Margaret Rope’s East End Saints
A familiar East End scene of 1933 – children playing cricket in the street and Nipper the dog joining in – yet it is transformed by the lyrical vision of the forgotten stained glass artist Margaret Rope, who created a whole sequence of these sublime works – now dispersed – depicting both saints of legend and residents of Haggerston with an equal religious intensity.
This panel is surmounted by a portrayal of St Leonard, the sixth century French saint, outside a recognisable St Leonard’s church, Shoreditch, with a red number six London bus going past. Margaret Rope’s extraordinary work mixes the temporal and the spiritual, rendering scenes from religious iconography as literal action and transforming everyday life into revelations – describing a universe that is simultaneously magical and human.
Between 1931 and 1947, the artist known simply to her family as ‘”Tor,” designed a series of eight windows depicting “East End Everyday Saints” for St Augustine’s church off the Hackney Rd, portraying miracles enacted within a recognisable East End environment. And for many years these charismatic visionary works were a popular attraction, until St Augustine’s was closed and Margaret Rope’s windows removed in the nineteen eighties, with two transferred across the road to St Saviour’s Priory in the Queensbridge Rd and the remaining six taken out of the East End to be installed in the crypt of St Mary Magdalene, Munster Sq. Intrigued by the attractive idea of Margaret Rope’s transcendent vision of the East End, I set out to find them for myself this week.
At St Saviour’s Priory, Sister Elizabeth was eager to show me their cherished windows of St Paul and St Margaret, both glowing with luminous rich colour and crammed with intricate detail. St Paul, the patron saint of London, is depicted at the moment of his transformative vision, beneath St Paul’s Cathedral – as if it were happening not on the road to Damascus but on Ludgate Circus. The other window, portraying St Margaret, has particular meaning for the sisters at St Saviours, because they are members of the Society of St Margaret, whose predecessors first came from Sussex to Spitalfields in 1866 to tend to the victims of cholera. In Margaret Rope’s window, St Margaret resolutely faces out a dragon while Christ hands a tiny version of the red brick priory to John Mason Neale, the priest who founded the order. Both windows are satisfyingly engaging exercises in magical thinking and the warmth of the colour, especially the turquoise greens and soft pinks, delights the eye with its glimmering life.
I found the other six windows in the crypt of St Mary Magdalene near Regents Park, used as a day centre for seniors, where they are illuminated from the reverse by fluorescent tubes. The first window you see as you walk in the door is St Anne, which contains an intimate scene of a mother and her two children, complete with a teddy bear lying on the floor and a tortoiseshell cat sleeping by the range. Next comes St George, who looks like a young athlete straight out of the Repton Boxing Club, followed by St Leonard, St Michael, then St Augustine and St Joseph. All share the same affectionate quality in their observation of human detail, rendered with a confidence that sets them above mere decorative windows. These are poems in stained glass that manifest the resilient spirit of the East End which endured World War II. Another window by Margaret Rope in St Peters in the London Docks, completed in 1940, showed people celebrating Midnight Mass at Christmas in a bomb shelter.
Margaret Edith Aldrich Rope was born in 1891 into a farming family on the Suffolk coast at Leiston. Her uncle George was a Royal Academician, and she was able to study at Chelsea College of Art and Central School of Arts & Crafts, where she specialised in stained glass. Unmarried, she pursued a long and prolific working life, creating over one hundred windows in her fifty year career, taking time out to join the Women’s Land Army in World War I and to care for evacuees at a hospital in North Wales during World War II, before returning to her native Suffolk at the age of eighty-seven in 1978.
Her nickname “Tor” was short for tortoise and she signed all her works with a tortoise discreetly concealed in the design – and upon close examination, every window reveals hidden texts inscribed into the richly coloured shadows. So much thought and imagination is evident in these modest works in the magical realist style – which transcend their period as neglected yet enduring masterpieces in the underrated art of stained glass – that I recommend you make your acquaintance with the stylish work of Margaret Rope, which celebrates the miraculous quality of the everyday.
St Leonard is portrayed in a moment of revelation outside St Leonard’s Church, Shoreditch, with Arnold Circus in the background and a London bus passing in the foreground.
The lower panel of the St George window.
A domestic East End scene from the lower panel of the St Anne’s window.
This tortoise-shell cat is a detail from the panel above.
The lower panel from the St Michael window.
Mother Kate, Prioress of St Saviour’s and Father Burrows with his dog, Nipper, standing outside St Augustine’s in York St, now Yorkton St. In the right hand corner you can see the tortoise motif that Margaret Rope used to sign all her works.
Sisters of St Saviour’s Priory, portrayed in the lower panel of the St Margaret window, 1932.
Margaret Rope’s St Paul and St Margaret, now in the entrance of Saviour’s Priory, Queensbridge Rd.
Stained glass artist, Margaret Edith Aldrich Rope known as “Tor” (1891-1988)