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Belfast artist who created some of the city's most beautiful stained glass windows recognised in new book

The life and work of Wilhelmina Geddes, who battled depression and died alone in London, crippled by debt, is finally being recognised in a magnificent new book. Its author Nicola Gordon Bowe recalls a fascinating woman.

Published 18/11/2015

Troubled talent: Wilhelmina Geddes at work
Troubled talent: Wilhelmina Geddes at work
Wilhelmina Geddes, c.1933
A portrait of the artist
Frontispiece for book: Self-portrait of Geddes
Examples of her acclaimed designs
Examples of her acclaimed designs
Examples of her acclaimed designs
Examples of her acclaimed designs
Examples of her acclaimed designs
Examples of her acclaimed designs
Examples of her acclaimed designs

When Wilhelmina Geddes died at the age of 68 in London, in 1955, obituaries acclaimed her as "an outstanding artist" with "a genius for design and colour", whose "strikingly individual and literally inimitable painting technique" combined art and craft in the highest degree.

One homage reckoned that "her noble figure of Moses" in Belfast's Rosemary Street Presbyterian Church, destroyed in the Second World War German air-raid on Belfast in 1941, was so fine it could have stood beside the great medieval Chartres Cathedral figures.

In August 1955, the Belfast Telegraph joined the Northern Whig and the Belfast News Letter in lamenting the passing of "a distinguished Belfast stained glass artist" whose "strong and vivid execution caused her work to be acclaimed by art critics in many countries".

In 1922, three years before Geddes left her home in Belfast to settle for good in London, Thomas McGreevy, future director of the National Gallery of Ireland, considered her one of Ireland's outstanding "women artists of account - every intelligent person interested in the arts knows their work". Citing Sarah Purser, Grace Henry, Margaret Clarke, Beatrice Elvery and Mary Swanzy, he singled out Geddes as "producing the finest, the most sincerely, passionately religious stained glass of our time". But because she chose to paint primarily on glass mainly destined for churches and private collections, rather than on exhibitable canvas like her better-known friend Swanzy and pupil Evie Hone, her art has not received the attention it deserves.

Although Geddes was born in Leitrim, where her father was working as a site engineer with the Cavan, Leitrim and Roscommon Railway Company, her parents moved to Belfast (where they'd been married) when she was two. There, she and her three younger siblings were raised as strict Methodists in a succession of houses between the Lisburn and Malone Roads as her father's successful building business grew.

Even after she had left her family home and moved permanently to London, she considered herself "for all practical purposes … a Belfast woman".

Encouraged by her mother and family friend, the distinguished Holywood, Co Down, sculptor Rosamond Praeger, young Geddes drew constantly, wrote and read voraciously from an early age, habits she never lost. A restless student, her interest in art and book illustration led to her early entry, aged 16, to the restructured Belfast Municipal Technical Institute, where she excelled over the next eight years. There, she built up her impressive graphic, portrait and anatomical drawing skills - in watercolour, pen-and-ink, charcoal and wood and linocuts - and was justifiably mystified when her fellow Ulsterwoman, the painter Sarah Cecilia Harrison, declared these "too modern".

Although elected to the Belfast Art Society when she was 20, her articulate, observant and vividly romantic personal diaries reveal her longing for adventure and her determination to move to London to live and work, despite being physically hampered by curvature of the spine and eye problems. Her disenchantment with Methodism and interest in suffragism and Ancient Greek sculpture, language and literature encouraged her to attend Classical Society meetings at Queen's University and to draw illustrations from Homer.

Her big break came in 1910 when she sent her striking illustration of Cinderella. When Praeger and Elvery drew the portraitist Sarah Purser's attention to this spirited essay in line and colour, Purser bought it and invited the shy but determined 24-year-old student to join the thriving Dublin stained glass co-operative, An Tur Gloine, she had founded in 1903 to combat foreign trade imports.

Thus, in her final year at the Belfast School of Art, Geddes designed her first stained glass panel portraying Sir Walter Raleigh, prize-winning if conventional. Although voted "the student of greatest promise" that year, she left the security of home for digs in Dublin. There, she exhibited at the Gaelic League's annual Oireachtas show, started converting her illustrations into stained glass, enrolled in William Orpen's 1911 summer life-drawing class at the Dublin School of Art, and began work among the small group of Irish artists recruited by Purser for An Túr.

Geddes took to this demanding art form instinctively, instructed by AE Child, pupil of Christopher Whall, doyen of the English Arts and Crafts stained glass revival and author of the influential Stained Glass Work (1905). A Belfast travelling scholarship to see York's medieval stained glass and, in London, the British Museum's sculptural collections, the V&A, and the National Gallery, proved formative.

The stained glass triptych she made on her return, Scenes from the Life of Colman MacDuagh of Galway (coll. Hugh Lane Gallery, Dublin) displays an impressively original conceptual and technical grasp of her new chosen medium, and her flickering brushstrokes and leadlines a uniquely expressionist approach to a Celtic Revivalist subject.

In 1914, her panels represented Ireland in Brussels and in Paris, where Geddes saw it on her second of two visits with Purser to study medieval cathedrals, shortly before the outbreak of war. Her earliest full-scale windows, completed in 1912 and both in Co Fermanagh, reflected her interest in Whall's teaching and local antiquarian sculpture whereas her more assured Faith, Hope and Charity for Townsend Street Presbyterian Church, Belfast, and Charity with Acts of Mercy for St Ann's Church, Dawson Street, Dublin, the following year incorporate her portraitist skills (particularly of her sister Florence) with beguiling, carefully researched narrative scenes, fluidly leaded and painted using glorious colours.

Windows followed in Lancashire, New Zealand and Dublin, along with graphic illustrations, but in 1915 her never-strong health collapsed before she embarked on her 4-light Parables window for Belfast's Presbyterian Assembly Hall, a subtly chromatic homage to 13th century figural medieval glass and sculpture. Recovering from pleurisy at home in Belfast, she designed (and Florence made) fabric toys for Praeger's Irishwomen's Suffragette Federation and experimented with stencil portraits of her other sister, Ethel, and family cat, until able to go to Dublin. When erected, her Belfast window was considered "amongst the most original and vigorous of modern stained glass figure works anywhere".

She lingered with her family in Belfast, worried about her mother after her irascible father's death in 1916. There, she designed modernist banners embroidered by Ethel and corresponded with Purser, who was trying to lure her to Dublin with An Tur's most prestigious war memorial, from HRH the Duke of Connaught, former Governor-General of Canada.

Geddes' beautiful, ambitiously complex Ottawa window represents a slain warrior being greeted by military saintly heroes in heaven. Like its successors in Dublin and in St John's, Malone Road, Belfast, it incorporates consummately painted figurative images from legend and the Bible to personify the tragedy of loss. Unveiled by the Prince of Wales in 1919, it was internationally acclaimed as "one of the artistic triumphs of this century" - "nowhere in modern glass is there a more striking example of a courageous adventure in the medium".

In 1921, Geddes' powerful linocut for the 1921 Arts & Crafts Society of Ireland catalogue cover heralded her versatile range of exhibits and the last two psychologically penetrating stained glass commissions she made in Ireland: for Wallsend-on-Tyne and Inver, near Larne, Co Antrim. Critics admired her "gift for the simple rendering of essential action which seems to have come straight from the Middle Ages", as she moved from "half tones to pure and primitive colour".

In their portrayal of stoic grief, these large windows reflected the emotional conflict and violent instability of the Civil War at that time raging throughout Ireland, and Geddes' quandary about how she could leave Ireland for London now her reputation was firmly established.

In 1923-5, she retreated, exhausted, to Belfast, too depressed to execute her St Brendan window for the 1924 British Empire Basilica at Wembley or other commissions. She received (inadequate) psychiatric help locally, drew pensive frontispieces and gouged out fiercely compassionate linocut prints for The Dublin Magazine.

Although hailed as "the talented young Irish artist" who "has every promise of a brilliant future" at her shared exhibition with Praeger at Belfast's Magee Gallery in Donegall Square, like so many of her contemporaries, her lack of sales left her despondent. She withdrew from An Tur and, confused by her feelings for her brilliant but similarly emotionally unstable friend, Hugh Meredith, Professor of Economics at Queen's, and her own serious neuroses, on his advice she left for London.

On her 38th birthday, she was admitted to London's progressive Maudsley Hospital, armed with her worldly possessions and her first independent English commission from a colleague of Meredith's at Queen's. This helped her therapy over six months intensive treatment and provided an introductory basis for renting a studio at the Fulham Glass House.

There, she worked for the next 30 years amidst congenial artistic colleagues, living alone in a succession of bedsits. She was one of the "war surplus" generation of women who never married, was fiercely independent but deeply vulnerable. Her commitment to psychotherapy was lifelong, for herself and others. Painstakingly, she created a succession of monumental masterpieces in England, Belgium (her King of the Belgians memorial at Ypres) and Wales even through the Second World War when her flat and studio were bombed.

Further windows for Ulster included her destroyed Rosemary Street windows, two others now inappropriately displayed in Church House, a sequel for her window at Inver, and her miniature Fate of the Children of Lir and Rhoda and Peter panels made for the Ulster Museum, in storage since 1969.

She remained close to her family, despite her increasing financial demands from them as her deteriorating health made work almost impossible, but she never returned home until her burial. She collapsed in the street six weeks after her mother's death in July 1955 and died shortly afterwards. She is buried in Carnmoney Cemetery, Ballyclare, Co Antrim with her mother and sister Ethel.

Wilhelmina Geddes: Life and Work by Nicola Gordon Bowe is published by Four Courts Press, £40

Belfast Telegraph

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