For the last year a small group of enthusiasts have been studying and cataloguing the documents & works now stored at the newly-established Margaret Agnes Rope Archive in Suffolk. The collection consists of old drawings, scraps of sketches, clippings, preliminary cartoons and a few letters that Sister Margaret left behind when she died in 1953.
It had not been worked on fully until eighteen months ago when it was finally given, on semi-permanent loan, to the Margaret Rope Appreciation Group and moved to an appropriate office in Suffolk.
Since then, one of the group, Roger Hall, an expert in Margaret Rope studies, has come across an aspect of her work that he wasn’t expecting – and he outlines it here.
Whilst sorting through the drawings in the Margaret Rope Archive we have found a significant number of life-studies of unclothed models.
At first we thought that these were all student pieces, drawn between 1900 and 1909, while Marga was learning her craft at the Birmingham School of Art, where, unusually for the time, women were permitted into life-drawing classes – but we were wrong.
The breakthrough in their interpretation came when we noticed that one of these sketches, showing a kneeling man holding a notebook and pencil, bears a remarkable resemblance to the figure of St Luke, recording the birth of Christ for his Gospel, which is in the Holy Family Window at Blaxhall Church, Suffolk (1913).
Now we began to look more carefully at the rest of the studies, and discovered more which match figures in Marga’s windows, including several more for the Blaxhall window.
A particularly striking set, all discovered separately but now brought together, concern figures in the scene showing the scourging of Christ in the Bishop Kelly Memorial Window at Geraldton Cathedral in Australia (1922).
These are studies for the Christ figure and the two soldiers whipping him.
And we are still finding more from this scene, including some of minor figures. We have just come across, for instance, a meticulously executed study for the Roman soldier seated in the background on the far right of the Geraldton Cathedral scourging scene, this one made even though in the actual window he is partially obscured by a main figure and partly cut off by the window border.
Marga made life-studies of women too, but it is still not clear to us whether these are random student sketches or they are preparatory sketches like the ones above.
Curiously, at some stage before the collection reached us, most of the drawings of unclothed women were bowdlerised, the offending parts being overpainted, covered with paper or partially cut out. However, it is possible that Marga herself did this, feeling that that was the best course in a stricter age than our own.
So it would seem that Marga achieved the realism and dynamism which her figures possess by drawing them from life, unclothed, in the poses which she wanted to depict, and adding their garments later.
We might think that for minor figures this level of attention to detail was unnecessary, but it is an indication of the very high standards which she set herself.
I think that being a devout Christian she would have considered her work to be an offering to God, and she would have done her best to make it as perfect as she could.
However, I wonder how unusual it would have been in those days for a female artist to use an unclothed male model. Would artist and model have been alone together?
I think that we can take it that this method of working ceased in 1923 – when Marga became a nun!
We have found no life studies for windows known to have been made after 1923, and, for any undated window, we can probably assume that, if there is a life study for it, then it was made before 1923.
If you’d like to comment on this article, please use the Comments Box below