Suffrage Stories: The Fabian Stained Glass Panel And Its Suffrage Connections

Fabian stained glass panel, by Caroline Townsend, 1911

When I gave a keynote talk  -‘ Surrounded by Suffrage: Situating Shaw, Wells and the LSE in Suffrage Sites’ – at the joint H.G. Wells Society/Shaw Society’/ LSE Language Centre conference at LSE on 23 September 2017 the constraints of time meant that I was unable to include all that I would have liked to have said about this stained glass panel. I am, therefore, taking the opportunity my blog affords of relaying a little more of my research into this most interesting artefact.

The panel may be construed as a political allegory on the early years of the Fabian Society. Its artist was Caroline Townshend (1878-1944).

Received opinion has it that it was Bernard Shaw who designed the panel and I can find no original evidence one way or the other to back or disprove the claim. Received opinion – such as the article about the window on the LSE website – also has it that Caroline Townshend was commissioned to make it by GBS. However, I have discovered an item in the London Daily News, 8 November 1911, that explicitly states ‘The political allegory in stained glass which Miss Caroline Townshend, the well-known artist, has just completed for Mrs G.B. Shaw, conveys a good deal of humour and not a little kindly satire’.

It would hardly be surprising if it were Mrs Charlotte Shaw who had commissioned the work. The artist, Caroline Townshend, was not only a fellow Fabian but her own first cousin. Charlotte’s father, Horace Payne-Townshend, was half-brother to Caroline’s father, Chambrey Corker Townshend. Horace, as the first born, had inherited the greater part of the Townshend estate – allowing his daughters to be brought up in considerable comfort – while the family of Chambrey Townshend were very much less financially secure.

Both these fathers seem to have been rather ineffectual characters, married to very much more assertive wives. However, while Horace’s wife, Charlotte’s mother, was a frivolous termagant, Caroline’s mother, Emily Townshend, was much- admired, intellectually curious, and socially conscious. As Emily Gibson she had been one of the Girton Pioneers – one of the five first students at the college at Hitchen that later became Girton. One of her fellow Pioneers was Isabella Townshend, whose brother, Chambrey,  Emily married in 1873. She had left Hitchin the year before without completing her degree course.

My researches (see here) indicate that Isabella Townshend had left Hitchen at the same time and then set up as an interior decorator with a Mrs Hartley Brown (whom I’ve so far been unable to identify). Emily Faithfull, when discussing new trade opportunities that were opening for women, mentioned in Three Visits to America (1884) that ‘Mrs Hartley Brown and Miss Townshend, soon after entering into partnership, were appropriately employed in decorating Merton College, and devised with much success some new stuffs for the chairs and sofas for the use of Cambridge girl graduates.’ (‘Merton College’ was an early manifestation of what became Newnham.)

Another of Chambrey Townshend’s sisters, Anne, was involved from 1888, when she was its first secretary, until 1910 with the Ladies’ Residential Chambers Company (the founders of which included Agnes Garrett and Millicent Fawcett – for more on the LRC see here). She had trained as a nurse, been a matron at the Hospital for Hip Disease in Childhood  before by 1882 moving into philanthropic administration as secretary of the Metropolitan Association for Befriending Young Servants (MABYs).

These interesting women were  cousins to Charlotte Payne-Townshend, the future Mrs GBS, although  there is nothing about them in her biography by Janet Dunbar or, as far as I can discover, in any of the many biographies of Bernard Shaw.  Charlotte fervently lamented the sterility of her early life and one wonders if she knew anything of the enterprises undertaken by her cousins. If she had, one imagines she would have rather envied them.

In the 1870s Isabella and Chambrey Townshend moved in artistic socialist circles, as close friends of Walter and Lucy Crane. Chambrey was an architect of whom his wife later wrote  ‘Chambrey Townshend had little push and no business ability to back up his remarkable artistic abilities.’ He worked as an assistant for George Edmund Street but never set up his own practice. Emily eventually decided that the family could live cheaper abroad and this they did – in France and Switzerland – from 1886 until 1893.

Caroline  was born in 1878, the fourth of Emily and Chambrey’s five children. After the family’s return from Europe she was for a time a pupil at Wycombe Abbey School before, by 1901, becoming a pupil to the leading stained-glass artist, Christopher Whall.

Caroline Townshend (courtesy of LSE Archives)

Charlotte Shaw was twenty years older than Caroline Townshend and had been brought up in very much more financially secure circumstances – yet she, Caroline, and Emily came to share the same social and political philosophy. Whether or not there had been earlier contact it is certain that in the early years of the 20th century their paths most certainly did cross – all being early members of the Fabian Society. Even so, the names of Emily and Caroline Townshend do not occur in Shaw’s published letters, although the LSE archives holds a few photographs showing Caroline’s sister, Rachel, on holiday in Wales with Charlotte Shaw (see, for instance, here).

So, if the Shaws were thinking of commissioning a stained glass panel, they knew they had an artist in the family who could accomplish it. Or, could it have been the other way round? Perhaps having a stained-glass artist in the family was too good an opportunity to miss. Perhaps Charlotte Shaw thought she must put her cousin’s talent to use. Did she discuss with GBS how this might be achieved? And did he then sketch out that political allegory? There are so many mysteries surrounding the panel. What was the purpose behind the commission? Where had they intended to place it? In their London apartment at 10 Adelphi Terrace –or at their country home Ayot St Lawrence – or in the Fabian Office? Whatever the intention, the panel was still in Caroline Townshend’s possession at the time of her death in 1944.  It seems very odd that it should have been discussed in the press in 1911 – and yet wasn’t claimed by one or other of the Shaws. Was Caroline paid for it?

Caroline also retained the original design for the panel – the cartoon – which in 1954 was given by Joan Howson, her artistic and life partner (they traded as Townshend and Howson) to Wimbledon’s William Morris House in memory of Emily and Caroline Townshend.  Emily Townshend had lived in Wimbledon and, with Caroline, was a shareholder in Wimbledon Labour Halls Co-operative Society Limited – also known as William Morris House.

Information on the William Morris House website (see here) states that the Fabian Society panel was made at the William Morris Works at Merton. I think this is probably mistaken. Emily and Caroline Townshend had in 1931 given WMH two Burne-Jones windows. These had been given by Burne-Jones to Chambrey Townshend and would have been made at the William Morris Works, but Caroline Townshend’s panel was almost certainly made at the Glass House, Lettice Street, Fulham, where she had a studio from c 1910 until the 1920s.

The Glass House had been set up in 1906 by a stained glass craftswoman, Mary Lowndes, to provide facilities for other stained glass artists and had proved most successful in attracting young women to the craft. Mary Lowndes was one of the founders of the Artists’ Suffrage League but I’ve found no clear evidence that Caroline Townshend was a member. The ASL records (held in the Women’s Library@LSE) are scanty but, as Mary Lowndes’ involvement with preparations for suffrage events was at times overwhelming, Caroline Townshend must have been only too well aware of all that activity and it would seem likely that, even if she were not a formal member, she would have lent a hand on occasion. Anyway, if she wasn’t an active suffrage supporter, her mother and sister certainly were. In 1907, Emily Townshend, then aged 57, spent two weeks in Holloway after being involved in a suffragette protest and in 1909 was followed by Rachel, who spent two months in prison. Caroline was living at home during this time and could not but help be swept up in the drama. So, by the time Caroline Townshend received the Fabian commission in 1910, she was surrounded by suffrage talk and activity at home and at work.

Of the kneeling female figures that on the far right is Caroline Townshend and two of the other figures demonstrate a strong connection between Fabianism and suffrage. The figure third from the right is Mary Hankinson, who was a very active suffragette – and from 1905 until 1948 a member of the Fabian Society. A teacher of physical education, she was hired in 1907 to give instruction in Swedish drill and country dancing at the first Fabian Summer School – funded by Charlotte Shaw – and from then until 1938 she was general manager of all Fabian summer schools. She was also a member of the Women’s Freedom League, one of the militant suffrage societies, and was president of the Gymnastic Teachers’ Suffrage Society. Her brother was Unitarian chaplain to Holloway prison and was used by Christabel Pankhurst as a conduit of information to and from suffragette prisoners. The suffrage collection he amassed includes a copy of Saint Joan presented to Mary Hankinson by Shaw, who wrote in it a very Shavian inscription ‘To Mary Hankinson, the only woman I know who does not believe she was a model for Joan, but also the only woman who actually was.’

On the stained glass panel between Mary Hankinson and Charlotte Townshend is the figure of Mabel Atkinson, who was a postgraduate student at LSE, a member of the executive committee of the Fabian Society from 1909 until 1915 and chairman of the Suffrage Section of the Fabian Women’s Group when it was formed in 1911. She was involved with Mary Hankinson in the development of the Summer School and was also a donor to and speaker for the WSPU.

In passing it’s worth noting a little remarked fact – that Charlotte Shaw was one of the WSPU’s most generous benefactors: for instance in March 1908 she gave them £100 and on 21 June took part in a spectacular WSPU procession – walking with the Fabians under the Society’s banner, which was carried by Maud Pember Reeves. Shaw watched from the pavement as she passed.

You can read more here about the iconography of the Fabian stained glass panel  and of its rather idiosyncratic history between 1944 and 2006, when it finally came to rest in the care of LSE. There it has most appropriately been installed in the Shaw Library, a room that commemorates not GBS, but Charlotte Shaw, who was a most generous benefactor to the LSE.

Charlotte Shaw was a very interesting woman – who evaded the limelight. At the Shaw/Wells/LSE conference we were treated to an excerpt from ‘Mrs Shaw Herself’ – a one-woman show – with musical accompaniment- about her. I thoroughly enjoyed this and thought I must let you all know that there will be a full perfomance next Saturday (30 Sept 2017) in St Lawrence Church in Ayot St Lawrence, the village where she and GBS made their home.

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