Win­dow dress­ing

A new col­lec­tion of wide-rang­ing es­says aims to con­tex­tu­alise the work of the great Ir­ish stained-glass artist and il­lus­tra­tor

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - PATRICK FREYNE - WORDS BY AI­DAN DUNNE

Stained-glass artist Harry Clarke

Harry Clarke crammed a stag­ger­ing amount of work into his trag­i­cally short life. His achieve­ment is all the more re­mark­able given that he strug­gled with ill health through­out, and was even­tu­ally di­ag­nosed as suf­fer­ing from tu­ber­cu­lo­sis. He had been se­ri­ously un­well for some time when he died in his sleep on Jan­uary 6th, 1931. He had stopped overnight in Coire, a small Swiss vil­lage, on his way back to Dublin hav­ing spent sev­eral months at Davos in a vain at­tempt to res­cue his rapidly fail­ing health. In all like­li­hood he knew he was dy­ing and, trav­el­ling in win­ter, took a des­per­ate gam­ble on get­ting home.

His time at Davos was fur­ther trou­bled by the un­cer­tainty sur­round­ing the fate of one of his mas­ter­pieces, The Geneva Win­dow, still tech­ni­cally a work in progress. The win­dow, a ma­jor un­der­tak­ing, had be­come mired in po­lit­i­cal and diplo­matic com­pli­ca­tions. Orig­i­nally com­mis­sioned by the state for the In­ter­na­tional Labour Court in Geneva, its eight stained-glass pan­els make up a con­cen­trated visual com­pen­dium of 20th-cen­tury Ir­ish lit­er­ary im­agery, but a morally con­ser­va­tive po­lit­i­cal es­tab­lish­ment was ap­palled by what it viewed as neg­a­tive, li­cen­tious rep­re­sen­ta­tions of Ir­ish cul­ture – one panel has a drunken Gil­hoo­ley leer­ing at the danc­ing, semi-nude Nelly, from Liam O’Fla­herty’s Mr Gil­hoo­ley, for ex­am­ple. That it never made it to Geneva and now re­sides in Florida is a telling in­dict­ment of the cul­tural ar­biters of the time.

When he was born in 1889, his par­ents had moved to a spacious Ge­or­gian house on North Fred­er­ick Street in Dublin. To the rear was his fa­ther’s work­shop, where he ran a grow­ing busi­ness as a church dec­o­ra­tor. He added a stained-glass stu­dio. Fol­low­ing his mother’s death, from tu­ber­cu­lo­sis, when Clarke was just 14, he worked as an ap­pren­tice with his fa­ther. His ex­cep­tional abil­i­ties were quickly ev­i­dent and he went on to study at the Dublin Met­ro­pol­i­tan School of Art, pick­ing up prizes along the way. He met and mar­ried a fel­low stu­dent, Margaret Crilly, her­self a fine artist.

Be­sides build­ing up the stained-glass busi­ness, Clarke looked for work as an il­lus­tra­tor and won sev­eral com­mis­sions from Har­rap. These three ma­jor strands of ac­tiv­ity – run­ning the busi­ness; be­ing in­tri­cately in­volved in the de­sign and pro­duc­tion of stained-glass projects for Ire­land, the UK and as far away as Aus­tralia; and illustration – amounted to an un­sus­tain­able work­load. As his health de­te­ri­o­rated in the 1920s, Margaret be­came in­creas­ingly in­volved in the busi­ness with her brother-in-law Wal­ter.

Fol­low­ing Clarke’s death, his good friend Len­nox Robin­son wrote that “Ire­land has lost her great­est de­signer in stained glass, and her great­est black-and-white artist”, and he re­marked on the in­ten­sity with which Clarke had thrown him­self into his work. Clarke’s ex­cep­tional tal­ent was never ques­tioned, and the out­stand­ing qual­ity of his work, in both stained-glass and illustration, has al­ways been recog­nised – the bril­liance of his work was in full view in churches through­out the coun­try – but he was for a long

time un­der­es­ti­mated nonethe­less.

He lived through an ex­tra­or­di­nary pe­riod in Ir­ish his­tory, from the Celtic Re­vival, through 1916, the War of In­de­pen­dence, the es­tab­lish­ment of the Free State and the Civil War and the be­gin­ning of the na­tion-build­ing project in the lat­ter half of the 1920s. Harry Clarke and Artis­tic Vi­sions of the New Ir­ish State is an an­thol­ogy of es­says that set out to lo­cate the artist in his time, and in re­la­tion to the po­lit­i­cal and cul­tural cur­rents of his time.

Bit of an odd­ity

It’s fair to say he did not fit neatly into any cul­tural his­tor­i­cal nar­ra­tive that emerged from his era. Com­men­ta­tors in­clined to see the rise of modernism as pro­gres­sive found him too con­ser­va­tive, a bit of an odd­ity. At its sim­plest, this view cast him as not much more than a dis­ci­ple of Aubrey Beard­s­ley, an artist who was, to be fair, clearly a sig­nif­i­cant fig­ure for Clarke. The late, lamented Ni­cola Gordon Bowe, whose ex­ten­sive re­search and writ­ings on Clarke, start­ing with his graphic work and cul­mi­nat­ing in a bench­mark bi­og­ra­phy, The Life and Work

of Harry Clarke, in 1989, the cen­te­nary of his birth, is the fig­ure most re­spon­si­ble for a com­pre­hen­sive over­haul of his achieve­ment and rep­u­ta­tion, and the re­newal of aca­demic in­ter­est in him.

In her bi­og­ra­phy Gordon Bowe places him squarely as an Ir­ish sym­bol­ist, like his friends WB Yeats and Ge­orge Rus­sell. If he could not be co-opted into a mod­ernist nar­ra­tive of Ir­ish art his­tory, nei­ther could he be ac­com­mo­dated in the na­tion­al­ist camp. As the new col­lec­tion of es­says make clear, he was deeply in­ter­ested in and in­formed about Ir­ish cul­tural his­tory and, for ex­am­ple, friendly with Seán Keat­ing, but, as Éimear O’Con­nor writes, steeped as his work was “in Ir­ish lit­er­a­ture and tra­di­tion . . . it was cre­atively con­joined with” myr­iad Euro­pean and eastern in­flu­ences. The na­ture of his work, in illustration and stained-glass, put him firmly in the midst of an emerg­ing phase of Ir­ish cul­tural life, but he was not en­gaged in con­sciously shap­ing or defin­ing Ir­ish iden­tity in the way that Keat­ing was.

De­spite the vol­ume’s ti­tle, the pur­pose of these es­says is not to slot Clarke’s work into any par­tic­u­lar box rep­re­sent­ing a vi­sion of Ire­land, but to con­tex­tu­alise him in a more open way. In that sense it builds on Gordon Bowe’s bi­og­ra­phy. What emerges en­riches our view of Clarke as an artist. Not least in il­lu­mi­nat­ing the den­sity of thought and ob­ser­va­tion that he put into ev­ery­thing he did. Kelly Sul­li­van’s es­say, Harry

Clarke’s Nat­u­ral World, is es­pe­cially in­for­ma­tive in this re­gard. She be­gins with a quote from a book reviewer in 1920, not­ing of one illustration: “Mr Clarke can make a daisy look cor­rupt,” and goes on to elab­o­rate, spec­u­la­tively but com­pellingly, on the ex­tent of the artist’s sources and ref­er­ences, from works on botany and nat­u­ral his­tory to the Blaschka glass models in the Mu­seum of Nat­u­ral His­tory. She metic­u­lously sifts through stained-glass pan­els and il­lus­tra­tions to build her case, and her close read­ing is fas­ci­nat­ing and re­veal­ing.

Harry Clarke and Artis­tic Vi­sions of the New Ir­ish State, edited by An­gela Grif­fith, Mar­guerite Helm­ersa nd Róisin Kennedy is pub­lished by Ir­ish Aca­demic Press


Be­sides his famed stained-glass work, Harry Clarke was an ac­com­plished il­lus­tra­tor and won sev­eral com­mis­sions from Har­rap.

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