Nicola Gordon Bowe, who died very unexpectedly on January 5th was an exceptional art historian. She was a publisher’s dream, but in some ways an editor’s nightmare. Aware of her first Harry Clarke book, which delighted everyone with the promise of more to come, I first encountered her directly in the mid-1980s, when Nicola Figgis, Jane Fenlon and myself invited her to contribute to a festschrift to honour Anne Crookshank. Having just completed her doctoral dissertation on Clarke under Anne Crookshank’s supervision and swamped with a growing list of essay and lecture requests on stained glass, the Arts and Crafts Movement in Ireland, the Celtic Revival, and other topics, she nonetheless accepted our invitation with alacrity.
Then, with characteristic generosity, she picked a subject close to Anne Crookshank’s heart – the work of another distinguished, if critically neglected, Ulster woman, Wilhelmina Geddes. For Crookshank, who had lovingly stencilled images of them on her kitchen furniture in Donegal, Nikki’s focus in that study reflected a love that she, Geddes and Crookshank all shared – cats. The result, like so much of Nikki’s work, was warm, generous and funny, while never relaxing a steely eye on the artist’s reputation and never, ever sinking towards sentiment. Although still working on Harry Clarke, on whom she published definitively in 1989, she was already asserting her authority on Geddes.
The editorial problem became clear very quickly when her essay for us came back at about three times the length we parsimonious editors allowed and we had to, timidly (she was far more established than we), insist on reduction. Word counts were to be a problem that dogged her career as one of the best researchers and writers in her chosen field, not just in Ireland but internationally. Nikki always researched her subject to within inches of its informational life, then fell in love with her discoveries and found it virtually impossible to withhold them from a public that she knew would love them too. If really put to it she could summarise as well as the best, but, she believed in her material and liked to tell it her way. In spite of that, she was gracious in compliance with our editorial constraints and this pattern was to be repeated throughout her life. Just a few days before Christmas she returned a greatly reduced chapter on the Arts and Crafts movement in Ireland to Yvonne Scott and myself. It may well be her last publication and we are proud to be associated with it.
The crucial reason for her expansiveness was that she had to tell modern readers about how to find, look at and research stained glass. Her Geddes book took her three decades to write but given her subject could hardly have been achieved in less. A lecturer in the history of design at the National College of Art and Design in Dublin, where she founded and directed the master’s course in Design History and Applied Arts, Bowe found the time to travel the world; to village churches from Dingle to Belfast’s Malone Road in Ireland, to war memorial windows in remote corners of England, Scotland and Wales, Canada, New Zealand and continental Europe to see the windows in the original. The point doesn’t end there. To know stained glass windows properly you have to wait for the right light conditions – you can’t see them on relentlessly grey days in Loughrea or Ottawa or in a little oratory in Wales. Furthermore, you have to clamber up and down ladders to view them head on ‑ not easy, given the height of Geddes’ vast, triumphant West Window in Ypres Cathedral as just one example ‑ but essential if you are to write as Bowe did about minute details of symbolism, narrative or facial expression. In addition, of course, you need to know about traditional techniques and modern innovations, not easy in a world where your subject is dismissed as “mere craft”, too linked to religion in a post-Christian world or too much trouble for other writers.
Conceptualism and new art history in the 1960s and ’70s made it unfashionable to value craft and technique, but Bowe’s pursuit of Clarke and Geddes involved in-depth readings of literature (Keats, Edgar Allan Poe, Hans Christian Andersen and others in Clarke’s case), psychoanalysis and biblical studies as well as literature for Geddes, who was an early advocate of Freud as well as a reader and illustrator of contemporary crime fiction. As if familiarising herself with all that wasn’t enough, Bowe enables the reader to stand in line with Geddes for food rations during the Blitz in London or, when the money came in, taking the tram to Harrod’s for a slap-up lunch.
The long gestation of the Geddes book then was ultimately because she had unearthed so much information she simply couldn’t leave it out. She knew it was unlikely that anyone else would make those pilgrimages in search of Irish art, so if she didn’t get it into print it might be lost forever. And although the exigencies of modern publishing meant that she had to eliminate thousands of pages, what remains is a monument to the life of a gifted artist, who had been all but forgotten. Bowe is to Geddes and Clarke what Richard Ellmann is to Joyce and Wilde.
Her contribution to Irish art will not end with these and her other publications. It will live on in the work of her many former students and colleagues, like David Caron and Sorcha O’Brien, both of whom are quick to comment on her unstinting support for their work. In the case of O’Brien, an advance copy of her forthcoming book on the impact of electrification on domestic design was one of the last things Nikki got to see. While others worked to improve the quality of Irish design and craft, forcing government to acknowledge their importance by renaming the National College of Art the National College of Art and Design in 1972, she was the pioneer writer who fought to have craft and design recognised intellectually on an equal footing with the fine arts. In an alien critical environment, she proved that the Irish version of the Arts and Crafts Movement was a more pervasive shaper of identity in the new independent state than the paintings of Sean Keating and his RHA colleagues. She was scornful of the narrow-minded and elitist who neglected Clarke and Geddes as mere crafts workers, and rightly insistent on their pre-eminence in artistic canons. While others argued these points, Nikki did the research and published the proof.
Professor at the School of Art and Design Research Institute at the University of Ulster and a research fellow at the University of Wales, the Huntington Library in California, the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC and the Guild of St George (England), and Ireland’s representative in the UNESCO study group for Art Nouveau architecture, she still found time to fight for good causes at home. She was fiercely proud when her daughter Venetia threw herself into the recent campaign to save Dublin’s Iveagh Gardens, and forwarded her petition to all her own friends. An Englishwoman by birth, she will be greatly missed by her Irish readers and colleagues.
Essays by Nicola Gordon Bowe in the Dublin Review of Books: