Dr Nicola Gordon Bowe FMGP (1948-2018)
Written by Peter Cormack (Hon FMGP)
The sudden and unexpected death of Nicola Gordon Bowe on 4 January 2018 was an incalculable loss to the world of art history, particularly in the fields of post-medieval stained glass and the arts and crafts revival of her adopted country, Ireland. An Honorary Fellow of the BSMGP (to whose members she frequently lectured over the years) and a member of the Editorial Advisory Committee of the Journal of Stained Glass, Nikki made a resplendent and lasting contribution to her chosen areas of research.
Nikki was born in Stafford and was educated at St Albans High School for Girls, followed by A-levels at the English School in Rome. Her undergraduate and graduate studies were undertaken at Trinity College, Dublin, where she studied for her doctorate (completed in 1982) under the distinguished art historian Anne Crookshank, who encouraged her interest in Ireland’s 20th-century stained glass revival. One of her earliest publications was the catalogue of an exhibition (1979) of Harry Clarke’s work that she curated at Trinity College’s Douglas Hyde Gallery. This and subsequent research in the field rapidly established her as the pre-eminent authority on Irish stained glass and, indeed, the Irish Arts & Crafts Movement as a whole. Keenly aware of the wider milieu of the Celtic Revival in literature, theatre, etc., Nikki brought to her writing and lectures her own deep cultural knowledge and experience, which was truly global in its scope. Dublin’s National College of Art and Design (the successor to the Metropolitan College of Art, where almost all the artists she studied had been taught in the 1900s) recognised her special gifts and in 1979 she was appointed to a teaching post. She later set up a prestigious MA course in design history, which attracted many talented young scholars. On her retirement from the NCAD, she was made an Associate Fellow. In later years she was also a Visiting Professor at the University of Ulster and an Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Wales. A delightfully enthusiastic and charismatic communicator, Nikki’s lectures would enthrall her audiences even though – as not infrequently happened – she took a somewhat relaxed view of any stipulated limit to her speaking time.
Having settled permanently in Dublin during her student days, Nikki collected a huge number of friends both in Ireland and abroad. In 1974 she married the renowned garden historian Patrick (Paddy) Bowe. Their daughter Venetia, now a professional actor, was born in 1991. The family shared their home in a suburb of Dublin with a number of beloved pugs and cats, who were given absolute freedom to roam over every domestic space.
In 1988, with co-authors David Caron (a former PhD student at NCAD and then Trinity College) and Michael Wynne, Nikki produced the invaluable Gazetteer of Irish Stained Glass, with its comprehensive listings of windows by Harry Clarke and the artists of An Túr Gloine (the Tower of Glass), accompanied by biographical essays and her authoritative Introduction on ‘Early Twentieth-Century Irish Stained Glass in Context’. The book was published by Irish Academic Press, who in the following year went on to publish her rather more lavishly illustrated The Life and Work of Harry Clarke, a much-expanded version of her doctoral dissertation. Even before its publication, Nikki’s text had been awarded the distinguished ‘Prix de la Confédération Internationale des Négociants en Oeuvres d’Art’ in 1984. Full of insights into Clarke’s idiosyncratic imagery and intricate craftsmanship, her book on Clarke was the first scholarly monograph in English on a post-medieval stained glass artist and had an extraordinarily significant impact on the appreciation of both Irish modern art and Arts & Crafts-inspired glass-painting. Henceforth Nikki became the de facto spokesman, although always in her impeccably and uncompromisingly English
accent, for Ireland’s visual culture of the first half of the twentieth century. As a regular recipient of research and conference grants, which enabled her to travel all over Europe and across the Atlantic, she took her quasi- ambassadorial role very seriously. Few academics can have done more to raise awareness of the cultural heritage of the nation that she had made her home.
To coincide with the 1985 Edinburgh Festival, Nikki collaborated with Dr Elizabeth Cumming on a major exhibition that juxtaposed the achievements of Arts & Crafts designers and makers in the host city and in Dublin. Some years later, an expanded version of the exhibition catalogue was published as The Arts & Crafts Movements in Dublin and Edinburgh 1885-1925 (Irish Academic Press, 1998). It was another pioneering work in which both its authors presented the fruits of their detailed research into many notable but hitherto neglected creative figures. Interest in the cross- fertilisation of visual themes and issues of national identity across Europe (and elsewhere) at the turn of the twentieth century led Nikki to investigate the phenomenon of ‘National Romanticism’, especially in Central and Eastern Europe. She made study trips to Hungary, Romania and Poland and produced a number of conference papers and articles about the 1900s handicraft revivals in these countries. In 1990, as part of the Association of Art Historians international conference held in Dublin, she organised a session on ‘Regionalism: Challenging the Canon’, which led to her editing and contributing to the volume Art and the National Dream: the Search for Vernacular Expression in Turn-of-the Century Design (Irish Academic Press, 1993). This was one of the first English-language publications to examine diverse perspectives – from Hungary to Japan and the USA – on more or less consciously nationalist themes discernible in art and architecture of the period.
Alongside Nikki’s wide-ranging interests in all sorts of artistic and cultural manifestations, stained glass always remained a field of perpetual fascination to her. From the 1980s onwards she had written and lectured about (and curated exhibitions
of) the work of Wilhelmina Geddes (1887-1955), the Ulster-born and Dublin-trained artist whom many would now regard – not least through Nikki’s efforts – as the most talented and interesting of all Irish stained glass workers. Geddes was a complex and powerful personality and, when Nikki eventually embarked on a major monograph about her, she faced a number of challenges, especially in dealing with the biographical dimension. With unfailing energy, however, she threw herself into the task of exploring Geddes’s psychiatric history and its impact on her artistic output, with the result that the beautifully written and richly illustrated Wilhelmina Geddes: Life and Work (Four Courts Press, 2015) was very widely acclaimed on its publication, being short-listed for the Berger Prize for British Art History, amongst other distinctions. Like her Harry Clarke monograph (which had been reprinted in a revised and updated edition in 2012), the Geddes book broke new ground in its detailed analysis of the artist’s working methods and its understanding of the visual, intellectual and personal sources of her powerful Expressionism. Tragically, Nikki’s next project, a study of Evie Hone and her work, was not to reach fruition in her own hands. It would surely have been yet another definitive account of one of Ireland’s most interesting modern stained glass artists. However it is fortunate that her former student Joseph McBrinn has been given her archive material and plans to complete the project.
Nicola Gordon Bowe’s scholarly legacy is a magnificent record of publications and teaching. Those who knew her, or just attended one of her lectures, will surely retain a vivid and lasting memory of a dynamic, joyful personality whose passion for her work was powerfully engaging. In the artists that she chose to study and write about, she invariably found the same deeply vocational commitment to their work as she always brought to her own prolific endeavours.