by Nichola Gordon Bowe
Published by Four Courts Press Dublin €45/ £36 www.fourcourtspress.ie
If you’ve ever been fascinated with the intricate work of the stained glass artist, Wilhelmina Geddes is for you. Although born in Co. Leitrim her parents brought her home to their native Belfast when she was still a baby. She studied at Methody, the Belfast School of Art and in Dublin where she joined An Tur Gloine stained glass studio. In 1925 she moved to a studio at the Glass House in Fulham London. She was eccentric and controversial, she shunned the Victorian attitudes in art and instead depicted men with close shaven crew cuts, strong faces and stern looks. Her women were equally defined, some pretty some severe.
Geddes was famous during the Irish Arts and Crafts movement, amongst other talents she was a book illustrator and designed stamps and she worked on a grand scale. When she died in 1955 at the age of 68, she was called the greatest stained glass artist of our time and this book puts her in her proper place and will introduce her to a wider audience.
After 30 years of research, Gordon Bowe’s book traces her life from early days in Belfast, her development as an artist and the intricate work that made her a much sought after artist. The book not only talks of individual windows, like the huge rose window in the Cathedral of St. Martin at Ypres in Belgium and the vast and famous Ottawa Window in Canada but also of the research and background to her work in churches and buildings all around the world and there are fine examples in Dublin and Northern Ireland, Church House Fisherwick Place and in St. John’s Malone in Belfast to name but two.
Her mentors included the Duke of Connaught who commissioned her masterpiece the famous Ottawa Window in St. Bartholomew’s Church, Ottawa, Canada.
The life and times of Wilhelmina make fascinating reading. She strikes me as a rather lonely woman who stayed most of her life in Belfast to look after her mother, she herself suffered ill health and spent six months under medication when she had a nervous breakdown; she never seemed to have much money although when in London she liked to take tea in Harrods or Harvey Nichols. A complex character, she was highly intelligent, determined and a perfectionist, Her research was meticulous, she painted and re-painted, cut and re-cut, fired and re-fired the glass until she got the perfect result. She worked through air raids and ill health but sadly, when only 68, one warm August day, she collapsed in a London Street and passed away in St. Pancras Hospital.
She was brought back home for burial and lies beside her mother and her sister in a grave with a simple stone inscribed Geddes. Visitors to Carnmoney Cemetery in Newtownabbey are given no hint of the intense and brilliance woman lying in this little plot.
Review by Anne Hailes