Modern Ireland in 100 Artworks: Harry Clarke's Eve of St Agnes10 January 2015
Harry Clarke’s Eve of St Agnes 1924
1924 Modern Ireland in 100 Artworks feature is Harry Clarke’s Eve of St Agnes window. The beautifully, imaginative stained glass windows were in stark contrast to the restrictive state of the time.
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Clarke was an illustrator first, having been commissioned to illustrate Hans Christian Andersen’s Fairy Tales and Edgar Allan Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination. But it is without doubt his stained glass work for which he is best remembered.
According to Fintan O Toole ‘This was, in part, the family business: Clarke grew up next to the studio of Joshua Clarke & Sons, on North Frederick Street in Dublin.
He crowned his early fame by making a set of beautiful windows on religious themes for the Honan Chapel at University College Cork.’
Read more about Clarke and his background in Volume V of the Art and Architecture of Ireland.
Read his biography in the Royal Irish Academy’s Dictionary of Irish Biography.
Read the Irish Times Modern Ireland in 100 Artworks feature here.
Harry Clarke, by Helen Andrews and Lawrence William White
Clarke, Harry (Henry Patrick) (1889–1931), stained-glass and graphic artist, and illustrator, was born 17 March 1889 in Dublin, third child and younger son among two sons and two daughters of Joshua Clarke (1858–1921), an English-born church decorator, and Brigid Clarke (née MacGonigal) (d. 1903), from Cliffoney, Co. Sligo, aunt of painter Maurice MacGonigal (qv). His father immigrated at age eighteen to Dublin from Leeds; a convert to Roman catholicism, after working for an ecclesiastical supplier, in 1886 he established his own church decorating business at 33 North Frederick St., where he also resided, and which by the 1890s included a stained-glass manufactory. Harry was educated at the Model Schools, Marlborough St., and Belvedere College (1896–1903). On his mother's death, he and his brother Walter (1888–1930) left school to help in the family business, where Harry learned the rudiments of stained-glass technique, and was formally apprenticed in the craft in 1907. He also attended evening classes at the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art (DMSA) (1905–10), studying under stained-glass master A. E. Child (1875–1939) (who also managed the An Túr Gloine cooperative studio), and studied briefly in 1906 at the Royal College of Art, South Kensington, London. On being awarded successive annual scholarships, he studied full-time at the DMSA (1910–13), where he won several prizes. For several years (1909–15) he holidayed annually on the Aran islands; his only oil paintings were Aran land and seascapes of 1909–10, but elements of Aran scenery, flora, and fauna (both land and marine) became recurring decorative motifs of his artistic vocabulary. In three successive years he won the gold medal for stained glass in the national competition under the Board of Education (1911–13), the first Irish student ever awarded top prize in the genre; he also won prizes in the annual RDS art industries exhibitions. Awarded a travelling scholarship by the Department of Agriculture and Technical Instruction, he studied medieval stained glass in France (1914).
Clarke benefited immeasurably in his early career from the patronage of Laurence Waldron (qv), MP and stockbroker, who commissioned work from him, and introduced him to a wide circle of artists, literati, intellectuals, and professionals. In 1913 Waldron commissioned him privately to make six drawings illustrating Alexander Pope's ‘The rape of the lock’, and introduced him to Joseph Maunsell Hone (qv), whose publishing firm Maunsel commissioned him to illustrate Samuel Taylor Coleridge's ‘The rime of the ancient mariner’. The blocks for the latter were destroyed when Maunsel's premises on Middle Abbey Street burned during the Easter 1916 rising (though Clarke's original drawings survived), and the book was never published. While working on these two commissions in a rented London studio (autumn 1913), Clarke unsuccessfully sought illustrating work from a dozen publishers, before finally being commissioned by George Harrap to make forty full-page illustrations (of which sixteen were in colour) for Hans Christian Andersen's Fairy tales (published in 1916). He fulfilled several more commissions for Harrap, on subjects expressing his taste for the fantastic and macabre. The most successful, both critically and commercially, was Tales of mystery and imagination (1919) by Edgar Allen Poe, in which his black-and-white drawings, composed in an intricate, lace-like fabric of lines, uncannily captured the nightmarish world of the text. After several reprints, a 1923 re-edition included the addition of eight colour plates. The perversely fertile inventiveness of Clarke's illustrations of Goethe's Faust (1925) was described by a contemporary reviewer as ‘the world of the psychoanalyst made visible’ (Bowe 1989), 189), with their inversions of religious imagery, and eerie menagerie of grotesque, composite, and sexually ambiguous figures. His last commissioned book, Selected poems of Algernon Charles Swinburne (1928), published by the Bodley Head, was also controversial for its bold, bizarre eroticism.
Waldron was instrumental in Clarke's obtaining his first public commission in stained glass, for eleven windows in the Honan chapel, UCC (1915–17), which established his reputation as a major and original talent. Each window is composed in a dominant colour key appropriate to its subject, and depicts a single Irish saint in heavenly glory, accoutred with his or her symbolic attributes, and surrounded by small, richly detailed vignettes from his or her earthly life. Transcending the building's Celtic revival architecture and decoration, Clarke's style was praised by art critic Thomas Bodkin (qv) – a contemporary champion of his work – for its ‘genuine Celtic character’: rather than replicating motifs derived from early Irish art, Clarke emulated the actual spirit of medieval Irish manuscript illumination, by creating with imagination and whimsy a treasury of ornamental intricacy, and botanic, zoomorphic, and anthropic detail.
Working from the North Frederick Street studio, Clarke fulfilled some forty commissions for stained-glass windows in churches and religious houses throughout Ireland, and some fifteen commissions in Britain, Australia, and the USA, chiefly for catholic patrons, but also for protestant and presbyterian churches. As in his book illustration, the chief influence on his style was nineteenth-century French symbolism, with inflections of the fin-de-siécle decadents, art nouveau, the emerging art deco movement, and the Ballets Russes. Older antecedents were the sumptuously stylised patterns of Byzantine mosaic, and the iconographic programmes of French Gothic cathedrals. Shattering the prevailing staid conventions of sacred representation, he frequently wrangled with ecclesiastical patrons wary of ‘pagan’ elements in his work. Especially notable are his windows in St Joseph's, Terenure, Dublin, where the parish priest, John Healy, encouraged an unbounded expression of Clarke's imagination. For the large, three-light window ‘Adoration of the crucifixion by Irish saints’ (1918–20), Clarke used posed photographs of himself as model for the figure of the crucified Christ. The two windows in St Joseph's lady chapel are in contrasting moods: the ‘Annunciation’ (1922) is a simple, serene, pastoral treatment, while ‘Our Lady, Queen of Heaven’ (1923) is a richly decorative composition, ‘a feast of decadent detail and splendour’ (Bowe (1979), 112). Clarke executed fourteen windows for the basilica of St Patrick's Purgatory on Station Island in Lough Derg, Co. Donegal (1926–8), depicting the apostles, St Paul, and Our Lady, with the stations of the cross in small vesicular inset panels borne by each figure at eye level to the observer. In designing his last work, ‘The last judgment’ (1926–31), behind the high altar of St Patrick's, Newport, Co. Mayo, he expressed a characteristic delight in a medieval juxtaposition of the macabre and the sublime; only one of the three lights was completed before his death.
Clarke experimented with new techniques in a series of miniature stained-glass panels for private patrons on secular subjects, combining his interests in stained-glass craftsmanship and literary illustration. For a library window in Waldron's house he made nine panels (1917) illustrating ‘Queens’, a poem by John Millington Synge (qv). Each panel consisting of a single small sheet of thick unleaded flashed glass in one of three colours, which was bathed in acid, stained, and painted in intricate detail, the technique had no exact precedent in the craft of stained glass. In several other experimental miniatures – including ‘The song of the mad prince’ (1917), made for Bodkin, and illustrating a poem by Walter de la Mare – he plated two sheets of differently coloured glass, aciding them repeatedly to produce subtly varied tones. Having perfected this technique in miniature, he employed it on a grand scale in his masterpiece of secular romantic medievalism, ‘The eve of St Agnes’ (1923–4), a two-light window depicting scenes and characters from the poem by John Keats. Executed in prevailing tones of blue, punctuated by intense flashes of brilliant, gem-like colour, and drawn in a restlessly expressive line, the work represents the summit of Clarke's artistry in both glass and illustration. Commissioned by Harold Jacob for a landing in his father's house on Ailesbury Rd, the window was widely acclaimed at the 1924 Aonach Tailteann exhibition, where it won the gold trophy for arts and crafts, and art industries. It is now held in Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane.
Clarke's most frequently viewed windows are probably the six he made for Bewley's café, Grafton St., Dublin (1927), depicting the classical orders of architecture; the black leafy tendrils that disguise the leading is a device previously employed in sections of the ‘St Agnes’ window. The so-called ‘Geneva window’ (1927–8), commissioned by the Irish government as the state's gift to the International Labour Office building in Geneva, illustrates scenes from fifteen works of modern Irish literature. Deemed unsuitable for presentation owing to the sensuality of some of the images, the work was resold by the state to Clarke's family after his death, and eventually acquired for exhibition in the Wolfsonian Museum, Miami, Florida, USA.
Clarke's graphic work included letterheads, Christmas and memorial cards, bookplates, theatre and exhibition programmes, advertising booklets, and textiles. He taught a weekly class in book illustration at the DMSA (1918–23), which helped establish graphic design studies at the school; he resigned over the school's failure to appoint him as head of a properly equipped stained-glass section. He exhibited regularly and won prizes at the RHA, the RDS art industries exhibitions, the Aonach Tailteann festivals, and the Arts and Crafts Society of Ireland (of which he was a prominent member). He was represented at the Congress of the Irish Race exhibition in Paris (1922), and exhibited in London and New York. From the mid 1910s he held a brief studio exhibition of every window that he made before dispatching it for installation. His comprehensive one-man show in the Frederick Street studios in August 1925 was opened by President W. T. Cosgrave (qv). He was elected ARHA (1924), and RHA (1925).
Arriving at artistic maturity at a moment when the Irish arts-and-crafts movement had lost its vigour, sluggishly repeating hackneyed Celtic revival themes, Clarke created an intensely imaginative art that adapted modern European styles to an Irish idiom. He solved technical problems in stained glass with endless invention, inspired rather than restricted by the limitations of the medium. A ferociously hard worker, animated by a demonic energy, he took infinite pains over every project. Tall and graceful, exquisitely attired and beautifully mannered, with large, dark eyes, and a saturnine complexion, he was a man of quiet charm, who loved conversation.
Clarke married (1914) Margaret Crilley (qv), a fellow DMSA student, and talented portrait, figure, and landscape painter; they had one daughter and two sons. On his father's death in 1921, he assumed heavy administrative and supervisory responsibilities in the firm of Joshua Clarke and Sons, under pressure of which he was forced reluctantly to consign much of the actual execution of windows of his design to assistants. To be closer to the firm's studios, in 1922 he moved residence from a rented house on Mt Merrion Avenue, Blackrock, to 48 North Circular Road. Owing to the volume of work, the firm moved in 1924 to larger premises at 6–7 North Frederick Street. In 1930 the stained glass department became Harry Clarke Stained Glass Studios Ltd, which continued under Clarke's heirs until 1973; the church-decorating department was liquidated after his brother Walter's death. A collection of his papers is in the NLI.
Clarke incurred serious injuries in a cycling accident in 1926, and recovered slowly. Never robust in health, he suffered continually from tuberculosis over his last few years, and was treated for a year in a sanatorium in Davos, Switzerland (1929–30), to which he returned for further treatment in October 1930. While travelling home, he died 6 January 1931 in Coire, Switzerland, where he was buried. A major retrospective exhibition representative of all aspects of his work was held in the Douglas Hyde Gallery, TCD (1979). His son Michael Laurence (b. 1918) became a stage and film actor, associated especially with Dublin's Gate theatre; he appeared with Orson Welles in the Dublin-based short film Return to Glennascaul (1951), and as Cassio in Welles's Othello (1952).
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