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Next time you visit the loo at Newcastle Cathedral...

Byline: PAT HALCRO Newcastle Cathedral volunteer

VISITORS to St Nicholas' Cathedral are not usually advised to go to the toilets; the toilets are spacious and pleasant but maybe not places of inspirational beauty.

However, at the entrance to the toilets, just look up, and you will see a stained glass window that is certainly beautiful, and may well inspire.

It is the work of Caroline Townshend, stained glass artist, suffragist, politician, member of the Fabian Society ... and with North Eastern roots.

Caroline was born in London in 1878, the fourth child of five children. Her father was Chambre Corker Townshend, an architect, and her mother was Emily Gibson. The couple had married in 1873 and accounts of the family indicate that Emily was the dominant partner and parent.

The young family lived in France and Switzerland from 1886-1893, becoming language proficient in the respective countries, and experiencing a different culture to that of London.

Emily had been the first applicant to The College for Women, now Girton College Cambridge, studying here from 1869-1872.

She was a gifted author, her works including a biography of William Morris, and was involved in the Arts and Crafts movement, an early member of The Fabian Society, and a lifelong passionate advocate for the rights of women.

She was imprisoned in Holloway Prison in 1907 aged 57 years. There is no doubt that her ideas and philosophies were passed down to Caroline. The young Caroline initially had private tuition , later finishing her education at Wycombe School in London. She was subsequently accepted as a student at the Slade School of Fine Art, and also became a pupil of Christopher Whall, a celebrated stained glass artist. She assisted him in his studio, and attended his classes at The Central School of Arts and Crafts until 1903.

It appears she was a gifted pupil, and with Whall's encouragement she set up her own studio at the Glass House in Fulham, West London.

The premises were shared with other noted stained glass artists of the time, including Edward Liddell Armitage and Mary Lowndes who was also a passionate suffragette. Caroline assisted Mary in making banners for the Suffrage movement.

The period between 1903-1913 was a productive period for Caroline; she became recognised as an accomplished stained glass artist and manufacturer of glass products, accepting commissions from many parts of England and Wales and specialising in church windows. She had many commissions in the North of England. These included, in 1907, two twin light windows in St Chad's Church, Bensham, Gateshead. In 1910, four light east windows on St Cuthbert's Church, Seasc ale,Cumbria.

In 1910, repairs and restoration to windows in the Exchange Buildings, Newcastle Quayside.

In 1909, private commission by William Street, a member of The Society for Antiquarians for a window in his house at 9, Charlotte Street, North Shields.

And of course, the list includes the window in the north aisle of St Nicholas' Cathedral, Newcastle . The window is made up of four parts depicting Christ in the last days of his life, and underneath, five Northumbrian saints and the Venerable Bede.

It was described by Nicholas Pevsner, historian and architect, as "outstanding." The window was formally dedicated on October 26, 1907 to Thomas Cummings Gibson, her grandfather. He was born in Newcastle in 1800, and was a successful business man, Hostman, and elder of Trinity House.

He died in London in 1870, but his details are remembered on a very large family ledger stone in St Nicholas' Churchyard. The window was apparently commissioned by Caroline's cousin, Thomas' son.

During this period, Caroline's personal life included politics. She was a staunch supporter of the Labour Party and was their candidate for The Board of Guardians in Fulham in 1910. In 1912 she stood for election to Fulham Borough Council as Fabian and Independent Labour Party candidate.

As well as continuing to support the rights of women she associated with a circle of "free-thinking" artistic and literary friends, and played an active role within the Fabian Society. Her cousin, Charlotte had married George Bernard Shaw in 1898, and the famed author was an admirer of Caroline's work. Either Charlotte or Shaw himself commissioned a window for the Fabian Society in 1910 which depicted a political allegory of members of the Society "helping to build a new world", including HG Wells, Shaw himself, and Caroline as the last female figure on the right.

The window has had an exciting history, including being stolen from The Beatrice Webb House in 1978, being found in Phoenix, Arizona, disappearing again, finally reappearing at Sotheby's in 2005. It was bought by The Webb Memorial Trust, and is on permanent loan to The London School of Economics, which George Bernard Shaw cofounded.

In 1915, Caroline met Joan Howson, a student of The Liverpool School of Art, who became her apprentice and life partner, and in 1920 the couple set up their own business as Townshend and Howson, based in Putney. Their joint output was prolific, including commissions from as far afield as Rockhampton, Queensland.

The couple finally settled in Wales and Caroline died at their home in Pwllheli, in 1944, aged 66 years. Joan continued the business in their joint names for several years.

Caroline's story is full of beauty and is indeed inspirational.

So, next time in St Nicholas' Cathedral, just before the visit to the netty ... look up!

It is the work of Caroline Townshend, stained glass artist, suffragist, politician, and member of the Fabian Society


Detail of the Caroline Townshend window, Newcastle Cathedral

the Caroline Townshend window, Newcastle Cathedral

Detail of the Caroline Townshend window, Newcastle Cathedral

St Nicholas Cathedral silhouetted against the morning sky in Newcastle City Centre
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Publication:The Journal (Newcastle, England)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Feb 27, 2019
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