▪Mary Lowndes – Pioneer

Mary Lowndes – stained-glass artist, designer, businesswoman and suffragist – was a pioneer at the beginning of the twentieth century, fostering and supporting the cause of women’s freedom. She particularly created opportunities for women who wished to work in stained-glass, including Margaret Rope by establishing the ‘Glass House’ workshops.
The Glass House had a profound effect on the Later Arts and Crafts Movement because here, the principles of the movement, which called for the total involvement of the artist from start to finish, from design to firing, could be acted out.

In the 1890s Lowndes became one of the first independent women to work professionally in stained glass. According to Peter Cormack in his 2015 book Arts & Crafts Stained Glass: until this point, “…women, generally amateurs, might occasionally design windows and even take some part in their execution, but they rarely if ever practised the whole art independently as a full time professional occupation”.

Life

Mary Lowndes was born in 1857 in Sturminster Newton in Dorset where her father was the rector of St Mary’s Church. Later she would create and install her own windows to put in this church.

She studied at the Slade School of Fine Art in London and when she completed her art classes, she became an assistant to the prominent stained-glass designer, Henry Holiday.  Holiday represents the meeting-point of Pre-Raphaelite and Arts & Crafts Movement work. 
Here she taught herself the techniques of stained glass before going on to be a designer for James Powell & Sons from 1887 to 1892. Powell & Sons was a commercial enterprise turning out hundreds of windows for the late-Victorian market.

Lowndes then set up as an independent, making her first ‘solo’ window in 1893.  However, without facilities of her own, she had to commission the Britten & Gilson works for the business end of the process, such as firing and glazing of the windows.

Mary Lowndes window, Meonstoke, 1906

In 1897, Mary took the next logical step and decided to establish her own studio-workshops. It was a risky venture and was financed by, not just Lowndes herself, but substantial loans from four of her female friends (including her life-partner Barbara Forbes).
Thus she was able to set up a business partnership with Alfred J. Drury (who had been the foreman at Britten & Gilson, and also taught stained glass alongside Christopher Whall at the Central School of Arts and Crafts).
The venture met the needs of the time – a whole new tranche of artists, inspired by the ideals of the Arts and Crafts Movement and who were refusing to work for the large commercials, were looking for spaces. Lowndes’ workshops provide all they needed, from design to glass selection, painting and glazing.

Glass House

Lowndes was a hugely energetic force and, within less than ten years, was starting anew!
In 1906, with the need for bigger facilities, the Lowndes & Drury business moved on to the Glass House in Fulham, London.
Lowndes, by now fifty years old, laid out the plans for the building herself (though its actual design was carried out by Charles Quennell); and the purpose-built stained-glass studios and workshops were designed by the famous glass artist Christopher Whall and Drury. On the upper floor were the studios and workshops, with the processes (e.g., firing and glazing) downstairs. There were even properly separate women’s toilets.

Although Lowndes was not vocal about her lesbianism, the workspace studios that she founded also ensured a place at the time where single women, including other lesbians, could work safely.

The Glass House attracted many of the stained-glass artists we now remember so well, both men and women.  The roll-call of women stained-glass artists associated with the Glass House – such has Joan Howson, Wilhelmina Geddes, Caroline Townsend & Theodora Salusbury – is particularly impressive. Among the men were Douglas Strachan and Karl Parsons (with whom Marga collaborated briefly). Both Margaret Agnes Rope and her cousin Margaret Edith Rope rented studio-space here for many years.
In the early twentieth century, it was considered the most important studio-workshop for stained-glass associated with the Later Arts and Crafts Movement.

Within a few months of opening the studios, Lowndes had also formed the Artists Suffrage League, an organisation in which artists put their talents at the beck of the Women’s Suffrage Movement.

Thus, it was to the Glass House, a hotbed of progressive social politics, that Margaret headed, leaving home behind, in 1910/11; and she was to maintain her association with Lowndes & Drury for many years, even after she entered the convent in 1923.

At first it seems an unlikely relationship: Marga was rather self-effacing and probably rather provincial, and Lowndes was twenty-five years older than she. It’s anyone’s guess what Marga, a seriously-minded Catholic, would have thought of Mary Lowndes’ suffragism, let alone her lesbianism. Yet Marga seems to have slotted in well enough to this new world, staying ten years with the Glass House, and even put it down as her address on the 1911 census.

Suffrage

As early as the 1890s Lowndes had become involved in the women’s suffrage movement. In January 1907, Lowndes established The Artists’ Suffrage League (ASL) to create dramatic posters, postcards, Christmas cards, and, most importantly, banners for the all-important suffrage demonstrations and procession. She became its chair and Barbara Forbes, her life-companion, was the secretary.

Pic courtesy VADS

Lowndes was particularly anxious to impress on suffrage demonstrators that, when it came to banners, ‘the medium is the message’ (to coin a phrase created later), dismissing the use of bare text. She called for bold shapes and striking combinations of colours. In her book of 1910 (see pic right), she wrote: “You do not want to read it (i.e. the banner), you want to worship it. Choose purple and gold for ambition, red for courage, green for long-cherished hopes … It is a declaration.”  It is perhaps no coincidence that Marga’s early works show a similar bold attitude to the use of colour.
Mary Lowndes’ banners, of which she designed dozens, were to be seen at many women’s suffrage events, including the famous From Prison to Citizenship demonstration in 1911.

It is curious however to consider whether her stained-glass work suffered because she had so many other interests. Critics, even fans, are divided over how much lasting quality it has, despite its significance.

Her life had a happy ending in that she lived to see the first enfranchisement of women in the UK, in 1918, followed by full suffrage in 1928.  She died the following year, 1929, and was buried in East Sussex.

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# The Suffrage Banners Collection at the Women’s Library in London houses an album of Mary Lowndes’ original banner designs including fabric swatches.
# To honour her role in the women’s suffrage movement, her name and picture, and those of 58 other women’s suffrage supporters, were inscribed on the plinth of the statue of Millicent Fawcett in London, when it was unveiled in 2018.
# A chapel in Devon was given a new Historic England nomination in 2017 for its association with Mary Lowndes and, by extension, its place in the British LGBT history – see the BBC News article

Thanks to Elaine Ellis for allowing us to re-use some information from an article on her company’s website about Mary Lowndes. Elaine Ellis is the president of the Arts & Crafts Tours company.
A tour of the west country, including Mary’s birthplace in Sturminster Newton, and the local church where some of her windows are installed, takes place in October 2021, under the auspices of The ‘Arts & Crafts Tours’ company.  The company offers small-group travel to places of importance in the history of the Arts & Crafts Movement. See Upcoming Arts & Crafts Movement Tours for more details.

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