One of the most interesting artworks in the Margaret Agnes Rope exhibition this autumn (2016) is very large piece, the ‘Christ Child & Infants’ ceramic sculpture.
For nearly 100 years, it had a place of pride in one of Shrewsbury’s leading institutions, only for it to be discarded and nearly broken up… Thanks however to the efforts of one man, it was found and restored – and once again occupies an honourable position in the town.
In fact, the Christ Child & Infants (see pic below) is actually not by Margaret Rope at all, but by her famous artist-aunt, Ellen Mary Rope.
The piece is in the show to illustrate the fact that Margaret came from (on her father’s side anyway) a hugely talented and artistic extended family.
It is known that Margaret went on many visits during her childhood to her paternal grandfather’s house in Suffolk, and would have met Ellen there – and got to know her well. In later years, they had studios close to each other’s in London.
The triptych (i.e. a work in three parts) was actually commissioned by the Rope family following the untimely death of Marga’s father, Doctor Henry Rope, in 1899.
Ellen Mary designed it as a memorial to her brother (Dr Henry Rope, Marga’s father, who died in 1899), and it appears to have been commissioned by his “brothers and sisters” of whom Ellen was one. By this time, Ellen was chief designer at the Della Robbia Pottery and exhibiting her art regularly at the Arts & Crafts Society’s London shows, so she had a fair degree of fame.
Dr Rope was a well-established and well-regarded doctor & surgeon in the district; and the focus on children in the work emphasises Dr Rope’s medical work with infants.
When it was first made, around 1900, the artwork was put up on the wall outside the then children’s ward there at the old Royal Salop Infirmary.
(For those who know Shrewsbury, the RSI occupied the building immediately behind St Mary’s Church in the centre of town. It is now a shopping parade. Thanks to Wikipedia for the photo, right).
However, when the old infirmary closed in 1977, the triptych was transferred to the children’s wards section of the Copthorne Hospital South.
However, possibly because the work of Ellen Mary was by this time thought ‘old-fashioned’, when the children’s unit again transferred – this time to the brand-new Royal Shrewsbury Hospital a few miles outside Shrewsbury town centre in 1993, and then Copthorne Hospital shut in 2005 – the piece was discarded. Sadly, it was simply dumped in an obscure basement area at the RSH.
That is… until Brian Bennett came along.
Brian was a nursing officer at the RSH; and was amazed to discover the piece, now rather knocked about, lying under some redundant broken beds in that basement.
Brian is something of a heritage enthusiast, and took it on himself to make the wrong right.
Brian can be extremely persuasive, and in a very short time was working with a nurse in the new Paediatric Unit, Libby Baldwin, to gain funding for the restoration and the restitution of the piece; and, naturally, then the hospital administrators also came round to his point of view!
In 2008, the official unveiling of the restored item took place, with the piece by now sited in the RSH on the wall of the main corridor by the Children’s unit – where it rightfully should be.
At the ceremony, descendants of Doctor Rope were the guests of honour, including Arthur Rope who maintains the official Rope Family Website.
In its current prominent situation, the triptych is seen by hundreds of members of staff and public every day
…. Except of course from September 2016 to January 2017 – when it will be on loan from the Hospital, to become a major feature during those months of the Margaret Rope Exhibition at Shrewsbury Museum!
The fact that the The Shrewsbury and Telford Hospital NHS Trust has decided to lend this wonderful piece to the Marga exhibition is a great piece of news.
Too many times do we hear about the excessive levels of bureaucracy in the NHS – but that impression is proved completely wrong in this case, as the decision to loan this item was made in less than a few days!
(One could only wish that certain other societies and institutions which are (supposedly) actively supportive of the arts were as responsive as this…).
Do get along and see the piece at the exhibition – it will be well worth it!
Brian Bennett, who is now retired, has written a number of books about the history of the health services in Shrewsbury. He is also a long-time member of the Nurses’ League.
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