Wilhelmina Geddes: Life and Work
By Nicola Gordon Bowe
Four Courts Press, Dublin, 2015
In November 1919, a magnificent memorial window was unveiled in the east wall of the Church of St. Bartholomew (Anglican) in Ottawa. Commissioned by the Duke of Connaught-governor general of Canada from 1911 to 1916-to commemorate the 10 officers on his Canadian staff who had been killed in the First World War, it created a sensation when it was exhibited in London before being shipped to Canada. “Nowhere in modern glass,” said the American stained glass artist and writer Charles J. Connick, “is there a more striking example of a courageous adventure in the medium.”
The adventurer was a relatively unknown 32-year-old glass artist from Northern Ireland, Wilhelmina Geddes, and the window-her only work to be found in Canada-is now widely regarded as her masterpiece.
Gordon Bowe’s comprehensive new biography, lavishly illustrated with Geddes’ work, will generate new interest in the life of a woman who was described at her death as “the greatest stained glass artist of our time.”
Shy, chronically ill and lacking in confidence, Geddes might have been an unlikely candidate for such a prestigious commission. That she was chosen was a testament to her abilities and to the persistence and support of Sarah Purser, herself a well-known painter and visionary, who was determined to foster modern stained glass-making in Ireland. Purser founded a studio in Dublin (An Túr Gloine, or Tower of Glass) that was to become famous for the quality of the work it produced, and recruited Geddes, then an impoverished graduate of the Belfast School of Art. Here Geddes began working on her first commissions, including her first memorial window for a church in Fermanagh, as well as travelling with Purser on study visits to London and Paris.
The St. Bart’s window took Geddes four years to design and execute, with many delays because of requested changes and Geddes’ health. Her father had died some months before, her mother was frail, and she told Purser she’d been “badly run down for a long while…I can’t stand for long without feeling ill…” Her letters outline her rationale for her design choices as well as irreverent comments about her subject matter: “[I] meant to make the Deaders [the newly dead soldiers arriving in Paradise] stand-but they looked too like batches of German prisoners in a cinematograph.”
In its final version, the window is a dazzling triptych in reds, golds, greens and blues, depicting a slain soldier being welcomed in heaven by the Archangels Raphael and Gabriel. “Clean-shaven, ashen-faced, newly risen from the dead,” writes Gordon Bowe of the soldier, “he is distinguishable from the archangelic figures guiding him by his empty black eye sockets.” An assembly of soldier saints, champions and angels provide a kind of courtly retinue.
The window reflects Geddes’ obsessive attention to accurate detail, down to the gold crown of St. Edmund, 9th-century warrior king of the East Angles, which is “embossed with tiny wolves howling in the moonlit forest where his dismembered head was protected between the paws of a grey she-wolf until safely restored to his body and buried.”
Given her talent, why is Geddes so little known today? Her gender, her reclusiveness, her relatively low productivity-she was to fight depression and ill health all her life-and her choice of medium all contributed to it. One of her glass-making colleagues wrote that at the end of her life, she was “just as honest, just as exacting, just as pure an artist as she had been in her brilliant youth. Such integrity is rare…It is as a great person, as well as a great artist that I salute her memory.”