In the Frame for December 2012: Wilhelmina Geddes ‘The Leaves of the Tree’
Throughout the history of Western art, painters have time and again returned to the Christian Bible for solace and inspiration. The artists whose works are represented in the collections of Bethlem’s Archives and Museum form no exception to this. Yet, of all the books of the New Testament, we might think that its last - the Revelation of St John - would be the least likely to feed the imagination. We might think this…but we’d be wrong. When we read that Thomas Hennell, the artist and sometime Maudsley patient, was “reduced to tears of misery” and “threw away the Bible which had been not long before the intensest source of inspiration”, saying “How disappointing the books of Revelation and of Daniel now appeared!”,1 perhaps we are tempted to counter “Don’t start with apocalyptic!” But that is precisely what artists from Jonathan Martin to ‘ Little Flower’ have done. Whether this was good for their mental health is, of course, open to question.
This month the Archivist takes In the Frame ‘on holiday’ again to feature the work of another artist (with Maudsley connections like Hennell) who was inspired by Revelation. The Leaves of the Tree were for the Healing of the Nations is a stained-glass window constructed by the Irish artist Wilhelmina Geddes and installed into St John’s Church, Malone Road, Belfast in 1920. The title is taken word for word from Revelation chapter 22 in English translation. The Archivist saw the window on a recent trip to Northern Ireland, and cannot improve upon the description given of it by the art historian Nicola Bowe in 1984: it “positively sings in a patchwork forest of greens through which throng small meditating souls in bright pink, ruby, blue and gold, each piece of glass chosen and painted with the greatest thought and care”.2
This is a vision easily recognisable within religious iconography, one of a future paradise in which the Tree of Life quells the strife and conflict ushered in by the primordial Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. A relatively uncommon choice of subject for a stained-glass window it may be, and perhaps all the more poignant for that. It was commissioned in the immediate aftermath of World War I to express the hopes, then widely shared, of a better future; yet within a year of its installation, Ireland had been partitioned amid bitter wrangling, and four years later Geddes herself was temporarily admitted to the Maudsley Hospital in London following a breakdown in her mental health. In 1923 The Irish Times reacted to the modernism of her work by opining that “her glass is quite unlike that of most other stained glass workers; the religion which it reflects is the religion of power and fighting, not the religion of peace and restfulness”.3 But Geddes’ passion was not poured into sectarianism; she accepted commissions from Catholic and Protestant churches alike. On the evidence of the window at St John’s, and on that of her own biography, her passion was to heal and not to harm.