Posts Tagged 'Wilhelmina Geddes'

In the Frame for December 2012

Throughout the history of Western art, painters have time and again returned to the Christian Bible for solace and inspiration. The artists whose works are represented in the collections of Bethlem’s Archives and Museum form no exception to this. Yet, of all the books of the New Testament, we might think that its last – the Revelation of St John – would be the least likely to feed the imagination. We might think this…but we’d be wrong. When we read that Thomas Hennell, the artist and sometime Maudsley patient, was “reduced to tears of misery” and “threw away the Bible which had been not long before the intensest source of inspiration”, saying “How disappointing the books of Revelation and of Daniel now appeared!”,1 perhaps we are tempted to counter “Don’t start with apocalyptic!” But that is precisely what artists from Jonathan Martin to ‘Little Flower’ have done. Whether this was good for their mental health is, of course, open to question.

This month the Archivist takes In the Frame ‘on holiday’ again to feature the work of another artist (with Maudsley connections like Hennell) who was inspired by Revelation. The Leaves of the Tree were for the Healing of the Nations is a stained-glass window constructed by the Irish artist Wilhelmina Geddes and installed into St John’s Church, Malone Road, Belfast in 1920. The title is taken word for word from Revelation chapter 22 in English translation. The Archivist saw the window on a recent trip to Northern Ireland, and cannot improve upon the description given of it by the art historian Nicola Bowe in 1984: it “positively sings in a patchwork forest of greens through which throng small meditating souls in bright pink, ruby, blue and gold, each piece of glass chosen and painted with the greatest thought and care”.2

This is a vision easily recognisable within religious iconography, one of a future paradise in which the Tree of Life quells the strife and conflict ushered in by the primordial Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. A relatively uncommon choice of subject for a stained-glass window it may be, and perhaps all the more poignant for that. It was commissioned in the immediate aftermath of World War I to express the hopes, then widely shared, of a better future; yet within a year of its installation, Ireland had been partitioned amid bitter wrangling, and four years later Geddes herself was temporarily admitted to the Maudsley Hospital in London following a breakdown in her mental health. In 1923 The Irish Times reacted to the modernism of her work by opining that “her glass is quite unlike that of most other stained glass workers; the religion which it reflects is the religion of power and fighting, not the religion of peace and restfulness”.3 But Geddes’ passion was not poured into sectarianism; she accepted commissions from Catholic and Protestant churches alike. On the evidence of the window at St John’s, and on that of her own biography, her passion was to heal and not to harm.

1 Thomas Hennell, The Witnesses (University Books, 1967), p. 167.

2 Nicola Gordon Bowe, ‘Wilhelmina Geddes’, Irish Arts Review, 1984, p. 58.

3 The Irish Times, 14 July 1923, quoted in Nicola Gordon Bowe, ‘A Window with Punch’, Apollo Magazine (September 2008), pp 74-79.

PhotobucketDetail from Wilhelmina Geddes’ The Leaves of the Tree were for the Healing of the Nations

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In the Spotlight: Wilhelmina Geddes

Last month’s caveat against presuming that the wards of Bethlem and the Maudsley were overloaded with writers and artists notwithstanding, this month’s post is devoted to an Arts and Craft Movement-era designer and stained glass artist of distinction. Irish-born Wilhelmina Geddes (1887-1955) was acclaimed by contemporaries for “producing the finest, the most sincerely, passionately religious stained glass of our time”, and even won grudging admiration from those critics who thought her work “too modern” or “experimental”.1

Most of Geddes’ works in stained glass are (unsurprisingly) to be found in churches – principally in England and Ireland, but there are also windows in each of Wales, Belgium, Canada and New Zealand. Her treatment of her subjects, whether sacred or secular, is rugged, heroic, monumental. Geddes’ move from Ireland to England at the age of thirty-eight could be considered the hinge of her career. She had previously visited London on study trips and commissions, but her relocation there in 1925 was permanent.

The move had been contemplated for some time, but in the event it was brought about by a doctor’s referral to the Maudsley Hospital from Downpatrick Asylum, County Down, to which Geddes had admitted herself out of fears concerning her own mental health. For six months the Maudsley provided her with the medication, psychotherapy, refuge and space for the recovery she sought. Yet Geddes was not idle during this time. Having brought a commission from a Surrey church for a stained glass window with her from Ireland, she began design work while still in hospital. Following her discharge in November 1925, she rented a studio in Fulham which was to become her working base for the remainder of her life.

This post is the penultimate in the In the Spotlight series, which we launched at the start of 2011. As the accompanying picture is of Geddes’ The Angel Appearing to Joseph (now in Ely Cathedral’s Stained Glass Museum), we take the seasonal opportunity to wish the readers of this blog all the best for Christmas and the New Year.

1 Nicola Gordon Bowe, ‘A Window with Punch’, Apollo Magazine (September 2008), pp 74-79. Nicola Bowe’s biography of Geddes is scheduled for publication in 2012 by Four Courts Press in Dublin. We will let our readers know when it is published. Bowe is giving a lecture on Wilhelmina Geddes in Monaco on 26 January 2012; details of how to how to book are online here.

Geddes Dream image (2)

© Stained Glass Museum, Ely. Used with permission.