Nicola Gordon Bowe has written a remarkable book that reinstates Wilhelmina Geddes as one of Europe’s great 20th-century artists. It is wonderfully illustrated and expansively rich in iconographical and biographical detail. Geddes was born in Drumreilly in the north of Ireland in 1887 and died in relative poverty in London in 1955. Her life embodied all the challenges and terrors of being a radical figure and, in particular, the difficulties facing a creative woman in the first part of the 20th century.
Geddes’s choice of medium, that of stained glass, goes some way towards explaining why we know so little about this extraordinary figure. Studying her work requires a series of church crawls that takes the committed fan to Ottawa, Wellington, Ypres, Dublin, Belfast and remoter parts of Ireland. There are enough windows in England and Wales to make for an extensive tour, starting perhaps with those at All Saints’ Church at Laleham in Surrey or St Luke’s Church at Wallsend in Northumberland. Getting the measure of an artist who works in stained glass can never be an armchair occupation.
Her parents were fundamentalist Methodists who set up house in the fiercely sectarian atmosphere of Belfast in 1889. Her childhood was clouded by her autocratic father’s decline into alcoholism. A passionate reader who drew and wrote, she was an autodidact, teaching herself Latin and Greek. At Belfast Municipal Technical Institute, which was one of the best-equipped art schools in Ireland and benefited from a charismatic headmaster, she carried off all prizes, her work assessed as ‘strong’ and ‘more like a man’s … than a girl’s’.
Her background was narrow, even if her vision was transcendent. We get to know her through her diaries, negative and self-deprecating with wild flashes of humour. Her chance came when her illustrations were seen by the painter Sarah Purser, the cofounder and director of An Túr Gloine, a cooperative stained-glass studio in Dublin, set up in 1903 with the backing of W B Yeats and the collector and writer Edward Martyn and managed by Alfred Child, a protégé of the great British Arts and Crafts glass artist Christopher Whall. Purser, who was at the heart of the Celtic Revival, was well connected and soon realised that Geddes had extraordinary talent, but also that she was prone to ill health and melancholy. Moving to Dublin in 1911, Geddes used a travel scholarship to pay for her first visit to England.
In York Geddes studied the remarkable medieval window at All Saints on North Street, based on the Middle English poem ‘Pricke of Conscience’. Each panel depicts one of the last fifteen days of the world. These subtly terrifying scenes taught Geddes how to create sequences of narrative panels of great beauty – such as those showing the six corporal works of mercy from Matthew 25, part of her great 1913 window Charity in St Ann’s Church, Dublin. In London she drew Assyrian and Egyptian heads, along with the Parthenon marbles, and studied Titian, Uccello and Fra Angelico. Visits to France completed her art education. She admired the sculptures at Chartres, while the figures of the prophets and saints in the 13th-century windows of the cathedral there were, she believed, ‘not only more impressive but more modern than anything that has been done since in the same medium’.
Geddes emerged as a medieval modernist, to use the historian Michael Saler’s useful phrase. She was not the only 20th-century artist to be inspired by medieval stained glass – Henri Matisse, Georges Rouault, Anni and Josef Albers and László Moholy-Nagy all drank from the same spring, even if they were not exclusively stained-glass artists. Geddes’s ambitious memorial window created in 1919 for St Bartholomew’s Church, Ottawa (just one of a series of extraordinary war memorial windows Geddes created at An Túr Gloine between 1919 and 1922), exemplifies her developing genius. Crowded with warrior-saints, tumbling angels and mourners welcoming a dead soldier into heaven, it is a figurative tour de force that also operates on an abstract level, through colour and lead lines.
During 1923–5 Geddes was beginning to cut loose from An Túr Gloine, living partly in Belfast with her now-widowed mother. In 1925 she fulfilled her long-held ambition of moving to London, taking a studio in Lowndes & Drury’s Glass House in Fulham the following year. Admitting herself to south London’s pioneering Maudsley Hospital, she tried to confront her depression and ‘obsessional neurosis’. This led her into the world of Freudian psychoanalysis and a friendship with Dr Edward Glover, whose unlikely researcher, proofreader and indexer she became.
Was the move to England a mistake? Her uncompromising window for All Saints’, Laleham, an undoubted masterpiece, was criticised by a philistine vicar. Against the odds, she created a convincing response to the awkward, radial lights of the rose window in the rebuilt cathedral of St Martin at Ypres. The execution of this huge project, completed in 1938, crushed Geddes, and Bowe’s account of her war years in London – which she spent dodging bombs, lonely, hard up and often hungry, her eyesight failing – makes for melancholy reading.
The money worries remained after the war. A radical life is not necessarily a glamorous one. Geddes inhabited a world of lodgings and gas meters. Relying on hand-outs from her brother and mother, she created her two last great windows, at All Hallows in Greenford in 1951–2 and at St Mildred’s Church, Lewisham, in 1953–4. Both offered hieratic, awe-inspiring images of the Madonna and Child. Childless herself, mysteriously frustrated in love and engaged in time-wasting research for her analyst, Geddes died suddenly, aged sixty-eight. She did not live to be celebrated by John Betjeman and John Piper, both of whom greatly admired her work. She received none of the recognition bestowed on the likes of Henry Moore or Barbara Hepworth, with whom her art can be usefully compared. Stained glass was the proper arena for her superb painterly and colouristic sense and for her monumental instincts. But sadly, as a medium, it almost guaranteed her shameful lack of recognition.