The life of Margaret Agnes Rope ("Marga")

Wikipedia entry for Margaret Agnes Rope

The two Margaret Ropes were first cousins, granddaughters of George Rope of Grove Farm, Blaxhall, Suffolk (1814-1912) and his wife Anne (née Pope) (29/3/1821-1/10/1882). Details of their immediate families are visible on the family tree page. Neither married: both were baptised Anglicans but died Roman Catholics. The elder Margaret Rope, Margaret Agnes Rope,was the second child of Henry John Rope, M.D (himself George and Anne's 3rd child: 1847-1899) and Agnes Maud (née Burd: 1857- 1948). "Marga", as she was known in the family, was born on 20th June 1882 and christened Margaret Agnes at St Mary's Church Shrewsbury on 7th July. She died in December 1953. Two versions of her biography appear below.

Marga as a child, with her brother Henry, later a well-known Catholic priest and author

 

Updated biography

 

Margaret Agnes Rope was born in Shrewsbury on 20th June 1882 to Dr Henry John Rope and Agnes Maud née Burd. Her maternal grandfather was Dr Edward Burd, her father's senior partner and, like her father, a staunch Anglo-Catholic who worshipped at St Mary's. Her paternal grandfather was George Rope the elder, businessman, coastal trader and farmer, who lived at Grove Farm, Blaxhall, Suffolk. From her mother's side she may have inherited her religious passion and from her father's her artistic talent, in that one aunt - Ellen Mary Rope - was an internationally known sculptor and an uncle - George Thomas Rope - was an acclaimed graphic artist and naturalist. She also had a number of artistic cousins on her father's side.

"Marga" (one of her family nicknames) was the second child of the family, younger only than Henry Edward George ("Harry"), who went on to become a well-known Catholic priest (1880-1978). The family were fond of nicknames and another of hers was "Brown". Younger siblings were Arthur Denys Rope "Den"(1884-1963), who followed his father into the medical profession; Ellen Monica "Mon" (1886-1977), a nursing nun; Frederick Michael (1888-1930), an aeronautical engineer; and Irene Mary ("Joan"/"Benjy") (1889-1993), a biologist, who married a naval man, Captain H.R.H.Vaughan.

A significant milestone of her life was the death of her father on 13th September 1899 at the early age of 52. Soon afterwards, her mother Agnes Maud Rope converted to Roman Catholicism and Marga followed suit, along with 4 of her five siblings, with only Arthur Denys remaining an Anglican. Marga was received into the church in January 1901. In 1900, Marga started attending the Birmingham School of Art, covering a range of media, including wood-carving, painting, and plaster-cast panels. Her studies culminated in working on stained glass with the established Arts & Crafts practitioner Henry Payne, influences of whose style can be seen in her early work. During this time she produced at least four student pieces: two entitled "Goblin Market"1905 & 1909(?), referencing the poem of that title by Christina Rossetti, one "The Welle of Love" c. 1906 strongly pre-Raphaelite in style and content and another, "Judith", illustrating the story of Judith and Holofernes. This last panel recently resurfaced when discovered in a bathroom window in Church Stretton, while two others fetched impressive sums when bought at Christie's on 17th June 2014 on behalf of two American museums.

She left art school in 1909 and started work from home and probably in Henry Payne's own studio, on her own commissions. Of uncertain date around this time was a small St Francis panel for the church of St Hugh of Lincoln, Letchworth (now refixed in the new church on an adjoining site), but this was probably her first commission for a church. This was soon followed by a major commission for the Great West Window at Shrewsbury Cathedral. It was an act of faith to entrust such a large piece to a comparatively untried artist, but she was known to Cathedral staff and must have impressed them with her existing smaller-scale works. She was by then 27 years of age. [The window was unveiled by the Bishop of Shrewsbury on February 27th 1910.] The story that she made the window on the kitchen table at home has to be received with a large degree of incredulity. The finished window consists of 6 tall panels and elaborate tracery including 11 major panes and 23 smaller ones and would have demanded full studio facilities for the cutting of the glass, painting, firing and leading up. It is possible that some small tasks, including perhaps the preparation of the cartoons and cut-lines, could have been done at home. There is a strong possibility that this window at least was worked on to completion at the studios of her teacher Henry Payne. The window was installed in 1910 and can be considered her masterpiece, launching her career as a mature and accomplished stained-glass artist and maker.

Her next move was to London, where she took a studio in Lowndes and Drury's Glass house, and it was there that she undertook the works of her first major period of productivity, from 1911 to 1923. Among the windows of that period were six tall windows for SS Peter and Paul, Newport, Shropshire; twenty wholly-painted roundels for Tyburn Convent; a family memorial window for St Peter's, Blaxhall; two windows for St Mary's Lanark; the first of several at Holy Name, Oxton, Birkenhead; several for the cathedral of St Francis Xavier at Geraldton, Western Australia; seven lancets for Michaelhouse School chapel at Balgowan, Natal; and five more windows for Shrewsbury Cathedral. In these commissions, particularly those for Newport, she had the assistance of her cousin "Tor" (herself another Margaret Rope) and J.E.Nuttgens but her usual practice was to work alone.

Marga with her mother, shortly before becoming a Carmelite nun

The second phase of her life, and of her artistic career, came after she joined the Carmelite order of nuns in Woodbridge, Suffolk. From the evidence of her elder brother's diary, this move was regarded by some (including Harry, and Marga's sculptor aunt Ellen Mary Rope) as a tragic sacrifice of her freedom and artistic potential. Others, however, admired the move and, in the event, her art was not sacrificed. The community of nuns were in need of an income and this was provided in a large part by Marga ("Sister Margaret of the Mother of God") continuing to take commissions for new stained glass windows. The process of making windows from within an enclosed order was a complex one, involving many to-and-fro journeys of materials by train between Woodbridge and the Glass House in Fulham. When a commission had been secured, involving correspondence and initial drawings, the glass would have had to be ordered from London. Marga would paint on the glass following full-size cartoons that she would have prepared and this glass would travel up to London to be fired in the Glass House kilns. Often this process would have been repeated several times. Marga may have seen the whole window in pieces at this stage before it was finally sent to London to be leaded up and, last of all, installed in its final location. Some studio photos survive in black and white, but these are the only sight Marga would have had of the completed windows as an enclosed nun. The achievement involved in the windows of this period is only the greater in view of the practical challenges involved. [It is not clear who would have cut the glass to shape, whether the artist or workers at The Glass House: some thick glass, at least, must have been cut in London - but at what stage? Cut-lines (full-sized drawings with the lead-lines shown) would have had to be sent to guide the cutting process.]

Outstanding windows from this period include the St Ambrose window at Shrewsbury Cathedral; Catholic Martyrs of the Shrewsbury Diocese and SS Thérèse and Winefride at Oxton, Birkenhead; SS Francis and Benedict at Llanarth Court, Gwent; a number of windows for the memorial church at Kesgrave, Ipswich for her brother Michael Rope, killed in the R101 disaster in October 1930; a memorial window to the two children of her sister Irene, both dead in childhood; one large and three small windows at St Mary Redemptorist church in Clapham; the Holy Family, east window at Stockport, Cheshire; four martyrs windows at Our Lady, Latchford, Warrington; and a complex west window for the chapel of St Joseph's College, Upholland. This last-mentioned commission was the result of a competition to glaze a difficult collection of panels set in decorative tracery; Marga's submission managed to not only fill the spaces with glorious coloured light but use the opportunity to tell a detailed and erudite narrative of the roles of the church in history and in modern times, along with many doctrinal references and a vivid portrayal of Satan in the form of a dragon, spread across 6 panels. A final commission for a 3-light window on the subject of "Our Lady of Consolation, SS Joseph & Raphael" was for the chapel of The Catholic Nursing Institute, Bermondsey. Cartoons of these windows survive but the whereabouts of the windows are unknown. In addition, Marga also produced painted panels: an altar front for St Mary's Shrewsbury, a small war memorial for Shrewsbury Cathedral and, most significantly, her work for St Joseph's, Sale: eighteen Catholic martyrs around the chancel walls as well as depictions of the foundation of the Devotion of the Sacred Heart and of the Annunciation and Nativity.

As mentioned earlier, after the Carmelites' move from Woodbridge to Rushmere, Marga did very little in the way of making windows. This may have been as a result of the practical difficulties of carrying on during wartime but also due to her declining health. She turned her artistic attentions to designing and making devotional and greetings cards. However, when the chapel for Quidenham monastery was being planned, her stained-glass skills were again called for. In the event, she was able only to design some of the windows, to be completed by Marga's cousin "Tor" Rope and her assistant Clare Dawson. With declining health, Marga was unable to make any more windows, and eventually died on 6th December 1953, at the relatively early age (for her family) of 71. Her death certificate names fibrosis of the lungs and tuberculosis as the causes of her demise.

Any artistic assessment of Margaret Rope must include an acknowledgement of the extent of her achievement, not only in her art (exquisite draughtsmanship, vivid portraiture, intense detailing, masterful design) but in the powerful expression of her passionate religious faith, not least in her commemoration of the martyrs to the Catholic cause in England. Peter Cormack, in his "Arts & Crafts Stained Glass" (Yale, 2015) appreciates her work highly (pp. 118-9, 249-251, 253, 285-6) and she must stand among the most eminent of the Women Stained Glass Artists of the Arts & Crafts Movement [itself the title of an exhibition curated by Cormack at the William Morris Gallery, Waltham Forest, from December 1985 - March 1986 [catalogue ISBN 0 901974 22 6)]. Set against that, we could mention two small limitations: her art did not progress or develop across the years of her career - she found a style that suited her and she stuck to it - and, secondly, she took no students and thus had no direct stylistic followers.

An account of Marga as a person must rely on the writings of her eldest brother Harry and letters from her youngest sibling Irene. Neither are exclusively adulatory, particularly the former, who wrote most, but the main impression is the strength of her personality and the intensity of her religious faith. Anyone seeking to research further into her character and life within her family would do well to seek access to the correspondence, diaries and memoirs of Harry and Irene still held by the Librarian at Quidenham. Some details include stories of her fearlessness and ruggedness, both as a child and an adult - in childhood climbing up one tree, crossing over and coming down another, in maturity sleeping out on the roof in London in all seasons. She rode a motorbike up until 1914, when she gave it away to a missionary bound for Africa. Once she had a dangerous accident, skidding under a brewer's dray and ending up close to the turning wheels. One story tells of her and Irene riding over to Suffolk around the beginning of The Great War and briefly being arrested on suspicion of being German spies. She rebelled against norms for women at the time, wearing her hair short, dressing practically rather than decoratively, and smoking. Another tale, from Harry's writings, is of Marga in her Birmingham student days arriving home one winter's evening into the family hallway dripping wet. She had been returning from the railway station along the banks of the River Severn when she had come across a group of people trying to recover the body of a child who had fallen in. Fully clothed, she dived in repeatedly but was unable to find the body. She returned home without giving her name. Harry, a notorious Luddite and opponent of mechanisation, told another story against himself. On a family trip to Chartres, they were watching local women washing clothes by the river and beating them on the stones. Harry was worried that this would tend to wear out the clothes prematurely. Marga responded: "What does it matter if they are worn out by hand?" An intense, inward person she may have been but not without humour! She set herself high standards and even if she didn't suffer fools gladly she was even more severe on herself. Perhaps she needed the discipline of the Carmelite order to give her the humility and focus she needed. It is significant that, although she never rose to the rank of Prioress, she served for some while as Mistress of Novices.

Marga's monogram, seen only in one window: the family memorial window at St Peter's, Blaxhall

 

 

List of windows by Margaret Agnes Rope / Sister Margaret of the Mother of God

Some of her finest work can be found at:
Shrewsbury Catholic Cathedral, Shropshire
the Church of the Holy Name, Oxton, Birkenhead, Lancashire
Michaelhouse School Chapel, Balgowan, Pietermaritzburg, S. Africa
Our Lady of the Assumption, Latchford, Warrington, Cheshire
SS Peter & Paul Catholic Church, Newport, Shropshire
the Church of the Holy Family and St Michael, Kesgrave, near Ipswich
Tyburn Convent, Marble Arch, London

County
Church etc.
Work
Subject
Date
Cheshire Oxton, Birkenhead: Holy Name 3 lights SS Elizabeth, Mary, John the Baptist 1918
Cheshire Oxton, Birkenhead: Holy Name multiple English Martyrs of Shrewsbury diocese 1929
Cheshire Oxton, Birkenhead: Holy Name 1 light St Thérèse of Lisieux 1929
Cheshire Oxton, Birkenhead: Holy Name 1 light St Winefride 1929
Cheshire Birkenhead: Our Lady 1 light Exile from Eden, Annunciation (bombed & destroyed 1941)  
Cheshire Hoylake: St Hildeburg 1 light "Put on the whole armour of God" 1917
Cheshire Latchford: Our Lady of Assumption 2 lights Bld John Finch, Bld James Bell 1932
Cheshire Latchford: Our Lady of Assumption 2 lights SS John Fisher, Thomas More 1939
Cheshire Sale: St Joseph Painted panels Adoration of the Sacred Heart, Annunciation, Nativity, 18 English Martyrs  
Cheshire Stockport: Our Lady & Apostles 3 lights The Holy Family with Christchild 1933
Dyfed Llandovery: Our Lady 2 lights The Holy Family with Archangel 1938
Gwent Llanarth Court Chapel 2 lights St Bernard, St Francis 1930?
Hertfordshire Letchworth: St Hugh of Lincoln 1 panel St Francis 1908?
Lanarkshire Lanark: St Mary 2 lights Last Supper, Gethsemane, Crucifixion 1915
Lanarkshire Lanark: St Mary 2 lights Parable of the Prodigal Son 1915
Lancashire Upholland: St Joseph's College (closed) multiple The church: sacrament and teaching 1938
London Clapham: St Mary Redemptorist 3 lights The Holy Family 1930
London Clapham: St Mary Redemptorist 3 lancets Virgin & child, Crucifixion, Sacrament 1930
London Hyde Park Place: Tyburn convent 20 roundels Tyburn Martyrs: the Beatitudes, the Corporal Works of Mercy 1915
Norfolk Quidenham: Carmelite Monastery (enclosed) 4 panels Trinity, Magnificat, St Joseph, Nativity 1930s?
Norfolk Quidenham: Carmelite Monastery (enclosed) 1 panel Elijah and St Teresa  
Oxfordshire Clifton Hampden: St Michael 1 lancet St George 1920
Shropshire Newport: SS Peter & Paul 1 large + 1 small St Peter 1914
Shropshire Newport: SS Peter & Paul 1 large + 1 small St Paul 1914
Shropshire Newport: SS Peter & Paul 1 large + 1 small St Nicholas 1916?
Shropshire Newport: SS Peter & Paul 1 large + 1 small Our Lady, Help of Christians 1912
Shropshire Newport: SS Peter & Paul 1 large + 1 small St Winefride 1916
Shropshire Shrewsbury: R.C. cathedral 6 lights + tracery British Catholic martyrs: Romans - Reformation 1910
Shropshire Shrewsbury: R.C. cathedral 3 lights The visitation with St Cecilia 1912
Shropshire Shrewsbury: R.C. cathedral 1 light Baptism 1922
Shropshire Shrewsbury: R.C. cathedral 2 lights + tracery Soldier window: St Martin of Tours, St Ignatius 1920
Shropshire Shrewsbury: R.C. cathedral 3 lights + tracery St Laurence 1920?
Shropshire Shrewsbury: R.C. cathedral 3 lights + tracery Seminary Martyrs 1929
Shropshire Shrewsbury: R.C. cathedral 3 lights St Ambrose <1934
Shropshire Shrewsbury: R.C. cathedral panel Painted wooden war memorial  
Shropshire Shrewsbury: St Mary panels Painted wooden altar front  
Shropshire Shrewsbury: Museum (on loan) 1 panel Judith 1908?
Suffolk Private collection 1 panel Goblin Market (second version) 1908?
Suffolk Blaxhall: St Peter multiple Nativity, Saints & Evangelists 1913
Suffolk Blaxhall: St Peter 1 of 2 lights "Sing we merrily unto the Lord Our God" 1912?
Suffolk Kesgrave:Holy Family & St Michael 3 lights The Holy Family & St Michael 1931
Suffolk Kesgrave:Holy Family & St Michael 2 lights Isaiah & King David 1927
Suffolk Kesgrave:Holy Family & St Michael 1 panel Holy Saturday with family members 1923
Suffolk Kesgrave:Holy Family & St Michael 1 light St Dominic 1931
Suffolk Kesgrave:Holy Family & St Michael 1 light SS John Fisher & Thomas More 1931
Suffolk Kesgrave:Holy Family & St Michael 1 light Our Lady & St Catherine 1929+1931
Suffolk Kesgrave:Holy Family & St Michael 1 light SS Teresa of Avila & Margaret of Scotland 1929+1931
Suffolk Kesgrave:Holy Family & St Michael 1 panel Madonna & child (adapted by MEA Rope) 1929(+1954)
Surrey Oxted: All Saints 1 light St Hedwig 1923?
Yorkshire Heckmondwike: Holy Spirit 3 round 3 small roundels  
Australia Geraldton WA: St Francis Xavier cathedral 1 light Janua Coeli, Stella Matutina  
Australia Geraldton WA: St Francis Xavier cathedral 1 light Rosa Mystica, Turris Davidica  
Australia Geraldton WA: St Francis Xavier cathedral 1 light Priest with host, horse & rider  
Australia Geraldton WA: St Francis Xavier cathedral 1 light Agony in the Garden, Scourging of Christ 1922
Australia Geraldton WA: St Francis Xavier cathedral 1 light Sacred Heart of the Risen Christ  
Australia Mullewa, WA: Our Lady, SS Peter & Paul 1 light "Gloria in Excelsis Deo", choir of angels 1926
Italy Rome: Venerable English College 1 oval light St Ralph Sherwin 1936
South Africa Balgowan: Michaelhouse School 1 lancet Isaiah as a boy in the temple 1923-4
South Africa Balgowan: Michaelhouse School 1 lancet King David as a shepherd boy 1922-3
South Africa Balgowan: Michaelhouse School 1 lancet Archangel Michael 1920-1
South Africa Balgowan: Michaelhouse School 1 lancet Madonna & child 1920-1
South Africa Balgowan: Michaelhouse School 1 lancet Archangel Gabriel 1921-2
South Africa Balgowan: Michaelhouse School 1 lancet St John the Baptist as a boy 1923-4
South Africa Balgowan: Michaelhouse School 1 lancet Boy with loaves and fishes 1923-4
South Africa Randfontein: St John the Divine 1 light Sth Africa The Good Samaritan 1922
USA New York: Metropolitan Museum 1 panel Goblin Market (first version) 1905
USA Los Angeles: County Museum 1 panel The Welle of Love 1908

Old brief biography

Margaret Agnes Rope was born into an urban professional family, both her father and her maternal grandfather being doctors. It was an Anglican family but her mother converted to Catholicism (along with 5 of her 6 children) soon after her husband's early death. She brought her children up in some degree of poverty, exacerbated by her father's will, which denied money to any descendant "in religion". [Specifically he objected to contributing to the funds of monastic orders]- he was a High Church Anglican but strongly anti-Catholic. Of the children, two became nuns ("Marga" and Monica - "Mon") and one a priest (Harry). Two other siblings were Irene Vaughan, a botanist, and Michael Rope, an aeronautical engineer, who died in the R101 disaster. Only one, Denys, a doctor of medicine, followed his father as an Anglican. Marga was educated at home until she went in 1900 to the Birmingham Municipal School of Art. Studies included enamelling and lettering. From 1901, she studied stained glass under Henry Payne. She had an illustrious career at the school including a number of scholarships, plus many awards in the National Competition for Schools of Art. In 1909, she left the school and worked from home (The Priory, Shrewsbury) especially on the large west window of Shrewsbury Catholic Cathedral, the first of seven she did there. From 1911, Marga worked (sometimes with her cousin "Tor", see below) at the Glass House in Fulham until 1923 when, on 14th September, she became a Carmelite nun, Sister Margaret of the Mother of God. As a Carmelite, she was first at Woodbridge, Suffolk, later at Rushmere, near Ipswich, and, after the Second World War, at Quidenham, Norfolk. At Woodbridge, she was able to continue her work, sending glass to and fro by train to the Glass House in Fulham for cutting, firing and leading up. This continued until 1939. After the war and the move to Quidenham, Marga was not well enough to do more than help with the designs for the windows for the monastery church, which were made by her cousin, "Tor". She died on 6th December 1953. A memorial window to her can be found at the Church of the Holy Family and St Michael at Kesgrave, near Ipswich. This was a window adapted by her cousin from an incomplete work by Marga herself. Her archive is held at the Birmingham Art Gallery & Museum. Marga is reputed to have been a strong character, smoking and motorbike riding being among her pastimes before she took her vows. Her stained glass work also shows strength of character as well as artistry in design and execution of a high order. Much of her best work is typified by strong colours, jewelled intensity and consummate glass painting skills. The sense of individual personality that shines from many of the faces she portrayed is powerful. Common themes of her windows were the English martyrs, the Annunciation and the lives of the Saints. In a shorter career than her cousin, only 30-odd years, she inevitably produced fewer windows - around 60. However, her work must be reckoned to be generally more outstanding, though this comment should not be taken to denigrate the younger cousin's work, which was also of a high standard of excellence.

 


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