With amazing insight into the history of Ashdown Park, it was a true delight to welcome Sister Magdalen as the host of our February Ladies Luncheon, along with Sister Rachel.
About Sister Magdalen
Sister Magdalen, named Madeleine by her parents, moved to Ashdown Park to join the order of The Sisters of Notre Dame in 1961. When she joined the order there were more than 700 active Sisters.
Today there are only about 120 Sisters, many of whom continue educational work around the world, particularly for women and girls.
Sister Magdalen spent 2 1/2 years with the order before saying her vows in 1963 at the age of 23. Novices were encouraged to take the opportunity while living at Ashdown Park to think seriously about their decision to join the church to ensure they were making a commitment they truly wanted.
Ashdown Park was a Novitiate & Provincial House - or 'Mother House' (some may recognise this term from the BBC's 'Call the Midwife'). Novices would develop skills and further their education while Sister Nuns could visit Ashdown Park for a retreat.
Novices used to wear white veils, as you can see in the photograph and Sisters would wear black veils, today Sisters no longer have to wear habits or veils.
Although Sister Magdalen's talk on this visit was focused on the amazing stained glass windows we have, she also shared a few anecdotes including the following:
During the winter of 1962 - 63, one of the coldest on record, the wild deer which roam freely on the estate and across the rest of the Ashdown Forest, would come right up to the windows of the kitchens seeking food.
One can only imagine what a unique, and quite Disney-esque, an experience that must have been.
Once she had taken her vows, Sister Magdalen went on to gain a degree in art and art history before becoming an educator herself.
HARRY CLARKE & HIS STAINED GLASS WINDOWS
Stained glass is an unusual topic and not something many people have a lot of knowledge about. It was really interesting learning more information about the many stained glass windows in our chapel, and the man who designed them, Harry Clarke.
Harry Clarke grew up in Ireland, where his family settled for his father's work. It was here he first studied art before going on to attend The Royal College of Art in Kensington.
Today, he is known as the foremost art-nouveau stained glass artist, his designs can found around the world, reaching countries as far as the USA and Australia. As well as stained glass windows he was also a well-known book illustrator, he even illustrated Edgar Allan Poe.
When designing the windows for Ashdown Park, Harry Clarke created full size 'cartoons' of each window, meticulously detailing every aspect of the images and all the coloured pieces of glass required to create the stunningly intricate finished design.
Sister Magdalen was able to share with us that during the creation of the windows, Harry Clarke had said that the Ashdown Park project was one of the most difficult he'd worked on.
This was because Sister Bernard, who was coordinating the windows, kept turning down aspects of his designs, including the length of characters hands and some designs for faces. They went back and forth relentlessly until the final sign off was achieved, even then it was said the sister still wasn't totally pleased with some elements! However, anyone you ask today will agree that the windows are truly gorgeous!
There are thought to be at least 35 shades of blue alone in the windows. Blues and purples were used a lot as the Chapel at Ashdown Park is dedicated to Jesus' mother, Mary. Blue is the colour iconically used to clothe Mary and purple is a colour used to connote royalty/ nobility.
The reds within the windows are also astounding and cannot be truly replicated today due to their creation process. Many of the acids and chemicals used to make certain colours in days past are now banned.
It was said that the doors to the acid room of a stained glass window makers were often eroded down due to the potency of the acid and other chemicals, this was certainly reported to be the case for Harry Clarke's workshop in Dublin.
(The windows in the Ashdown Park chapel were made and transported from a local town, much closer than Dublin; East Grinstead.)
The windows were designed with a traditional medieval style in mind, depicting scenes from Mary's life; starting as a child with her own mother St Anne, to Mary being received in heaven by Jesus whilst surrounded by angels.
There is however a stylistic nod to the era they were created in is visible - the iconic 1920s/30s bob style haircut can be seen adorning the female characters.
Harry Clark died from tuberculosis in Chur, Switzerland while travelling home to Dublin in January 1931 at the age of 41. Sadly at the time in Switzerland, graves were removed after 12 months if they were not claimed, so Harry Clarke's wife and family were not able to erect a memorial to him. But, his works and legacy live on.
Other blogs you might enjoy reading:
SISTER GABRIEL MARY STANDEN - the life of a Nun who trained at Ashdown Park in the late 20s, early 30s.
LOCAL HISTORY - More about the local area's history & East Grinstead.
Header - Four windows - depicting, left to right. Mary and Jesus' disciples in hiding. Mary ascending to heaven, Mary being welcomed into heaven by angels and lastly Jesus crowning Mary.
1st - Sister Magdalen outside the main chapel entrance.
2nd - Novice Sisters at Ashdown Park
3rd - Harry Clarke
4th - Window depicting Mary and her mother
5th - Mary with baby Jesus and Angels