Life

Wilhelmina Geddes: Window on a remarkable life

Wilhelmina Geddes's work can be seen in the Cathedral of St Martin at Ypres in Belgium and St Bartholomew's Church in Ottawa

BELFAST stained glass artist Wilhelmina Geddes' work continues to illuminate.

Honours come in all shapes and sizes and they are to be appreciated and celebrated but it’s a pity that one Belfast woman will never know of her lofty honour.

It’s not every day a crater on a far-flung planet carries your name with pride and I’m sure Wilhelmina Geddes would be very chuffed if she knew there’s a Geddes Crater on Mercury, although, strangely, she included coloured shooting stars in many of her works.

Each new crater must be named after an artist who was famous for more than 50 years and dead for more than three and this artist fits the bill. Few, however, know of her, unless interested in stained glass.

I was always fascinated with the windows in our church and I’d while away a service examining the way the light filtered through the lattice work of jewel colours, a real jigsaw story of the Bible. Then, just before Christmas, I received a copy of Nichola Gordon Bowe’s magnificent book on Wilhelmina Geddes, her life and work and now I appreciate the dedication that goes into designing and making these magnificent backdrops, real curtains of delight.

Although born in Co Leitrim, her parents brought her home to their native Belfast when she was still a baby. She studied at Methody, the Belfast School of Art and in Dublin where she was invited by her friend and mentor Sarah Purser to join An Tur Gloine stained glass studio.

She moved to London in 1925 where she had a studio at the Glass House in Fulham. Eccentric and controversial, she shunned the Victorian attitudes in art and instead depicted men with crew cuts, strong faces and stern looks. Her women were equally defined, some pretty, some severe.

Geddes was famous during the Irish Arts and Crafts movement, highly respected and described as a medieval-modernist, a painter of rare intellect, skill and aesthetic integrity, among other talents she was a book illustrator and designed stamps and she worked on a grand scale. When she died in 1955 at the age of 68, she was called the greatest stained glass artist of our time and this book puts her in her proper place and will introduce her to a wider audience.

After 30 years of research, Gordon Bowe’s book traces her life from early days in Belfast, her development as an artist and the intricate work that made her much sought after. The book not only talks of individual windows, like the huge rose window in the Cathedral of St Martin at Ypres in Belgium and the vast and famous Ottawa Window in Canada but also of the research and background to her work, drawing cartoons and noting the colours to be used, painting detail on the glass and the firing and assembly of the finished work of art.

Her work is in churches and buildings all around the world and there are fine examples in Dublin and Northern Ireland – Church House Fisherwick Place and in St John’s Malone in Belfast, to name but two.

Considered to be her most complex window is the work commissioned in 1917 by HRH Prince Arthur, Duke of Connaught in the memory of the members of his staff who fell in the Great War 1914-1918 which resides in St Bartholomew's Church Ottawa, Canada.

Referred to as The Ottawa Window, it’s been hailed as "a masterpiece, truly a triumph for Irish Art". Not only do we discover how she went about this particular piece but we also hear of the life and times of Wilhelmina . Thanks to the exchange of letters between her and her mentor and fellow artist Sarah Purser we have an invite into the lives of some of the top people in London and Dublin including the duke and his close friendship with Lady Leslie who numbered WB Yeats, Oliver Gogarty and George Moore among her friends.

However, this life style was not for Wilhelmina. She strikes me as a rather lonely woman who stayed most of her life in Belfast to look after her mother; she herself suffered ill health and spent six months under medication when she had a nervous breakdown. She never seemed to have much money although when in London she liked to take tea in Harrods or Harvey Nichols.

A complex character, she was highly intelligent, determined and a perfectionist. Her research was meticulous, she painted and repainted, cut and recut, fired and refired the glass until she got the perfect result. She worked through air raids and ill health but sadly, when only 68, one warm August day, she collapsed in a London Street and passed away in St Pancras Hospital.

Wilhelmina Geddes died of a pulmonary embolism and was identified only through a note in her bag giving the name and address of a friend. She was brought back home for burial and lies beside her mother and her sister in a grave with a simple stone inscribed Geddes. Visitors to Carnmoney Cemetery in Newtownabbey are given no hint of the intense and brilliant woman lying in this little plot.

Nicola Gordon Bowe, associate fellow, National College of Art and Design, is to be complimented on this fine book, in itself a work of art. Published by Four Courts Press Dublin it costs €45/ £36 (fourcourtspress.ie).

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