Mary Lowndes. South window detail, St. Mary’s Church, 1906. Sturminster Newton, Dorset, England. Courtesy of Wikicommons.
Mary Lowndes. East window detail, Holy Innocents Church, 1896. Lamarsh, Essex, England. Courtesy of Wikicommons.
Mary Lowndes and I.L. Gloag. South windows, St. Mary’s Church, 1901. Sturminster Newton, Dorset, England. Courtesy of Wikicommons.
Mary Lowndes. Suffrage banners, 1908–1914. Courtesy of the Women’s Library, London School of Economics (LSE) Library.
Mary Lowndes. Suffrage banners, 1908. Courtesy of the Women’s Library, LSE Library.
Mary Lowndes. Pages from Lowndes’s design album, c. 1908. Courtesy of the Women’s Library, LSE Library.
Mary Lowndes. Pages from Lowndes’s design album, c. 1908. Courtesy of the Women’s Library, LSE Library.

Mary Lowndes

by Alice Rawsthorn

“You do not want to read it, you want to worship it,” wrote Mary Lowndes in 1910 in an essay for the The Englishwoman’s Review, a suffragette journal, in which she instructed fellow Votes for Women activists on how to design and make banners to support the cause. “Choose purple and gold for ambition,” she continued, “red for courage, green for long-cherished hopes.”

By then, Lowndes had been making suffrage banners for several years. For one protest, organized by the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) in London on June 13, 1908, she designed and organized the production of nearly eighty elaborately embroidered banners depicting Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, Marie Curie, George Eliot, and other eminent women from history.

It was a mammoth undertaking, but Lowndes’s banners produced glorious spectacles of colors and symbolism for the suffrage campaign. Even so, they only represented one aspect of her creative activities, as she was also a leading stained-glass artist, and the first woman in Britain to make stained glass as well as to design it.

Born in 1857 in the Dorset countryside, Lowndes was one of eight children of a clergyman in Sturminster Newton, a picturesque farming town where Thomas Hardy lived while writing his 1878 novel, The Return of the Native. Despite having been a fragile, asthmatic child, she persuaded her parents to allow her to study at the Slade School of Fine Art in London, where she chose to focus on stained glass.

Lowndes then assisted Henry Holiday, a leading stained-glass designer, whose wife and daughter shared her interest in women’s rights. In his studio, Lowndes taught herself how to make stained glass, an onerous process deemed unsuitable for women. She then moved to Britten & Gilson, a larger workshop where she took on more responsibility, before opening an independent studio and workshop in 1897 with its foreman, Alfred J. Drury. As well as producing their own work, they provided studio spaces and tools to enable other artists and artisans to make theirs.

Lowndes pioneered a new stained-glass aesthetic, which combined rich colors with deft compositions of people and settings depicted in a recognizably contemporary style. She and Drury were commissioned to design and make stained-glass windows for dozens of churches, including two for her father’s church in Dorset.

Yet by the early 1900s, Lowndes was pursuing a parallel career as an unofficial creative director of the Votes for Women campaign. Thanks to her friend and neighbor, the suffragette leader Sylvia Pankhurst, the movement was renowned for staging sophisticated performance protests that fused pride in women’s historic achievements with demands for enfranchisement. In 1907, Lowndes cofounded the Artists’ Suffrage League (ASL) to encourage female artists to contribute their skills to the cause. A year later, she became the ASL’s chair and Barbara Forbes, who was (probably euphemistically) described as her “companion,” took the role of secretary.

As well as overseeing the design and fabrication of banners for NUWSS pageants like the one on June 13, 1908, Lowndes created banners for local suffrage societies and groups of professional women, including doctors, teachers, and writers. The vibrant colors and eloquent imagery were reminiscent of her stained glass, and she tackled them with the same zeal in the belief that “if it is not exactly right, it won’t do at all.”

The skill with which the banners were made and their championship of an important cause helped to change perceptions of women in the UK and of the traditionally “feminine” craft of needlework. When the UK government granted partial voting rights to two-thirds of women in 1918, the banners were brought out of storage for a celebration party. Thankfully Lowndes lived just long enough to hear that voting had been extended to include all women over twenty-one in 1928. She died the following year.

And when a statue made by the artist Gillian Wearing of the NUWSS’s founder Millicent Fawcett was unveiled in 2018 as the first statue of a woman on London’s Parliament Square, Mary Lowndes was among the fifty-eight leading suffrage campaigners whose names and portraits were inscribed on the plinth.

Alice Rawsthorn is a London-based writer on design. Her books include Design as an Attitude published by JRP|Ringier and, most recently, Design Emergency: Building a Better Future, co-authored with Paola Antonelli and published by Phaidon. Rawsthorn and Antonelli have also launched the Design Emergency podcast.