Sr Joyce Mary

Biography: Sr Joyce Mary (1892-1962)

Sr Joyce Mary (1892-1962)

Sr Joyce Mary (Joyce Meredith) was born in Wavertree, Liverpool in August 1892, the only daughter of William Russell Meredith and his wife Helen (née Watt). The Watts were a wealthy mercantile family – her grandfather was a Liverpool ship-owner – who had married into Edinburgh’s urban, professional elite. The judge and literary critic Francis, Lord Jeffrey (1773-1850) was a great-great uncle.

Her father, an impecunious shipping clerk, came from a more modest background of country parsons and schoolmasters. He died when Joyce was just three years old. At that time the family were living with the Watts’ at their large house in Victoria Park. Here both she and her brother Philip came under the care of their Aunt Jeannie, one of a quartet of unmarried, very accomplished aunts. Before her own untimely death in 1906 their sister, Joyce’s mother, seems to have spent much of her widowhood battling with consumption in Swiss sanatoria. Meanwhile the family experienced the trauma of having their father placed in the care of an asylum, suffering from chronic mental ill-health.

Sometime in the years before the First World War their Aunt Jeannie took up residence at Kingsmuir House in Peebles (originally bought by Joyce’s maternal great-grandmother), later re-locating to other properties in the town. Until her Aunt Jeannie’s death in 1956, they – together with her brother Philip and his family – were a source of continual support and point of stability.

Education

Joyce was educated at small boarding schools in Southport and Llandullas before a year spent at a finishing school in Lausanne. In September 1911 she enrolled at the Liverpool School of Art, where she came to specialize in the ecclesiastical arts of illumination and stained glass. Two of her maternal aunts had attended university, and we can assume that at least in terms of women’s education and work she grew up in a progressive atmosphere and received encouragement in pursuing her subject. It is not known what financial support she received at this time, or indeed later, but there must have been a need to economize: throughout her life family and community would provide her with the means of pursuing her art. As a student in Liverpool she lived initially with her uncle, then vicar of St Dunstan’s in Edge Hill. As her entry in the School register suggests, when he took up the rectorship of Peebles in 1913 it may have made it necessary for her in the following year to seek an ‘evening scholarship’.

Entry in the Liverpool School of Art student register

Illustrated Manuscript

Student work: An illuminated Magnificat (c.1914)

She was still a student when she received her first commission for stained-glass from her former school, Bryn Dulas; most of her future work would come to her in this way, through personal connections. Designed as a memorial to its most distinguished alumna, the chemist Muriel Jones, who was killed with her husband in a climbing accident on Mont Blanc, it was unveiled in the parish church at Llanddulas in the summer of 1914. Representing the Angel of Meekness from the seventeenth canto of Dante’s Purgatorio, it cleverly combines allusions to Italy, where the couple were killed and buried; their passion for mountaineering, and the ascent to the beatific vision. As the Church Times put it, in words that were probably her own:

‘The treatment is symbolic: the flaming wings suggest the burning of the Divine Love; the green folds of the vesture depict the pure robes of Nature; in the poise of the angel is the kiss of earth and heaven’ [Church Times, 24 July 1914]

In the journalist’s own judgement ‘it [gave] great promise of the artist’s future work’. The following year her stained-glass coursework received a Commendation in the annual National Competition for Schools of Art.

After graduating from Liverpool in 1915 she moved to Wimbledon to stay with a maternal cousin, a teacher at the nearby King’s College. From here – and possibly as a boarder of the more convenient All Saints Sisters – she completed a short, two-term stint studying figure drawing at the Slade. Hoping to get a copy of her Llanddulas window for a showpiece article about the Liverpool School in the The Studio, the influential art magazine, her former Principal wrote to her in December, adding: ‘I hope you are enjoying being a “Slader” and working real hard’. One can only speculate as to why her she spent so short a time as a “Slader” – whether from choice or necessity – but it has been proposed on strong stylistic grounds that Joyce must also have spent some of this time in London as a student of Christopher Whall (1849-1924) or one of his protégés. Whall was a pre-eminent stained-glass artist, and a leading figure in the Arts and Crafts movement. At this time he ran a studio-workshop in Hammersmith, and although there is as yet no direct evidence to confirm it, it is here that Joyce is thought to have studied her craft.

Interlude

This may have continued throughout the years 1916-1917, when we know nothing about her whereabouts. In what remains of a tatty notebook found in the Mucknell archives there is a curriculum vitae for Joyce, invaluable but laconic, which she must have dictated sometime in the 1940s. All we know from this period is that she worked on at least two stained-glass commissions. One of these was almost certainly the war memorial window for pupils of Elleray Park School in the Lady Chapel of All Saints, New Brighton in Merseyside. Dedicated in September 1917 it consists of three panels. In the centre is Christ, his hand raised in benediction, and in the chivalric imagery typical of memorials at this time, he is flanked by two young knights.

Joyce's makers mark

Joyce’s makers mark on the Park Elleray memorial

During the War her brother Philip gave distinguished service as an officer, and a cache of his letters from this period have survived. They give a few, tantalising glimpses into some of the difficulties Joyce was having at this time. On 21 October 1916 he wrote to her from Egypt:

‘I ought to have written to you some time ago to answer a letter I got from you when you had just moved into your new house. You didn’t seem too happy about your window as you told me confidentially but I hope that “the Muses have now been kind to you”, and it is going smoothly.’

And on 25 November in the same year her paternal aunt, whose pupil she had been at Southport, wrote to Philip:

‘I had a nice long letter from Joyce the other day. She is working very hard at her window, but it is a very long piece of work for a girl. I wish she were attached to one of our leading firms for Stained Church Windows such as Heaton, Batty and Bell – as then she could design windows for them & when approved, draw the full sized cartoon – and then other workers complete them. Her talent is decidedly the creative power of design! The manual part is too fatiguing for her.’

In time, whether or not because she was a ‘girl’ and it was too tiring, her creative process moved in this direction. In correspondence I’ve had with expert Peter Cormack he explained that like most of her contemporaries in the ‘Whall school’, she would have selected and painted all her own glass and worked with craftsmen from the firm Lowndes & Drury – whose papers contain references to Joyce’s commissions – on the glazing and final assembly of the windows.

The Religious Life: Truro, Oxford and elsewhere…

In July 1918 Joyce was clothed as a novice in the Community of the Epiphany, Truro. For someone whose medium was glass, their motto – Deus est lux – was particularly apposite. Sadly though we have no insight into what her thoughts were leading up to this decision. There was certainty a practicing faith on both sides of her family, and there are hints that during her time with SSMV her views tended towards Anglo-Catholicism. Family tradition maintains that in later life she converted to Roman Catholicism.

At least some of her novitiate was spent working at the community’s home for “wayward” girls and at St. Saviour’s Hospital in London, which they had recently acquired from the All Saints Sisters. But she was obviously given permission or encouragement to concentrate on her art, as this extract from a letter sent from Philip to their Aunt Jeannie in September 1918 indicates:

‘Her work seems to be entirely painting now, which is a great improvement, as I don’t suppose she is much use at rough work anyway, & she can certainly paint’.

Later that year he remarked:

‘I hope Joyce will be able to come up to Peebles while I am on leave. I don’t want to have to go down to Cornwall when I shall only have a fortnight. Her letters are fearfully uninteresting nowadays compared to what they used to be before she “got her to a nunnery”

The monotony of religious life or the custom of passing unsealed letters through the hands of the Mother Superior may have played a part in this.

In May 1922 she left the community without taking vows. The archives for the Epiphany sisters are held at Cornwall Record Office and they may reveal more about her time there, and the reasons for her leaving. But by September of that year she was in Oxford and working as a guest mistress for students staying at the Convent of St Thomas the Martyr, so she was not entirely through with religious life. Until she settled at Burnham in 1924 her time seems to have been split between Oxford, London – where she worked with the Wantage sisters at their “penitentiary” in St James, Fulham – and France. Notes from her curriculum vitae for these years simply say ‘did more art work’ and ‘some windows’. From a scribbled catalogue of her work, which includes an altar piece for HM Prison Birmingham and unspecified ‘figures for banners’, we know that she did on occasion more than stained-glass. Mucknell also has some occasional cards which she made for various events in the life of the community.

Burnham

In 1924 she was dividing her time between lodgings in London, where she must have had access to a studio, and the House of Prayer at Burnham in Buckinghamshire. This was home to the Servants of Christ, an enclosed, contemplative community with a Cistercian ethos. She returned here in earnest in 1925 and remained there until 1940. In 1927 she became an Oblate Novice, was Professed in 1929, took Life Vows in 1932 and in 1937 a Life Vow of Chastity. It is here that she came to know the monks of Nashdom, which may have had a significant role to play in the life of SSMV.

Joyce Meredith and family

Joyce (centre) with her sister-in-law, nephew and (?) a nanny (c.1930s) somewhere in Scotland. Her niece Jane remembers her as a great lover of nature, perhaps disconcertingly so at times: ‘On day they were both exhausted and they came upon a lovely lake, whereupon Joyce suggested they go swimming. Jane was concerned they didn’t have their bathing costumes, but Joyce said ‘That’s OK!’

Her entry in the 1939 Register, taken just before the outbreak of War, implies that she was running the community’s guest house. This was suitable work for a resident Oblate, a position which also allowed her the latitude to work on her art. Perhaps not surprisingly, most of her windows date from this period of relatively prolonged stability. These include St Augustine, Westbury (1924), St Edward’s Orphanage (1925-1927), St Peters, Peebles (1928; 1930), Waterlooville (1930) and St Egwad, Llanegwad (1930). We also know that she designed windows for Burnham itself. There is a record of a window for Burnham Beeches (1926), but she may also have carried out work in the Comper chapel built in 1935.

The Third Order Regular CSMV

Although there is no evidence that she sought release from her vows, by 1940 she was involved in ‘district work’ (presumably nursing) in Cheltenham and would never return to Burnham. In October 1941, following a period of illness, she was admitted as a postulant of the newly-founded Third Order Regular CSMV at St Thomas’ Convent in Oxford. This had been established especially for women whose age or health were a bar to them pursuing a vocation elsewhere. We will look at her time with the Third Order/SSMV, as well as her later life, in other posts. But despite her apparent ‘abnormality’ and the doctor’s good opinion that she should never have been allowed to join, she was the only sister whose time with the community spanned from their foundation in 1941 through to their taking of Solemn Vows as Benedictines in 1952.
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Further research:

My hope this year is to be able to visit Pusey House (Oxford), and in the longer-term Cornwall Record Office, the archival repositories for the communities at Burnham and Truro.

I would like to understand more about stained glass art, particularly within the Arts and Crafts Movement, to be able to put her work into a wider context.

Tracking down and photographing her surviving windows is an on-going task, but as these are spread widely throughout the UK it may take some time! Here is an up-to-date list of her work:

St Cynfryd, Llanddulas (1914); All Saints, Wallasey (1917); Weymouth College, Dorset(1923); St Augustine’s, Westbury (1924); St Edward’s Orphanage, West Malvern (1925-27); St Peter’s, Peebles (1928); St George’s Waterlooville, Portsmouth East (1930); The Ascension, Collier Row, Essex; St Egwad, Llanegwad (1930); St Mary at the Cross, Glasshampton; Burnham (1926-?); the oratory, Hayward’s Heath; Withington, Shropshire; Upton Magna; Shropshire*; St Catherine Hall [?St Catherine’s hall], Shrewsbury.

* Joyce’s uncle, the Rev J.T Halke, was once the Vicar of Withington. It is possible that the window listed here was his memorial window (1915). This connection was presumably behind the windows for the adjacent parish of Upton Magna and nearby Shrewsbury.