Editorial Feature

Everything You Need To Know About Mary Lowndes

Find out how the artist went from designing stained glass to making banners

Born in Dorset, England in 1856, Mary Lowndes went on to become a leading light in the Arts and Crafts movement and was the founder and chair of the Artists’ Suffrage League, which sought to change parliamentary opinion and engage in public demonstrations. Here we explore her impact on the movement and how she harnessed her talents to do some good in the world.

Lowndes’ creative path began when she enrolled at the Slade School of Fine Art in London. After studying, Lowndes moved quickly on to design stained glass works and worked on many commissions for various churches and places of worship. Many of her works can still be seen across the United Kingdom, especially in London and Sussex.

The artist worked with various firms until 1897, where, with fellow stained glass artist and then foreman Alan Drury, joined forces to form Lowndes and Drury at 35 Park Walk, Chelsea. In 1906, the pair founded the Glass House in Lettice Street, Fulham, which was a purpose-built stained glass studio and workshop that invited independent artists to come and work there.

Portrait of Mary Lowndes by Charlotte Trounce (From the collection of Mayor of London)

The Glass House attracted many artists including Wilhelmina Geddes, Whall, Robert Anning Bell and Lowndes soon found herself teaching other female artists who frequented the studio and sharing her experiences. The beauty of the Glass House was that artists who came to the workshop could leverage the skills of other artists while obtaining their own commissions.

Lowndes’ own designs went on to define stained glass during the Arts and Crafts Movement, for their intricate detailing and bold color choice. The Arts and Craft Movement first began in Britain around 1880 and celebrated traditional craftsmanship using simple forms and often employing medieval, romantic or folk styles of decoration.

In January 1907, Lowndes lent her artistic skills to support her political views and established the Artists’ Suffrage League (ASL) to create dynamic posters, postcards and banners for suffrage events. Initially it was set up to assist with preparations for the Mud March organised by the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies – a peaceful protest in February 1907 that took place in London and saw over 3,000 women march from Hyde Park Corner to the Strand in support of votes for women.

A NUWSS Procession by Christina Broom (From the collection of Museum of London)
Suffrage banner commemorating Victoria, Queen and Mother by Mary Lowndes (From the collection of Museum of London)

As chair, Lowndes offered her home, Brittany Studios at 259 King’s Road in Chelsea as the studio and meeting place of the group and soon the ASL began to create banners and cards for numerous suffrage events. As well as designing many banners herself, Lowndes also enlisted the talents of fellow women artists to help including Emily Ford, Barbara Forbes, May H Barker, Clara Billing, Dora Meeson Coates, Violet Garrard, Bertha Newcombe, C Hedly Charlton and Emily J Harding.

In 1908, co-editor of Votes for Women, Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence, designed the suffragette colors scheme of purple for loyalty and dignity, white for purity and green for hope. Using her experience of stained glass design, in Lowndes’ banner designs during that time, she combined the suffragette colors with other bright hues of blue, magenta and orange to create a striking mix. Paired with bold shapes and simply-designed illustrations, Lowndes’ banners had an impact and it was why she was continually trusted with visually representing protesters at various marches and demonstrations.

Banner of the Writers' Suffrage League by Mary Lowndes (From the collection Museum of London)
Women's Writers' Suffrage League, NUWSS procession by Christina Broom (From the collection of Museum of London)

In 1909, Lowndes published a pamphlet titled Banners and Banner-making, after being asked by many women: “Can we make banners ourselves?” Within the 7-page book, Lowndes gives advice on various elements of banner making including dimensions, length of the pole to hang your banner, how to use recognizable symbols in new and clever ways and color choice. Throughout the pamphlet, Lowndes repeatedly praises the value of good design and the power it can have. At one point she summarizes her feelings about banners quite romantically:

“A banner is a thing to float in the wind, to flicker in the breeze, to flirt its colours for your pleasure, to half show and half conceal a device you long to unravel…Choose purple and gold for ambitions, red for courage, green for long cherished hopes.”

Banner and Banner-making pamphlet cover by Mary Lowndes (From the collection of LSE Library)
Suffrage banner with the arms and motto of the City of London by Mary Lowndes (From the collection of Museum of London)

Lowndes and her work were a key part in the women’s movement and she demonstrated the power branding and strong design can have in communicating a message. What’s inspiring about Lowndes is that through her self-published pamphlet it’s clear she was keen to share her knowledge and empower other women to create their own banners at their own protests and make a difference.

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