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Although the Lady Chapel contains a list of the fallen (between images of Martha and Mary, and beneath a foundation stone by Eric Gill), it is the decoration of the Chapel as a whole that is the parish’s First World War memorial, and the memory of the fallen is primarily, and rather surprisingly, commemorated through images of women.
In an apparent revision to the original scheme of 1919 whereby the Lady Chapel was to be decorated with representations of the women of the Bible, the west dome was filled with portraits illustrative of various types of women who have laboured and suffered in various spheres for the furtherance of the Kingdom of God, as witnesses for right as they conceived it, and for the extension of righteousness among men. The intention is to suggest the continuity of efforts towards this end through the Christian ages.
The artist, Walter Starmer, says they are mainly types, with the odd well-known figure for emphasis, but the majority are in fact portraits of identifiable female saints and heroines from Christian history. Some are of quite recently deceased women. These include the anti-vivisectionist and suffragist Frances Power Cobbe (d. 1904), the social reformer and women’s rights campaigner Josephine Butler (d.1906), Angela Burdett-Coutts (d.1906), philanthropist and supporter of animal causes, the executed nurse Edith Cavell (d.1915), Elsie Inglis (d. 1917) a Scottish doctor and suffragist who had established all-women medical units to work with the Allied forces and served in Serbia (where she was captured) and Russia, and Agnes Weston (d. 1918) who had dedicated her life to the welfare of the men of the Royal Navy.
The prominence given to the portrait of Joan of Arc is noteworthy. It is her image that confronts the visitor or worshipper entering the chapel, her sword and standard each partially obscuring an English queen. Joan, of course, had fought the English, the English had been responsible for her trial and execution as a heretic, and her image had been deployed by the Catholic League in the sixteenth century Wars of Religion against Protestants. Furthermore she had just (in 1920) been canonised by the Roman Catholic Church.
Although Joan had became a symbol of resistance to German militarism and outrages against women and children in the war, her presence in St Jude’s probably owes more to her role as an inspiration and symbol for the women’s suffrage movement in England. From at least the turn of the century she had regularly appeared, not just on posters and placards, but in person at suffragist events and demonstrations as a participant would be detailed to don sword and armour in the battle for the vote. She had led the Women’s Coronation Procession through the streets of London on June 17th, 1911, a week before the coronation of George V. On June 3rd, 1913, Emily Wilding Davison saluted the centrepiece statue of Joan of Arc at the Women’s Suffrage and Political Union summer fair with Joan’s own last words Fight on, and God will give victory. The same words would appear on Emily’s grave a few days later – after she had died beneath the King’s horse at the Derby.
Moreover, as a leader of men Joan would have had a particular appeal to the ‘chairman’ of the St Jude’s war memorial ladies’ fund-raising committee, Mabel St Clair Stobart (1862-1954), who was almost certainly responsible for the selection of the eminent women for the dome. In 1907 in order to demonstrate what she called women’s national worthiness Mrs Stobart had founded the Women’s Sick and Wounded Convoy Corps to facilitate the wartime movement of the wounded from field hospitals to the base hospitals behind the Front. By worthiness she meant for the vote. When all is said and done, she wrote, it is the War work which women in all spheres of life performed so admirably that made it at last impossible for the vote to be further denied.
At the time of the painting (and from 1918) only certain women over 30 had the vote; it would not be until 1928 that it was granted on the same terms as men, to all over 21. The Lady Chapel mural scheme became much more than a war memorial. It was a celebration of the contribution of women to the church and nation, but also part of the continuing campaign for universal adult suffrage.
A version of this note first appeared in the Church Times 31 July 2015