Margaret Traherne

Artist and designer best known for her stained glass at the new Coventry and Liverpool cathedrals
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The Independent Online

Hazel Margaret Wilkes (Margaret Traherne), artist: born Westcliff-on-Sea, Essex 23 November 1919; married 1943 David Thomas; died Brighton, East Sussex 30 June 2006.

Margaret Traherne's varied career as an artist encompassed painting, the "new embroidery" of the 1950s and the creation of remarkable abstract banners. But she is best known as a stained-glass artist, responsible for major schemes of glass at two modern cathedrals, St Michael's, Coventry, and the Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King at Liverpool.

She was elegant, charming and extraordinarily modest. Her creativity never faltered. Only a few weeks ago, in her 87th year, she was exhibiting in a group exhibition in Newhaven as part of the Brighton Festival. She was one of a group of gifted, highly professional women who turned, in a male-dominated fine art world, to the applied arts in the post-war period.

Traherne was born Margaret Wilkes, but from the 1950s she was professionally known as Margaret Traherne, a Welsh name in her husband's family. In 1925 aged six she crossed the Atlantic with her family in a steamer to North America, where her father had a job with the Burroughs Adding Machine Company. Until the age of 15 she lived on Long Island in New York State but when the Depression took hold the family returned to England.

In 1936 Traherne went to Croydon School of Art, where she was taught by Ruskin Spear and met David Thomas, a nephew of the poet Edward Thomas. They married in 1943 and he later lectured at the Courtauld Institute of Art and worked for the Arts Council.In the mid-1940s she battled with tuberculosis, spending a year in an Isle of Wight sanatorium, a grim, if character-forming, experience.

Towards the end of the Second World War she went to Kingston School of Art, where she studied dress design with the redoubtable textile artist Constance Howard. Howard prepared Traherne for the Royal College of Art and she entered its Design School in 1945, specialising in mural painting, theatre design and stained glass. Her tutors were Lawrence Lee and Martin Travers, the latter encouraging a growing interest in stained glass that had been inspired by the work of Evie Hone.

Graduating from the Royal College in 1948 Traherne went on to run an embroidery course for trade machinists at the College of Garment Trades in Shoreditch. She and her pupils explored the artistic possibilities of machine embroidery and she subsequently created a portfolio of designs for the Needlework Development Scheme. She began to make embroidered pictures. This is an art form that has dropped from view but in the 1950s its mainly female practitioners explored all the possibilities of collage and appliqué in the context of expressive modernism. Embroidered pictures were popular with enlightened education authorities, then buying significant amounts of contemporary art for schools, and they were the only examples of applied art included in the "Pictures for Schools" scheme run from 1947 by the painter and educationist Nan Youngman.

Traherne's use of appliqué felt and her bold machine stitching were powerfully expressive but her Mother and Child (bought by Peter Floud for the V&A in 1953) shows how she also manipulated a modified sewing machine as a sensitive graphic tool. Her cushion covers, sold at Woollands and at Liberty, were little abstract works of art, designed with strong grids and the occasional abstract scribble. She designed woven fabrics for Alastair Morton's Edinburgh Weavers that also drew on the effect of a thin wiry, machine-stitched line.

In 1953-54 Traherne spent a year of experimentation in the stained-glass department of the Central School of Arts and Crafts, then run by John Baker and Tom Fairs, and she was busy as a stained-glass artist throughout the late Fifties. Nineteen panels were commissioned by the inspired Director of Education for Leicestershire Stewart Mason and his art adviser Alec Clifton-Taylor and placed in Devotional Rooms in newly built schools. One (St Guthlac) was included, to great acclaim, in the 1999 exhibition "The Pleasures of Peace" held at the Sainsbury Centre at the University of East Anglia. The whole series would form a revelatory retrospective exhibition.

Her interest in French glass led to experiments with dalles de verre (thick glass set in concrete) and a small exhibition held in her flat in Cadogan Place attracted the attention of Basil Spence, who in 1958 commissioned her to design and make 10 windows for the Chapel of Unity in Coventry Cathedral. These were 52ft high and treated by Traherne as a chromatic abstraction.

Coventry was followed by a series of abstract windows and screens remarkable for their bold use of graduated colour. Major commissions in Bristol (St Mary's, Lockleaze, in 1961 and St Chad's, Church Patchway, 1964) used dalles de verre and glass set in resin respectively. This last technique was also used for her 1963 Manchester Airport screen to commemorate the Parachute Training School; the effect was of discrete paint marks, suggesting an abstracted landscape viewed from the air.

Windows for Eric Lyons's Albion Primary School, Rotherhithe, look like applied Pop Art, with playful coloured numerals, letters and biomorphic shapes collaged with resin on to clear glass. These new techniques presented conservation problems and in 1966 Traherne reverted to traditional lead calmes (lead strips) to create her magnificent Fire window in the Manchester Regiment Chapel in Manchester Cathedral. In 1996 she recreated this window after IRA bomb damage.

In 1953 Traherne and her husband commissioned a modernist artists' house from the architect Stefan Buzas on land adjoining Ham Common. In 1959 they were living on the Thames at Deodar Road, Putney, then a site of Bohemian creativity. Neighbours included a sympathetic if eccentric pioneer group of older stained-glass artists (Margaret Aldrich Rope, Joan Howson, Lady de Montmorency, David Woore), artists (Anthea Alley and Sidney Nolan) and writers (Nell Dunn and Edna O'Brien).

Despite her growing fame in the field of stained glass Traherne felt a need to return to painting. In the mid-1960s she attended classes held by Harry Thubron, first at Saffron Walden and then at the famous summer school at Barry organised by South Glamorgan Education Authority. Thubron "taught destructively", if exhilaratingly, and had a marked effect on Traherne's subsequent work. One of her subtlest ensembles of windows, for the Lady Chapel in Frederick Gibberd's Roman Catholic Cathedral at Liverpool (1967), suggests a new colour sensibility, using amber glass in three degrees of intensity, flashed with opalescent glass.

Traherne also experimented with light boxes in the spirit of the kinetic art of the period, showing these at the AIA Gallery in 1972. Through the collector and curator Monika Kinley she was commissioned to create a 3-D group of banners outside the Tate Gallery in 1972 to celebrate the Tate's 75th anniversary. These magnificent essays in painterly abstraction appeared on the cover of Studio International.

They were followed by banners outside the Royal Academy to mark the Jubilee exhibition "British Painting 1965-77" and a further sequence in and outside the Tate to coincide with the opening of new galleries in 1978.

Traherne remained busy and active throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s with a major commission for all the windows of the Royal Mosque at Riyadh (1986-87) and a figurative 50ft-high East Window for the Church of the Holy Innocents (1985) at Orpington in Kent showing doves flying upwards through areas of pure colour against a background of pale opalescent glass.

Margaret Traherne understood all the varied possibilities of architectural glass - painted and stained, flashed and etched. Towards the end of her life she returned to, and reached distinction in, her first love, painting. But it was as an artist in glass that her sensitivity to colour and form comes across most strongly.

It is an artistic genre that is hard to capture in photographs. To get a full sense of Traherne's achievements it is necessary to make a pilgrimage - starting perhaps at her early neo-primitive St Kenelm window in the little Norman church at Wootton Wawen, moving on to view her fine early Mother and Child now in the Stained Glass Museum at Ely Cathedral and ending with the sublime beauties of her Lady Chapel in Liverpool.

Tanya Harrod