Ireland’s rediscovered artist, described as ‘the finest stained glass artist of our time’, was a remarkable woman, writes Nicola Gordon Bowe
When Wilhelmina Margaret Geddes was born in her maternal grandfather’s tenanted farmhouse in the townland of Drumreilly, on the border of Counties Cavan and Leitrim, little did she or her family guess that on her death 68 years later she would be described in newspaper obituaries as “the finest stained glass artist of our time”. Or that, in 2010, an impact crater on Mercury would be newly named after her as one of ten “deceased artists, musicians, painters, and authors” internationally recognised as “historically significant figures for more than fifty years”.
The eldest of the four children of Eliza Jane Stafford, born in Lisburn, Co. Antrim, and William Geddis, a construction engineer originally from Tandragee, Co. Armagh who was working on the Cavan, Leitrim & Roscommon Light Railway, she moved with her family to Belfast when she was two. There she was raised and educated as a strict Methodist in a succession of houses, the largest built by her father in the comfortable south city suburbs.
For as long as she could remember, she drew – portraits of the people around her, characters from the books she never ceased to read, copies of the art she saw often just in magazines, and the imaginative and historical people she admired. And she wrote, often stories based on her vivid dreams.
She was a restless student at school until, aged 16, she enrolled at the Belfast School of Art on the advice of a family friend, the well-known Holywood, Co. Down sculptress Rosamond Praeger. There she remained for the next eight years, winning every available prize for painting, book illustration, design, printmaking and life drawing – in a well equipped school that taught her the skills she would need later on.
In 1910, the year before she left, her vividly coloured and strongly drawn illustrations to Cinderella attracted the attention of the distinguished painter Sarah Purser who invited her to join the pioneering stained glass co-operative she had set up in Dublin as part of Ireland’s Celtic Revival. This led to her first design for stained glass, entitled Geography, which she made into a prize-winning panel in Belfast before she moved down to lodgings in Dublin to take up her new career.
In 1911, she joined the small group of artists Purser had assembled at An Túr Gloine (the Tower of Glass) – all women except for the talented Michael Healy – trained by the skilled craftsman, Alfred Child. He had been recruited as teacher and workshop manager from Christopher Whall’s progressive stained glass workshop in London. She was paid £1 a week.