The jewelled colours of St Elizabeth of Hungary sparkle in the late afternoon sunlight. Her flaming red hair and the sight of the Madonna flanked by two women in the stained glass window would have been a dramatic sight for the Sturminster Newton parishioners in 1921.
A century later, elements of the story behind this rare Art Deco memorial window resonate with the current pandemic and the sacrifice made by people across the world.
The Spencer-Smith family lived in Sturminster Newton. Drummond Cospatric Spencer-Smith was an officer in the Royal Artillery, posted to New Zealand as Aide De Camp to the Governor-General. It was in New Zealand that he met Roma Hope, a beautiful red-headed girl from Timaru on South Island. They became engaged, married in London in 1915 and moved to Sturminster Newton.
During the First World War, Roma worked as a nurse at St Thomas Hospital in London. Tragically, she died on 12 November 1918 during the flu pandemic, aged 28, and the day after the armistice.
The couple had been married just three years, of which Drummond spent most of the time serving in World War One. Roma left an eleven-month-old son.
A devastated Sir Drummond Spencer-Smith commissioned a memorial stained glass window for Sturminster Newton.
Harry Clarke was an award-winning stained glass artist and book illustrator from Ireland and a strict catholic. He had studied in Chartres, and the rich colours used in his work are a result of the influence the cathedral windows had on him. His work was considered bizarre by many but was strongly influenced by the Arts and Crafts movement.
We don’t know why Harry Clarke accepted the commission for Sir Drummond Spencer Smith.
Was it a shared sense of compassion for the prolific global loss in the 1918 Flu Pandemic?
Or, was he an admirer of the suffragette and first woman stained glass artist, Mary Lowndes from Sturminster Newton, whose work also features in St Mary’s Church?
Clarke had rented a studio from the Lowndes & Drury’s workshop in Chelsea, so it is highly likely the two artists were acquainted.
Harry Clarke used an art deco design for the window which featured three female saints of equal height. It was unusual as the Madonna is usually alone, or placed above other characters.
Harry worked on the glass himself and completed it in May 1921, signing the panel. Apart from being a masterpiece, the more you look at the window, the more there is to see.
The Madonna and child in the central panel represent the Virgin Mary and the memorial to Roma Spencer Smith. The baby is a portrait of Roma’s child. The red-haired woman in Art Deco clothing on the left is Saint Elizabeth of Hungary who is the patron saint of nurses and represents Roma’s profession.
The portrait in the glass was taken from one of Roma herself. On the right is Saint Barbara, the patron saint of artillerymen, representative of Drummond Spencer-Smith. Saint Barbara is based on a portrait of Harry Clarke’s wife. Clarke signed the window in the bottom right-hand corner.
This window in St Mary’s is the only window Harry Clarke made for an Anglican church.
It is the detail that makes this window so compelling and poignant. The Fortuny style robes and Art Deco shoes, the vibrant rich colours reflecting the light, and the Celtic chevrons on Madonna’s robe. The scene below the central figure is of shepherds watching their flocks but the location is on Purbeck.
When Harry Clarke finished it he wrote to a friend, Thomas Bodkin, saying:
“It’s good I think.”
It’s more than just good.
It is a masterpiece that is all the more poignant in its centenary year as we live through the impact of the global pandemic.
St Mary’s Church, Sturminster Newton has limited visiting due to COVID restrictions. The website gives details of opening.