For centuries, the design and making of stained glass was something done by men. It was really only in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that women exerted their influence on this specialized medium – but then often with great effect.
There were some precedents. Mary Peckitt was the wife of the York-based stained-glass maker William Peckitt. She had obviously been her husband’s close assistant in his trade, for when he died she made a memorial window to him in his parish church of St Martin-cum-Gregory in the city’s Micklegate; the inscription on it says, 'designed and executed by his afflicted widow 1796.'
There were a few amateur female stained-glass makers in the mid-19th century, who adorned their own parish churches with their work – sometimes of high quality. By the end of that century women were beginning to assert themselves artistically, with a number, including Mary J Newill and Helen Coombe, designing for some for the top stained-glass-making firms.
One of the first women really to make her mark in the art was Mary Lowndes. Born in 1857, she had worked at a number of glass workshops in London before setting up her own firm, with a foreman glass painter Alfred Drury, in 1897. Not only did she design – she cut glass, painted it, fired it and leaded it, too. She was influenced by the work of another stained-glass maker Christopher Whall, one of the leaders of the Arts and Crafts movement, and helped him establish his own firm.
Even more significantly, in 1906 Mary Lowndes founded The Glass House in Fulham. It was an open workshop where designers could work and where Lowndes and Drury would help them turn their designs into finished windows. Her skill was so good that that she also made windows for other designers; a window designed by Holiday and made by Lowndes and Drury can be found in the church at Robin Hood’s Bay, for example. And as well as her work in encouraging the art of stained glass, Mary Lowndes was a famous
suffragette; she helped found the Artists' Suffrage League and designed many of the suffragettes' banners.
Among the women who benefitted from the facilities of The Glass House was Moira Forsyth, who died in 1991. Her work can be seen throughout the country, including windows in Norwich, Guildford and Bradford Cathedrals. Originally a potter, she turned to stained glass after a life-changing visit to see the famous medieval windows of Chartres Cathedral.
Veronica Whall, daughter of Christopher Whall, was another artist who worked at The Glass House. She had a long apprenticeship with her father; her first work is a figure of St Catherine in the Lady Chapel of Gloucester Cathedral, designed when she was just 11 years old. She eventually went into partnership with her father, and was in charge of the firm after Christopher's death in 1924, running it with the help of her brother until 1953.
Another important figure in the turn-of-the-century stained glass world was a dynamic Irish woman, Sarah Purser, who founded, with Christopher Whall’s help, a stained-glass workshop in Dublin in 1903 called An Tur Gloine, which means the Tower of Glass. Although not a stained-glass designer herself, she encouraged others to use the facilities of An Tur Gloine, in Dublin's Upper Pembroke Street, to pursue their own careers.
Two of the most outstanding women artists who worked at An Tur Gloine were Wilhelmina Geddes
and Evie Hone. A native of Belfast and born in 1887, Wilhelmina Geddes arrived there in 191 I, and
stayed for eleven years. She believed in designs with strong line and even stronger colours – something
of a revolution at a time when stained glass tended towards the 'pale and interesting'.
Wilhelmina Geddes eventually moved to England, where she was associated with Mary Lowndes. One of her greatest windows is the war memorial window of 1922 at St Luke's Church in Wallsend on the Tyne, which depicts the crucifixion.
Evie Hone, born in Dublin, was seven years younger than Wilhelmina Geddes. She joined An Tur
Gloine in 1932 and was taught by Geddes. Evie Hone's career had already been a distinguished one. Although crippled with paralysis from the age of 11, she had studied painting with Walter Sickert before moving to Paris. Much of Evie Hone’s work is in Ireland, but her most famous design is the large east window of Eton College Chapel, put in place in 1953, two years before her death. It is a richly-glowing work, with clear drawing and an impressive structure.
Two cousins, both called Margaret Rope, were stained glass makers. Margaret Agnes, the elder, trained at the
Birmingham School of Art and then under stained glass artist Henry Payne (who was taught by Mary
Lowndes). In 1911 she too went to The Glass House, where she remained until she became a Carmelite nun in 1923. She continued to design and paint glass, sending it to The Glass House by train from Suffolk until the war.
The other Margaret Rope – she called herself M E Aldrich Rope to help distinguish her – studied with Alfred Drury in London before she also went to The Glass House in 1911 and remained there until 1926. Her first major work – and probably her masterpiece – is the east window of St Chad's Church, Far Headingley in Leeds, which shows the Creation. She produced more than 100 windows in her 50 years of work.
These days there are many women stained glass makers and designers. One of the most inventive and well-known is Helen Whittaker from York, who a few years spoke brilliantly to Ripon Civic Society about her work. You can see examples of her windows throughout the country, including Beverley Minster, St Paul’s Cathedral and Westminster Abbey, where a new window, to designs by David Hockney and made by Helen Whittaker, will soon be installed to celebrate the reign of the Queen – a fitting tribute both to Her Majesty and to the many women stained glass artists who have made their particular mark on the art.