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Margaret Rope’s East End Saints

January 8, 2022
by the gentle author

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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 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. For many years these 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.

At St Saviour’s Priory, Sister Elizabeth was eager to show me their cherished windows of St Paul and St Margaret, both glowing with lustrous 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 in 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 engaging exercises in magical thinking and the warmth of the colours, especially 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, now used as a seniors’ day centre, 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 that sets them above mere decorative windows. These are poems in stained glass manifesting 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 parishioners 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 woven into the design. Upon close examination, every window reveals hidden texts inscribed in the richly coloured shadows. So much thought and imagination is evident in these modest works executed in the magical realist style. They transcend their period as neglected yet enduring masterpieces of stained glass and I recommend you make your own acquaintance with the stylish work of Margaret Rope, celebrating 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)

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10 Responses leave one →
  1. Peter Hart permalink
    January 8, 2022

    Absolutely beautiful stained glass work. Thank you GA.

  2. Marcia Howard permalink
    January 8, 2022

    I’m always mesmerised by old stained glass windows, and can stand for ages just gazing at their details. I’ve not always been so enamoured with more modern ones, but these by Margaret Rope are fabulous. Thank you for introducing me to her work.

  3. Sue Redmond permalink
    January 8, 2022

    I have a stained glass panel that I bought on portobello road years ago, depicting a lady ironing, with a baby in front of her, clothes on a wash line behind her and two angels looking at the baby. Its been a complete mystery to me! my interpretation of it is that its the Virgin Mary ironing! which was kind of odd….. but this article has sort of put it in context for me! It is so like Margarets work, is there anyway I could find out if it is! Thank you!

  4. January 8, 2022

    Truely incredible what the artist Margaret Rope has created. Putting everyday scenes (a teddy bear!) in stained glass windows is something very special and not very usual. A wonderful story!

    Love & Peace
    ACHIM

  5. Sigrid permalink
    January 8, 2022

    Love her work, esp such details as the advertising panel for pears soap and the London bus. This places those great works of art so well into the time of their creation. Like one of the stained glass windows at Cologne cathedral , which has a VW Beetle on it. ( from the 1960‘s)

  6. Linda Granfield permalink
    January 8, 2022

    These are absolutely wonderful paintings in glass. I particularly like the photograph of Margaret working. Her balance on the bar and the intensity on her face lure us into a very private moment. (Love the smock and her slicked-back hair, too.)
    Thanks for this display of colour on this wintery morn.

  7. January 8, 2022

    “Neglected yet enduring” — This phrase describes many of the wonders that you have brought to our attention over the years. And your radar is always spot-on — There are legions of people who will take such enjoyment in peering at the details of these wonderfully-descriptive panels and be uplifted by the work of this insightful artist. I loved spotting the heartfelt motifs — the passing bus, the volatile sky above a smoking chimney, the boy and girl scampering away from us, a patch of patterned wallpaper, and the soap advertisement; among others.
    Most appreciated!

  8. Pence permalink
    January 8, 2022

    Those windows are beautiful. Thank you for sharing them with those of us who are to far away to see them in person.
    What a gifted woman

  9. Cherub permalink
    January 9, 2022

    These windows are absolutely stunning to look at, the detail is incredible.

  10. Sue P permalink
    January 10, 2022

    Love stain glass and the selection pictured are jems. Always amazed at the extensive rich collection to be seen in London.

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