It was 39 years ago that I first met Nicola Gordon Bowe, who died last week at the age of 69. I was a student trustee of Trinity College Dublin’s Douglas Hyde Gallery where she was then organising an exhibition. Its subject was the early 20th-century Irish illustrator and stained-glass artist Harry Clarke. This was the first retrospective of Clarke’s work since a memorial show at the Royal Hibernian Academy just after his death 1931 and Nikki did much to revive interest in this somewhat shadowy figure, whose work was most likely to be discovered in various rural churches.
Clarke became the subject of Nikki’s doctoral thesis in 1982 and of her first two books published in 1983 and 1989 respectively. He also served as the entrée into what would prove an abundant area of investigation for her: the Arts and Crafts movement in Ireland. Nikki’s interest in the field was notable for two reasons, the first being that she had been born and raised in England and only settled in Ireland following her marriage to garden and landscape historian Patrick Bowe.
Secondly, the world of Arts and Crafts had hitherto little engaged the attention of Irish art historians, except insofar as it overlapped with the Gaelic revival: otherwise it was judged to be a foreign import of no real consequence or legacy. Nikki’s tireless, unstinting research demonstrated that, on the contrary, the Arts and Crafts movement had assumed its own distinctive character in Ireland, which merited specific attention and respect.
During the same period, Nikki worked at the National College of Art and Design in Dublin, where she lectured in design history and eventually became the founding director of a master’s course in the history of design and the applied arts. Nikki was an enthusiastic and popular teacher, articulate but passionate and more than capable of awakening the same emotion in listeners. Her courses were always keenly attended and it was a considerable pleasure to be invited, as on occasion I was, to speak to the students under her tutelage.
Nikki loved a good cause and much of her life was spent championing one undeservedly neglected issue or another. It was for this reason that over the course of three decades she laboured on a book about the Irish stained glass artist Wilhelmina Geddes who, like Harry Clarke, had been admired in life but largely forgotten in death. The result was a substantial volume which appeared in 2015 and was widely and deservedly praised: it was shortlisted for Book of the Year in the Apollo Awards in 2016. Reviews acknowledged the author’s lucid, engaging prose, which in its commitment to the subject was able clearly to explain the more complex aspects of stained glass manufacture.
Nicola Gordon Bowe died unexpectedly on 5 January after a short illness. Her death creates a void in the art-historical community but she has left behind an admirable legacy. Thanks to Nikki’s diligent research and ardent advocacy, the applied arts of 20th-century Ireland are now better understood and cherished, as she wished them to be.