Wilhelmina Geddes: Life and Work, by Nicola Gordon Bowe

Book of the week: Jasmine Allen admires the monumental scale and meticulous detail of a stained glass artist’s work

December 17, 2015
War memorial window (detail), St Bartholomew's church, Ottawa, Canada
Detail from war memorial window, St Bartholomew's church, Ottawa

In 1922, Wilhelmina Geddes overheard her studio manager belittling the work of Ethel Rhind, a fellow stained glass artist, in front of a visiting priest. Irritated, she began acting up, prodding him with a palette knife when he ignored her questions. Then she started a small fire…

Geddes (1887-1955) was one of a handful of female stained glass artists who rose to prominence in a male-dominated world, taking full advantage of the new opportunities opened up by the Arts and Crafts Movement for women to receive formal artistic training and employment. But despite her considerable achievements, and her associations with the two leading Arts and Crafts stained glass studios of the time, Geddes is little known.

Happily, Nicola Gordon Bowe’s detailed study has rescued this significant Irish artist from relative obscurity. This book is more than an introduction to the artist’s life and work: it combines the author’s art-historical insight with a biographical narrative enlivened by memorable stories drawn from Geddes’ personal diaries and correspondence, which, on more than one occasion, had me laughing out loud.

Geddes, who was encouraged to enter Belfast Municipal School of Art at the age of 16 by the Ulster sculptor Rosamond Praeger, produced illustrative and graphic work that attracted the admiration of both Hugh Lane, founder of the first public gallery of modern art in Dublin, and Sarah Purser, founder of the Dublin stained glass workshop An Túr Gloine (the Tower of Glass). At Purser’s recommendation, Geddes enrolled in a summer course at the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art, and so began her career in stained glass.

Although she remained living in Belfast, Geddes would become one of An Túr Gloine’s main designers between 1911 and 1926. Purser took her to see the medieval stained glass windows of Paris and Chartres, and these trips had a profound impact on Geddes’ approach to stained glass, influencing her strong designs and intense colour palette. Her distinctive modern style drew on diverse influences, and her windows attest to her interest in the contours and monumental scale of classical Assyrian sculpture and in Byzantine and Romanesque Gothic art, as well as with the small-scale ethereal qualities of William Blake’s illustrative work, and with the modern figurative sculpture of Henry Moore and Jacob Epstein.

Like her peers, Geddes benefited from numerous commissions for stained glass memorial windows in the wake of the First World War. The Ottawa Memorial Window (1917-19), a commission for St Bartholomew’s Church in Canada’s capital city, was widely reviewed by art critics, and was admired by the influential American stained glass artist Charles Connick as a “courageous adventure” in stained glass. In this window, and others in Dublin churches St Ann’s (1918) and All Saints, Blackrock (1919-20), Geddes’ vibrant designs incorporated figures on miniature, majestic and monumental scales, and brought them together in one harmonious composition.

Letters to her younger sisters from this period reveal Geddes’ increasing frustration with the An Túr workshop and its regime. In 1926 she relocated to London and began renting a studio at the Glass House, founded by Mary Lowndes and Alfred Drury. Following this move, her committed friend and mentor Praeger continued to seek out clients and secured a legacy for Geddes in her home city by persuading the curator of Belfast Art Gallery (now the Ulster Museum) to commission a stained glass window for the new gallery. Geddes responded with a panel based on an Irish legend, the Fate of the Children of Lir, which had also inspired James Joyce.

Known to her apprentices as “the Gorgon”, Geddes was notoriously difficult to work with. She worked to her own schedules, frequently not turning up at the studio until mid-afternoon, and often failed to meet clients’ deadlines. Her major commission for a 25ft-diameter rose window in the south porch of Ypres Cathedral to commemorate the Belgian king Albert I took four years to complete (1934-38). Geddes was a perfectionist with her art and meticulous in her research. Each detail, pose and symbol in her designs was carefully selected. Even when a design was finished, the construction of the window was a laborious process. Geddes agonised over the selection of her coloured glass, frequently rejecting glass that had already been cut for her, and requesting repeated firings of her painted glass, to the exasperation of workmen employed at Lowndes and Drury.

Although in her lifetime Geddes’ work was admired by the likes of Bernard Rackham, John Betjeman and John Piper, she did not achieve the same critical acclaim as some of her colleagues. Although her artistic output was fairly small – she completed just over 30 commissions for stained glass during her lifetime – she was central to this world and worked alongside the likes of J. E. Nuttgens, Douglas Strachan, Martin Travers, Karl Parsons and Moira Forsyth at Lowndes and Drury. In focusing on Geddes’ life and work, Bowe makes a significant contribution to our understanding of this golden age of British stained glass, complementing Peter Cormack’s study, Arts & Crafts Stained Glass, published earlier this year.

In addition to celebrating Geddes’ monumental achievements in glass, Bowe’s account offers a glimpse into the artist’s private life, her financial difficulties, fragile mental state and ill health. Throughout her working life, Geddes begged and borrowed sums of money from her family and her loyal friend Praeger. In spite of admonitions from her mother to reduce her expenses, Geddes continued to maintain her serviced flat and studio, while regularly dining out, shopping at Harrods (and occasionally Harvey Nichols) and travelling by taxi rather than by bus.

During the Blitz, Geddes continued to live and work in London, along with a handful of fellow female stained glass artists, including Joan Howson and Margaret “Tor” Rope. This was a trying time, both personally and professionally. During the war, Geddes suffered fatigue, apathy, fatalism and anxiety, and underwent frequent “starvation days”. The London blackout and fuel shortages meant that kiln-firing hours were reduced at the Glass House.

She sought psychoanalysis and therapy for depression, and in 1925, aged 38, admitted herself to Maudsley Hospital as a private patient. Medical notes from her time there, unearthed by Bowe, offer an acute insight into her mental well-being, her “compulsive” habits, and highs and lows. Geddes’ struggles with mental health introduced her to the medical psychologist Edward Glover, with whom she maintained a friendship and subsequently found employment.

Glover was a specialist in “intellectual, inhibited women with slightly bisexual constitutions”. His notes from their therapy sessions are tantalising, and reveal Geddes’ worries about lesbianism and cross-dressing. Bowe refrains from speculating about the artist’s sexuality, although it is hinted that she may have been in love with a married male friend. More importantly, Geddes’ keen interest in psychology and friendship with Glover speaks to her keen intellect and passion for reading. She became Glover’s editor, indexer and proofreader, and made a direct and tangible contribution to his research, publications and preparations for his BBC radio series Psychology in Wartime.

Bowe writes passionately and articulately about Geddes. Her descriptions of Geddes’ artworks – from stained glass to lino prints – are as detailed and compelling as her biographical narrative. For each commission, Bowe has charted the correspondence between artist and client, outlining Geddes’ sources and inspirations. All of this is done without compromising an enjoyable narrative, which reveals that Geddes’ character was as bold and colourful as her art.

Jasmine Allen is research affiliate in the department of history of art, University of York, and curator of the Stained Glass Museum, Ely Cathedral.


Wilhelmina Geddes: Life and Work
By Nicola Gordon Bowe
Four Courts Press, 508pp, £45.00
ISBN 9781846825323
Published 23 October 2015


The author

Author Nicola Gordon BoweNicola Gordon Bowe is associate fellow in the faculty of visual culture, National College of Art and Design, Ireland. Despite the institution’s long history, she says, “it is a working art college, where students create work of contemporary relevance and interest, so it feels young”.

NCAD “prizes what remains of its records and archives and encourages students to build on tradition in a national and international arena. Having established the history of design as an academic undergraduate and postgraduate discipline, I have always welcomed the possibility of students acquiring academic and theoretical skills with practical, hands-on technical ones,” she adds. 

Born in Staffordshire and raised in St Albans, Hertfordshire, Bowe has for many years lived in the Republic of Ireland, “in Dublin and in the Wicklow Mountains, with my husband Patrick, an architect, dendrologist and garden and landscape historian, and our daughter Venetia, who is studying acting. I have always had beloved cats and since 1989, pugs.”

Bowe went to school in St Albans until she had completed her O levels. “We were very involved with St. Albans Abbey, whose architecture, liturgy and music have lastingly influenced me. The discipline involved with swimming, dancing, piano playing and singing was doubtless helpful, while the pleasure of being in gardens, woods and among old buildings has also remained. 

“I did work hard at school in the subjects that interested me, encouraged by my parents whose deep knowledge and love of language and literature, theatre, travel and classical and Renaissance art I shall also be grateful for. Although my parents’ intellectual influence was paramount, others – my great uncle, a painter in the New Forest; my musical grandmother, stone-deaf since the age of 17; a charismatic drama teacher at school; inspiring music and art teachers outside school; and two ballet mistresses – were very important.”    

At Trinity College Dublin, she studied Italian and French as an undergraduate, and she would remain there for a PhD in art history.

“Having lived and studied in Italy, I was more interested in the social, cultural and intellectual life of the university than in most of the undergraduate courses I was taking,” she confesses. “Instead, I found myself  focusing on subjects outside my curriculum, such as art history, theatre, co-founding an art society, drawing, being the art editor of a student magazine, dancing, designing posters, and working each summer on graphic art techniques in Italy.”

Where would Bowe take us to see Geddes’ five best pieces of work, if money and time were no object?

“I’d fly you to Canada, to St Bartholomew’s in Ottawa, to see her courageous three-light Duke of Connaught war memorial, The Welcoming of a Slain Warrior by Soldier Saints, Champions and Angels, with its many poignant classically inspired figures; then to Northumberland, to St Luke’s, Wallsend-on-Tyne to be profoundly moved by the brooding tragedy of her five-light Crucifixion war memorial window with its jewelled colours and dramatic subsidiary scenes.

“On to the ancient church of St Cedma, Inver, in County Antrim in Northern Ireland, to be struck by the spiritual zeal and physical ardour of her St Patrick and St Columba. Over to All Saints, Laleham, Middlesex for her flamboyant, poetic three-light window with its brooding Saint Christopher, Cecilia and Eustace and small fluting daughters of music; and finally to Ypres, Belgium for her magnificent 89-light Te Deum rose window in St Martin’s Cathedral commemorating Albert, king of the Belgians, whose brilliantly orchestrated array of monumental figures, glowingly coloured, reflects the iconographical wealth of her work.”

During the research for this book, what did Bowe find most interesting or revealing about Geddes’ life? “Her personal diaries while growing up in Belfast and during the Second War in London revealed the vulnerability, sensitivity and self-deprecating wit she often concealed beneath her defensive exterior. Her own and others’ correspondence offered interesting perspectives on the complexities and difficulties of her life in Dublin and London. Her medical reports from the Maudsley Hospital showed how bravely she found artistic outlets for the depression and emotional confusion that assailed her.”

What gives Bowe hope? “My daughter. The power of love and faith. Nature’s continually challenged ability to regenerate herself despite the onslaughts of human greed and ignorance. The growing awareness among increasing numbers of people of the need to cherish the Earth and its occupants of all species. Compassion. Communal endeavour to effect change through careful thought, consideration, kindness, generosity, and the application of appropriate skills used wisely.”

Karen Shook

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Print headline: As colourful and intense as her art

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