The intelligence which will debate with equal eagerness art or industry, stained glass or the stock exchange, literature or labour.AE Russell describing Sarah Purser in ‘Miss Purser and Her Art’, Freeman’s Journal, 12 May 1923
Sarah Purser and An Túr Gloine
In 1903, Sarah Purser (1848-1943) founded a stained glass studio called An Túr Gloine, with the help of cultural activist Edward Martyn. The Irish name An Túr Gloine (The Tower of Glass) was inspired by ancient Irish mythology from the 11th century Book of Invasions, and the studio produced innovative Celtic Revival designs inspired by the artistic riches of medieval Irish metalwork and illumination. Inspired by the Arts and Crafts philosophies of William Morris and John Ruskin, An Túr Gloine rejected on principal the division of labour, in favour of the individual artist being responsible for all stages in the production of their own artwork. However, Purser was herself an exception to this Arts and Crafts ideal; unlike other members of An Túr Gloine, she had no formal instruction in stained glass, and her designs were mostly executed by other artists in the studio. She designed two windows depicting St. Brendan and St. Ita for the studio’s earliest commission at Loughrea Cathedral; the former is entirely her own work, while the latter was designed and partially painted by her, with the help of stained glass artist Catherine O'Brien. Purser nevertheless played an important role as art director of the studio, advising on points of design and the choice of glass, and matching An Túr Gloine artists with the commissions best suited to their individual artistic strengths.
I myself, though I hope I am some judge of glass, am not a stained glass worker in the sense we give to the word...My only output is a tiny window in the porch at Loughrea, something in the nature of a curiosity.Sarah Purser's speech at the 25th Anniversary Celebration of An Túr Gloine Stained Glass and Mosaic Works, 1928
An Astute Businesswoman
In addition to her creative contribution, Purser provided practical support that was vital to the early success of the studio: she located a premises, contracted artists, and even financed the studio initially, risking her own funds. Alfred E. Child (1875-1939) – an instructor in stained glass at the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art – was appointed official manager of An Túr Gloine, but Purser nevertheless directed operations and handled clients. Many of the studio’s clients were personally known to her through her work as a society portrait painter, or from her popular ‘Second Tuesday’ monthly salons, which were attended by the leading political, cultural and intellectual figures of the day. Purser also took every opportunity to canvas for orders. She always had An Túr Gloine advertisements to hand, and when travelling by train, she would invariably select a carriage occupied by a member of the clergy, in order to hand out a studio pamphlet and persuade him to commission Irish stained glass for his church. Her social connections were also particularly helpful for securing prestigious commissions from all over the world – including the United States of America, India, New Zealand and Singapore.
My greatest pride is the beautiful state of our books. I privately believe them to be models to all small businesses!Sarah Purser's speech at the 25th Anniversary Celebration of An Túr Gloine Stained Glass and Mosaic Works, 1928
Women Artists at An Túr Gloine
Women such as Wilhelmina Geddes, Ethel Rhind, Catherine O’Brien and Beatrice Elvery were crucial to the artistic achievements of the studio. Against the backdrop of the suffrage movement and increased female agency – politically, socially, and in the workplace – these artists were encouraged by the example of women like Purser, as well as Evelyn Gleeson and the Yeats sisters, to train and establish themselves as professional craftswomen. Purser supported An Túr Gloine artists in a variety of ways; in 1912, Geddes and O’Brien accompanied her on the first of a number of study trips to view medieval stained glass windows in Europe. Purser ensured that the studio featured at all major Arts and Crafts exhibitions in Ireland and abroad, and she would also exhibit important commissions at the studio, encouraging journalists and the general public to view the artworks there before they were sent on to their final destination.