The recent re-discovery of a work by Margaret is truly heartening.
First, though it’s an early piece, it really is important; it shows astonishing sureness of touch.
Secondly, the efforts to revivify the work by the small church in which it was re-found show that great Art is still respected in the wider Church.
Thirdly, the find gives hope to us who are still looking for Marga’s other lost works!
The story starts with Carolyn Albon, a member of the congregation at St Hugh’s Catholic Church in Letchworth, Hertfordshire. In 2014 she heard a report on the radio which mentioned Margaret Agnes Rope, and it triggered a memory: could a stained-glass panel in storage for many years at St Hugh’s be a Rope?
The panel, about the size of a large computer screen, depicts St Francis Preaching To The Birds, a famous incident in the saint’s life. The piece was known to have been installed in the ‘old’ St Hugh’s Church sometime around the First World War.
However, it was removed into storage when the old building became redundant in the 1960s and a new St Hugh’s was built. Records had been lost, so, at that time, no one was really sure of the panel’s provenance.
Arts & Crafts project
The original church of St Hugh in Letchworth Garden City was completed and opened in 1908. It was in the style of the Arts & Crafts Movement, and was the brainchild of two cousins, the architect Charles Spooner and Dr Adrian Fortescue, St Hugh’s first parish priest.
Fortescue was a well-known theological scholar and Arts-enthusiast and largely funded the construction of the church, and its fittings and decoration, out of his own pocket. Among the old church’s windows was a series designed by the illustrator Minnie Dibdin Spooner, which were completed in 1923. (These were re-installed in the new building).
Carolyn was still puzzling over the panel when she heard about the Margaret Rope Retrospective at Shrewsbury Museum. She acted on her hunch and contacted Arthur Rope, one of the exhibtion’s curators and the authority on the life & work of Margaret Rope. He immediately recognised the piece from an old studio photograph in the Margaret Rope Archive, and was able to visit and authenticate the piece.
He dated it to 1908, when Margaret would have been 26 years old and just finishing her studies at Birmingham School of Art.
But what was the link between Fortescue & Spooner and Margaret Rope?
Carolyn had discovered that Spooner was great friends with Christopher Whall, the doyen of Arts & Crafts stained-glass… and that Whall had had the great Henry Payne studying with him in 1901 … and that Payne had gone on to be Margaret’s tutor at the Birmingham School of Art…
Well, it’s a possible link…
Payne, a fine glass-artist himself, seems to have regarded her among his most talented pupils, so it is well within probability to think that he recommended her work to St Hugh’s.
One question that presents itself is: was the St Francis a finished piece, bought by Fortescue with someone else’s encouragement, or was it specially commissioned? If the latter, it would have been the first piece Margaret was commissioned to do for a church.
Pride of place
The end of this account is a happy one indeed.
Having now discovered that the glass-panel in their store was by an established artist, the priest at St Hugh’s, James Garvey, felt the church should do it honour and fix it into the fabric of the building.
So, in 2018, the church commissioned a stained glass artist & glazier to remove an existing clear window (in the church’s baptistry), and cut a space in it for panel. He then refixed, and leaded the panel into the window.
The whole window was then placed back in the baptistry; and steel mesh put on the outside to protect it.
It now looks as fresh as the day it was made.
Our sincere and very grateful thanks go to Carolyn Albon and Father Garvey for all their efforts…
(Further details on Dr Fortescue and St Hugh’s Church are to be found at Letchworth Museum)
Many thanks to Carolyn Albon for all the information and the photos provided for this article. All photos copyright Carolyn Albon.
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