Monday, 11 January 2016

A Touch of the Irish in Karori

As its name says, this blog is about New Zealand glass, mostly as a form of discipline to keep my enthusiasm in check. But occasionally, as you may have noticed, I stray a little, usually when there is a New Zealand connection. I also deal mostly with glass that is blown or cast. But this entry is about flat glass, architectural glass, stained glass, and although these windows are in New Zealand, they sit very firmly in the tradition of Irish glass. The New Zealand connection is both the location of the windows, in the Karori Crematorium and Chapel, Wellington, and a link to contemporary New Zealand maker of stained glass windows, Kathy Shaw-Urlich.
Karori Crematorium and Chapel, Wellington
The Crematorium and Chapel was built in 1909, as the doorway proclaims, and is a Category I Listed heritage place. It was the first crematorium built in New Zealand, but its main interest for us is in the six stained glass windows in the interior. These were commissioned between 1914 and 1939 from the Irish glass studio An Tur Gloine. The Heritage New Zealand listing says these windows: 
are considered to be the most important set of twentieth century imported windows of their kind in New Zealand. They are also the most significant group of windows produced by the Dublin glass-making studio An Tur Gloine which exist outside Eire and Northern Ireland.

New Zealand's acknowledged specialist in stained glass, Dr Fiona Ciaran, has said that windows from An Tur Gloine are recognised as being among the greatest achievements in glass of the twentieth century. 

The first pair of windows were designed and made in 1914 by Wilhelmina Geddes (1887–1955), who was a vital figure in the Irish Arts and Crafts movement and the 20th-century British stained glass revival. She was 'a medieval-modernist painter of rare intellect, skill and aesthetic integrity'. On her death she was described as ‘the greatest stained glass artist of our time’ but since then she has been largely forgotten, until a crater on Mercury was named in her honour in 2010. Now a magnificent 500 page biography and catalogue has been published. Wilhelmina Geddes: Life and work is by Nicola Gordon Bowe, an Associate Fellow of the Irish National College of Art and Design, who has written extensively on the Irish Arts and Crafts Movement and the work of An Tur Gloine. A review in the Irish Times in November 2015 said that Bowe's 'magisterial biography' tells a 'fascinating tale, shot through, as it should be, by glorious colour reproductions of the artist's work, illuminating the narrative as her windows did churches.'  The reviewer notes that by the times Geddes died in 1955, she was already slipping into obscurity, and eventually most of Ireland had completely forgotten her. But thanks to this new biography, he concludes, 'Ireland has reclaimed a long-lost daughter'. The Times Higher Education reviewer said  'Happily, Nicola Gordon Bowe’s detailed study has rescued this significant Irish artist from relative obscurity. This book is more than an introduction to the artist’s life and work: it combines the author’s art-historical insight with a biographical narrative enlivened by memorable stories drawn from Geddes’ personal diaries and correspondence, which, on more than one occasion, had me laughing out loud.'

At Karori, we New Zealanders are fortunate to be able to see two wonderful examples of Wilhelmina Geddes' work. 

Five of the Karori windows commemorate members of the extended family of William Ferguson, engineer and secretary-treasurer of the Wellington Harbour Board, and an early proponent of a crematorium for Wellington.  Wilhelmina Geddes' windows in Karori are Faith, in memory of Jane Ann Moorhouse, William Ferguson's mother-in law, who had died in 1901, and Hope, in memory of his daughter Louisa Sefton Ferguson, who had died in 1910 as a child of only eight years old.

Faith depicts a sword-bearing Angel of Faith, leading a woman safely through a forest inhabited by wild beasts and a raven, and a red-haired temptress. At the top are vignettes of Moses in the bulrushes, and Moses as overseer in Egypt.


Hope has a much gentler Angel of Hope, waiting to greet a child in a boat, who is 'crossing over', surrounded by doves - the young Louisa, presumably. The clear pane by the child's head results from damage that had been done before the conservation of the window in 1984. It is thought that a lamp or candle was in the angel's hand as a beacon of hope, and the possibility remains of restoring that element to the image. The 1984 conservation returned the windows to sound condition, though sadly in the subsequent 30 years some of the windows have bowed, there's a recent break in one, and a good clean would not go amiss.

By 1914, William Ferguson and his wife had suffered the loss of a mother and a daughter, and this presumably was what turned their thoughts to commemorative windows. Ferguson had studied at Trinity College, Dublin, and it is thought that he had met there one of the founders of An Tur Gloine, Sarah Purser. It was Purser who invited Wilhelmina Geddes to join the group in 1912, and so the Ferguson commission completed the circle. There is also a personal connection for me, since William Ferguson's nephew was the noted Auckland eye surgeon and community benefactor the late Lindo Ferguson, who was such a staunch supporter of Auckland Museum when I was there, and subsequently a good friend in Northland. 

But the New Zealand connection in glass is, as I mentioned, through Kathy Shaw-Urlich, whose worked I have blogged about previously (see for example,

Although she was born in England, Kathy has whakapapa connections to Ngāti Hau at Whakapara and Te Uri o Te Aho o Ngāpuhi, and now lives and practises in northern Te Tai Tokerau.  Kathy has told me that Geddes has been her stained glass hero since she first saw Geddes' work in the William Morris Museum in Walthamstow, an exhibition entitled Stained Glass Women Artists of the Arts & Crafts Movement in 1986. Kathy initially trained in architectural stained glass at Swansea in Wales, where she did an intensive study of Wilhelmina Geddes' work, having visited most of her windows in Britain and Ireland as well as the Karori windows beforehand. In 1989 Kathy wrote a dissertation on Geddes, focusing on the window in All Saints Church at Laleham in Surrey. Kathy was delighted to see that Nicola Gordon Bowe has chosen a detail from that window for the book cover.


I was going to restrict myself here to Wilhelmina Geddes' windows at Karori, but there are three more Ferguson family windows by another An Tur Gloine artist, Michael Healy, and it seems sensible to complete the series.

Charity was made in 1931, and commemorates William Harold Sefton Moorhouse, William Ferguson's brother-in-law, who died in 1929.

Love, also made in 1931, commemorates William Ferguson's wife, Mary who had died the previous year.

Finally, there is Wisdom, made in 1937 to commemorate William Ferguson himself. It is one of the last windows Healy made, and the only one of the Karori series to be signed by the artist, with the studio name as well. There is a recent break in a lower right green pane.