not for friends such as the redoubtable Sarah Purser and fellow Northerner Rosamund Praeger, who gave her money from time to time to supplement her insecure earnings, as well as regular support from various family members, Geddes could not have survived as an artist. Even the myth of a privileged education is called into question by Bowe’s research. She takes the reader through Geddes’s determined and successful project to teach herself classical Greek, and her in-depth reading of literature from ancient times to Charles Lamb, Dr Johnson (a particular favourite) and Emily Brontë, as well as modern literature on psychology. She turned this interest to good use, when, in times of great financial difficulty she made a regular income from proofing, indexing and sometimes commenting usefully on the psychoanalytic writings of Edward Glover. Grub Street could learn a lot from Geddes.
As an extension of this, Bowe shares the secrets of co-operative stained glass enterprises such as Sarah Purser’s An Túr Gloine, founded by the entrepreneurial Purser as a way to get an income for artists at a time when new churches, schools and hospitals were emerging and would need decorated windows. Purser touted for commissions unceasingly (World War I was especially beneficial, because it greatly expanded the need for commemorative windows) until she died at the age of ninety-five in 1943, insisting on the workshop rule of “one artist, one window”, in contrast to normal trade practice based on the division of labour. Geddes, invited to join Purser and quickly established as the leading studio artist, was thus well versed in all aspects of the work. At An Túr Gloine Purser got the commissions, allocated them as she thought fit and managed the finances, whereas in the Fulham Glass House (another co-operative established by a woman, the suffragette Mary Lowndes) to which Geddes moved in 1925 artists could use the facilities of the studio but engage directly with their own clients and patrons.
Bowe’s insights into workshop practice here are important; she reminds us again and again of how collaborative the process of stained glass production was, of how the wealth of wartime commissions was frustrated by the scarcity of lead, which was needed instead for bullets and coffins, of how much control Purser retained over the process at An Túr Gloine; how even in the more independent system in practice at the Glass House in Fulham artists in this medium were often reliant on architects, glass cutters, armature makers, even such practical requirements as people to accurately measure the openings into which the work would be placed.
It is a measure of her ability to manage all of those constraints, in addition to coping with mental and physical health problems, that Geddes secured commissions for windows in churches as far afield as Dublin, Belfast, New Zealand, Canada and the great rose window in the post-First World War reconstruction of Ypres cathedral in Belgium, not to mention the different religious denominations she engaged with. As Bowe points out, the co-operative organisation of An Túr Gloine and the general interdependence of the various people involved in many stained glass projects meant that the artist’s name was not prioritised in them as it would indubitably have been in relation to painting and sculpture. When Sarah Purser secured a commission for Geddes to make a window for a crematorium in Wellington, New Zealand, Geddes thanked her for forwarding their letter of appreciation, noting with some surprise ‘”wasn’t it decent of them to want to know my name?”. Years later, when her considerable reputation won her the commission to create the King Albert Memorial Window (1936-38) in Ypres, a gift from British soldiers to Belgium, she was less impressed. That window, all 250 sq metres of it, was one of the most important projects in the genre in the century, yet Bowe tells us that Geddes was not even introduced to the king at the unveiling ceremony, nor was she invited to the celebration dinner after the event. On the other hand, Captain Cassie, the soldier who had negotiated the commission and supplied Geddes with the wrong measurements, so that much of the work had to be redone, was given the Order of Leopold for his services.
The Ypres window, like her important Irish windows in Dublin, Fermanagh, Belfast, Larne, in New Zealand, in Britain at Southport, Wallsend- upon-Tyne, Laleham-on-Thames, Northchapel, near Petworth, Sussex, Otterden Place, near Faversham, Wallasey, near Liverpool, Lampeter (Ceredigion), Lee near Lewisham, Clapham Junction and her window for the Duke of Connaught in Ottawa all testify to Geddes’s most outstanding quality and the one that separates her from virtually every other Irish artist of her generation, whether male or female. This was her ease with the monumental.
Geddes’s windows tackle scale in grand architectural terms, but she also had such an amazing command of classical and biblical literature, and medieval decorative glass, that she could comfortably match myth and symbol to commissions in churches, born out of war, heroic struggle or epic suffering. Tellingly, she could remove herself from the emotions surrounding war, referring to the soldiers whose lives she commemorated so brilliantly as “deaders”, while at the same time pointing out sympathetically that “A public monument is one thing and one for heartbroken relatives is another.” Her heroic windows eschew sentiment, being described instead as rugged, strong, vigorous, and powerful; qualities generally applied to male rather than female artists in her day, while a critic remarked of her linocuts that they were “bold, even savage, unlike anything else of her time, particularly in Ireland.
To support her unequivocal claims for Geddes, Bowe cites informed contemporaries. Thomas McGreevy, critiquing the RHA in 1922, said Geddes was “producing the finest, the most sincerely, passionately religious stained glass of our time”, and on another occasion expressed the view that if Ireland managed to ‘keep the Jack Yeatses and Wilhelmina Geddeses … we may dream radiant dreams of what the Ireland of say 2000 AD will be …” Rosamund Praeger, Geddes’s long-time supporter, thought her Ulster’s greatest artist and attacked John Hewitt for overlooking her in his book The Arts in Ulster, A Symposium (1951). Samaritans founder Chad Varah referred to her as “that eccentric old Irish genius” as he invited her to make a window for Saint Paul’s, Clapham, of which he was the rector. She also numbered celebrities like John Betjeman among her consistent admirers. Ernest Freud was known to be considering a piece of her work as the cover image for his book Moses and Monotheism, but unfortunately died before finalising his intention. Her work was featured on the cover of Studio (1927) and on the celebratory silver jubilee booklet of An Túr Gloine in 1929; she won the support of colleagues like Harry Clarke, who arranged for her to do linocuts for the Dublin Magazine and introduced her to his publisher, Harrap. Pathé News showed her Ypres window and she was one of the first living artists to be interviewed on BBC television in July 1939.
In the light of this, and her many successful projects, why is Geddes not a household name? There are a number of important factors. She was no self-promoter. Unlike Harry Clarke, her work mainly took the form of commemorative windows in churches. This was a challenge in itself since she was not at all religious, although deeply spiritual. More pertinently, in terms of recognition, the placing of her work in churches, scattered over several countries and three continents meant that it was not seen collectively until gathered together at second hand in this monograph. And few critical writers and scholars are motivated to travel as Bowe has done in search of this scattered oeuvre. The few who did, even in part however, like the American Charles J Connick, (“Modern Glass, A Review”, in the October 1924 issue of International Studio) praised both An Túr Gloine and Geddes . For those like Bowe who do make the pilgrimage to see her work in situ, the result is now sometimes disappointing as changes to the buildings or their surroundings disrupt the light paths that are such a vital part of it. One of her best window groups, for the Presbyterian church in Rosemary Street in Belfast (1926-29), was destroyed in the bombing of the city in 1941, but not before Bernard Rackham of the Victoria & Albert Museum saw it and praised her ability to draw on the past and still be original. Geddes did not make life easy for her audiences either. She was criticised for being too harsh and vigorous (the Belfour Memorial Window, Laleham). In the final analysis, it is often the testimony of fellow artists that is most useful. Bowe quotes the highly acclaimed English stained glass artist Charles Blakeman, who knew the work well, as saying, “when in danger of feeling successful he would go and look at a Geddes window to feel humble again”.
Geddes gave Evie Hone her first experience of making stained glass when she employed her as a studio assistant in 1933 and Hone went on to make a number of important windows, mainly in Ireland, but also her famous Eton College window. Hone greatly appealed to the Irish establishment in the 1930s and 1940s, but, without in any way challenging her place in Irish hearts and minds, it’s worth asking if her popularity at the time had anything to do with her conversion to Catholicism. It is highly likely that this helped to secure the commission for her well known nationalist window, My Four Green Fields, for the Irish Pavilion at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Sectarian nationalism was not of course confined to the Irish Free State. In recommending Geddes, the church magazine for the Presbyterian church in Rosemary Street in Belfast found it necessary to assure its congregation that the artist was “a Protestant Ulsterwoman”. Even Praeger found it useful to use the nationalist weapon when pleading that Geddes should do a window for the new Ulster Museum, referring to her successful proposal as “An Ulster legend by an Ulster artist”. But Hone had another advantage. Her reputation was established by her painting and her role with Mainie Jellett in introducing Modernist abstraction to Ireland. As a painter primarily, she was never dismissed as a mere craftsperson, the fate of far too many Irish artists, even including Eileen Gray. It is appropriate to mention Gray in this context, since she, like Geddes was reclusive yet produced work that matched the most inventive and influential artists in the international arena in her time.
Inevitably Geddes’s work must also be evaluated alongside that of Harry Clarke. There is little doubt that those two were the most important figures within stained glass both in Ireland and outside the country in their day. While no one else approached the monumentality of Geddes’s glass designs, Clarke’s exquisite secular windows, his ability to create powerful, jewelled narratives on a domestic scale, as well as his large ecclesiastical projects, and his links to a powerful and influential group of writers in Ireland created opportunities for him that Geddes lacked. But Clarke clearly admired her work and recommended her as the opportunity arose.
The question of Irishness inevitably arises in connection with her work, especially as visual identity was under some discussion during her lifetime. Geddes was not caught up in the cultural renaissance, except tangentially, through her mentor, Sarah Purser. Although, interestingly, she once remarked “I never learned any Irish from books but in the kitchen when I was young.” She was back in Belfast when the 1916 Rising took place and it does not seem to have elicited any comment from her, although Bowe records her excitement at witnessing gun battles in the streets of Dublin during the War of Independence. But if nationalism wasn’t an important consideration for her, that cannot be said for her critics and clients. The Irish Homestead’s critic said of a small panel of St Joseph and the Angel by Geddes that “it had a curious Gaelic character which was very attractive” and compared it favourably to work by Harry Clarke, “as usual … bent on showing himself the artistic child of Aubrey Beardsley”. When approaching Geddes for banners for a church at Duniry, Dalystown, Co Donegal, the nuns declared “We mean to have them very Irish.” Geddes’s research, which brought her straight to the 1880s translation of the Leabhar Breac of Duniry did not disappoint. She took part in the exhibition to accompany the World Congress of the Irish Race in Paris, organized by Eamonn De Valera and Harry Boland in 1922 but showed no interest in nationalism. That was not the case with everyone however. When her window for St Bartholemew’s Church, Ottawa was unveiled by HRH The Prince of Wales in 1919, the rector wrote to her: “I do not know what Ireland means to you, but if you love Ireland I am sure that you will be glad.” Irish Life, claiming the work as a product of An Túr Gloine, called it “a triumph of Irish art”.
There was no supportive Arts Council on the island of Ireland until a few short years before Geddes’s death. She survived loneliness and depression, a six-month stint in a psychiatric hospital, the privations of two world wars, the bombing of London, her need for money for food often challenged by her need to pay for expensive materials, but she never restricted her artistic vision. Some of her best work was done at a time of blackouts when she could only work as daylight permitted in a genre where light is everything. She climbed ladders and moved heavy glass panels, although bent in two from spinal curvature, which she endured all her life, yet critics noted her modern vision, her vigour, her rationality and her strength. Most of all, apart from a handful of loyal artist friends like Mary Swanzy and Rosamund Praeger, she survived without a critical support network. In this she comes closest to Eileen Gray, whose reputation is now undergoing a major re-evaluation. It is to Nicola Gordon Bowe’s credit that she has invested such gargantuan zeal over thirty years of scholarship on Geddes. This includes painstaking examination of the financial transactions of An Túr Gloine, letters from Geddes to clients and friends and most of all her diaries. It is up to her readers to see if they can overcome the religious and spatial obstacles Geddes’s work poses to enjoy the aesthetic.
If we are to learn from recent Irish art history, we should know that recognition at home is no guarantee of aesthetic merit. The names James Coleman and Brian O’Doherty are barely recognised in their native Ballaghaderreen, yet they are probably the best known Irish artists in the world today. It would be nice to think that Geddes might now get some of the recognition that this monograph proves she deserves.
Catherine Marshall is an art historian and curator, formerly founding head of collections at the Irish Museum of Modern Art and Co-Editor of Twentieth Century, Vol. V, Art and Architecture of Ireland, published by the Royal Irish Academy and Yale University Press, 2014.