Harry Clarke (1889-1931)
I have a hope that all young artists (and in particular illustrators and graphic artists) study the work of Harry Clarke. A superb illustrator, colourist, designer, draughtsman and graphic artist. Costume and shoe designers could also learn a thing or two. And much of his work is in stained glass!
Harry Clarke didn’t have a long life. He died at the age of 41. However, his was prolific artist in the genre of stained glass along and book illustration. He was a leading light in the Irish Arts & Crafts movement. The quality and beauty of his work is astonishing. He managed to create images, people and scenes in brilliant jewel-like colour or in black and white, representing themes that demonstrate a unique dimension of imagination.
Harry Clarke was born in Dublin on St Patrick’s day, 1889. His father established a church decorating business (of which stained glass became a part) called Joshua Clarke & Sons. Harry grew up in the business and was influenced by art movements flourishing in Europe at time, such as Art Nouveau, Symbolism, and his own country’s Celtic revival. His early training developed him as an outstanding draftsman. He also drew on inspiration from a variety of sources such as music, literature, fairy tales, Japanese art and Old Masters such as Albrecht Durer and Velazquez.[i] One can also see in his work the influences of the Pre-Raphaelites (in particular Burne-Jones) and illustrators like Aubrey Beardsley.
There are a number of churches in Ireland that have Harry Clarke’s glass in them. There are also ones that possess glass created by his workshop after his death. However, it is his own work that demonstrates genius. There is a perfection of fine detail, colour, shape and theme that just cannot be replicated. ‘Harry Clarke blue’ is instantly recognisable in his work as are the beautiful, ethereal faces.
I have selected 3 of his works to illustrate his genius:
- The Eve of St Agnes in the Hugh Lane Municipal Gallery of Modern Art, Parnell Square, Dublin (1924) – 22 panels in a 2-light stained-glass window.
- Salome in a window at the church of St John the Baptist, Duhill, County Tipperary, Ireland.
- A commemorative window at St Mary’s Church, Sturminster Newton, Dorset.
The Eve of St Agnes Window, Hugh Lane Municipal Gallery of Modern Art, Dublin
Hugh Lane Dublin City Gallery, Parnell Square, Dublin. Originally Charlemont House built in 1763, designed by William Cambers for the 1st Earl of Charlemont (James Caufield). Hugh Lane (1875-1915) was an art dealer and collector. He founded the Dublin Municipal Gallery of Modern Art (the 1st public gallery of modern art in the world). In 1933 the Gallery moved into its current location of Charlemont House.[ii]
This is a series of illustrations in panels representing the poem by Keats. The script is minute below each of the scenes. Clarke has taken the poem and created a series of images to breathe it into visual life. He packs in the themes of the poem and every centimetre is packed with colour and imagery. It reminds me of the accomplished miniaturists of the Elizabethan period in England (such as Nicholas Hilliard) but on a grander scale. That ability to command small spaces with exquisite beauty. One could spend hours examining it and still never find all its secrets.
The work was commissioned in 1923 by Harold Jacob (of Jacob’s cream crackers) for the landing of his father’s house in Ailesbury Road, Dublin. Together they agreed on Clarke’s idea for the theme as The Eve of St Agnes. Clarke had put forward other ideas (e.g., Bluebeard, Sleeping Beauty and The Playboy of the Western World by J.M. Synge). Clarke was paid £160 7s 6d for his work (160 pounds, 7 shillings and 6 pence). In 1924 the window was exhibited at the Irish Art Exhibition in Dublin and won the gold medal for Arts and Crafts.[iii]
The window was bought by the Hugh Lane Gallery in 1978.[iv]
The Church of St John the Baptist, Duhill, County Tipperary
Back in 2017 I took a diversion to go off the beaten track in County Tipperary to travel to the small village of Duhill. The church dates from 1826.[v] The plain exterior does not prepare the visitor for two of the most radiant windows of Harry Clarke, from 1925. They are very much in contrast in terms of theme. On one side of the altar is the apparition of the Virgin Mary to St Bernadette at Lourdes. On the other is the scene of a salacious Salome victoriously holding up on a platter the decapitated head of John the Baptist. Herod and Herodias, as well as other retainers, are transfixed by her. Both are moments in time – one passive and serene, the other active and shocking.
What does unite them is the design. Every part of the glass is covered with colours, lines, flowers and a quatrefoil in the lower section. The only white is for the memorial/dedication statements.
In the St Bernadette window –
In the St John the Baptist window –
The Church of St Mary, Sturminster Newton, Dorset
Another memorial window designed and made by Harry Clarke lies in the parish church of St Mary in Sturminster Newton, Dorset. In England there are very few example of his work. This one, again, is a bejewelled wonder. The window dates from 1921.
The 3 saints going from left to right are: St Elizabeth of Hungary, Madonna and Child and St Barbara. The details of the window are exquisite with a tranquillity that depicts feminine grace. The bottom left of the window depicts a kneeling angel offering flowers into the dedication panel. The window’s dedication is for a wife that died at the age of 28. St Barbara on the right has a tower behind her – related to her life and martyrdom. She is a patron saint of architects (and well as engineers, miners and mathematicians).
‘To the Glory of God and in very loving memory of Roma wife of Drummond C. Spencer-Smith of this parish. Born 22 March 1890. Died 12 November 1918’
‘Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God.’
St Elizabeth of Hungary – a charitable wife who died young. She holds roses, emerging from under her cloak – referring to a miracle of roses.
Panel below the Madonna and Child
More beautiful shoes
Fairy Tale Illustrations
Harry Clarke also illustrated books. The main books he illustrated are:
Fairy Tales by Hans Christian Anderson, 1916
Tales of Mystery and Imagination by Edgar Allan Poe, 1923
The Fairy Tales of Charles Perrault, Charles Perrault, 1922
Goethe’s Faust, 1925
Selected Poems of Algernon Swinburne, 1928
When I visited Dublin in 2016, I picked up a first edition of The Fairy Tales of Charles Perrault at the fabulous Ulysses Rare Book Shop, Duke Street, Dublin.
Opening page of The Fairy Tales [vi]
On the wish list
I have visited a number of churches and some galleries to see Clarke’s work, but there are still places for me to go. On my wish list to try and get to see are (a) the Honan Chapel of St Finbarr, University College, Cork (1915-17), (b) St Mary’s Church, Ballinrobe (Co. Mayo) (1925), (c) the windows in Bewley’s Oriental Café (1928); Dublin, and (d) the Geneva Window (1930) in Miami, USA.
However, I did get to see at the Hugh Lane Gallery a piece of stained glass that was rejected for the Geneva Window. It was considered scandalous in its day. It is a scene from the novel, Mr Gilhooley, by Liam O’Flaherty. It is of a dancing Nelly, Gilhooley’s mistress. It was originally part of an eight-panelled piece which 15 panes inspired by the Irish literature, such as Yeats, Shaw and O’Casey. This piece of 1930 was rejected by the Irish Government as too racy. It had been originally commissioned by the government for the League of Nations building in Geneva in the late 1920s. President Cosgrave of the Irish Free State deemed it unsuitable. This pane had developed a crack in its final firing. Clarke remade the pane for what is now in the Geneva Window complete (which is in the Wolfsonian Museum in Miami, Florida).[vii]
[i] Jessica O’Donnell, ‘The Eve of St Agnes by Harry Clarke’, Hugh Lane Gallery May 2018-2020 https://www.hughlane.ie/eve-of-st-agnes-by-harry-clarke [accessed 23 December 2020].
[ii] L. Perry Curtis jun. ‘Lane, Sir Hugh Percy (1875-1915), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Sep 2004, < https://www.oxforddnb.com/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-34391> [accessed 23 December 2020].
[iii] O’Donnell, ‘The Eve of St Agnes by Harry Clarke’.
[iv] O’Donnell, ‘The Eve of St Agnes by Harry Clarke’.
[v] Mary Leland, ‘Fragile windows on the past’, The Irish Times 28 Sep 2002 < https://www.irishtimes.com/news/fragile-windows-on-the-past-1.1096968> [accessed 1 January 2021].
[vi] Charles, Perrault, The Fairy Tales of Charles Perrault Illustrated by Harry Clarke (London: George G. Harrap & Co., 1922).
[vii] Nicola, Gordon Bowe, ‘Harry Clarke’s Geneva Window’, Irish Arts Review Vol 30, No 1, 2013 < https://www.irishartsreview.com/harry-clarkes-geneva-window/> [accessed 1 January 2021].
Gordon Bowe, Nicola, Harry Clarke The Life and Work (Dublin: The History Press, repr 2015)
Gordon Bowe, Nicola, ‘Harry Clarke’s Geneva Window’, Irish Arts Review Vol 30, No 1, 2013 < https://www.irishartsreview.com/harry-clarkes-geneva-window/> [accessed 1 January 2021]
Costigan, Lucy and Michael Cullen, Dark Beauty Hidden Detail in Harry Clarke’s Stained Glass (Newbridge: Merrion Press, 2019)
Perrault, Charles, The Fairy Tales of Charles Perrault Illustrated by Harry Clarke (London: George G. Harrap & Co., 1922)
Leland, Mary, ‘Fragile windows on the past’, The Irish Times 28 Sep 2002 < https://www.irishtimes.com/news/fragile-windows-on-the-past-1.1096968> [accessed 1 January 2021]
O’Donnell, Jessica, ‘The Eve of St Agnes by Harry Clarke’, Hugh Lane Gallery May 2018-2020 https://www.hughlane.ie/eve-of-st-agnes-by-harry-clarke [accessed 23 December 2020]
Perry Curtis jun., L. ‘Lane, Sir Hugh Percy (1875-1915), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Sep 2004, < https://www.oxforddnb.com/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-34391> [accessed 23 December 2020]