Sunday 16 June 2019

Books: Drawing a memorial to war

Harry Clarke's War, Marguerite Helmers, Irish Academic Press €29.95 H/B

Through a glass lightly: An etching by Harry Clarke
Through a glass lightly: An etching by Harry Clarke
Deirdre Conroy

Deirdre Conroy

Harry Clarke is one of the few Irish artists who is a household name. His stained glass designs for church windows and Bewley's Oriental Café ensured that his art remained in the public eye. Clarke was born in 1889 and was to become highly skilled as an original graphic artist. But his life was blighted by ill health.

One of his most famous commissions, the Geneva Window, was planned as a gift from Ireland to the International Labour Court in Geneva, and depicts scenes from the writings of 12 of our most celebrated authors. The prurience police, led by President Cosgrave, put a stop to the gift, there being a scantily clad dancer in one panel. Before the controversy ended, Clarke was admitted to a sanatorium in Davos, Switzerland, on 17 March 1929, in an attempt to arrest advancing tuberculosis in both lungs.

Another major project is his depiction of a stanza of Keats's poem The Eve of Saint Agnes. It is the story of Madeline, who is in love with Porphyro, but she can never meet him since he is the sworn enemy of her family. The panels are on display at the Hugh Lane Gallery, although the Crawford Gallery in Cork is fortunate enough to have a set of 19 preparatory coloured drawings for what may arguably be Clarke's secular masterpiece.

Before he became embroiled in the Geneva controversy, Clarke was commissioned in 1923 to illustrate the pages of Ireland's Memorial Records 1914-1918. This newly published research by Marguerite Helmers contextualises a heroic and violent period in our local history. During 1914-1918, three events of importance involved Irish military divisions - Gallipoli, the Easter Rising and the Battle of the Somme. What is surprising is that by the time there was a new Irish Free State, already ambivalent towards the Great War's surviving combatants, the State went ahead with our War Memorial Records.

Only 11 sets remain out of 100, and one set of eight volumes can be seen in the Irish National War Memorial at Islandbridge.

For tourists to Ireland, a visit to the Memorial at Islandbridge would be a pleasing counterpart to viewing the Book of Kells at Trinity College. Both commemorative works are characterised by decorative margins, the latter with an illuminated zoomorphic programme, while Clarke's work reflects a synthesis of Art Nouveau and the Arts and Crafts movement, interlacing Celtic motifs throughout. His female figures are accompanied by familiar symbols such as the wolfhound, round towers, ruined houses, gravestones and the forms of war of that period: trenches, silhouettes of infantrymen and biplanes.

Helmers has produced a refreshing combination of narrative and rare illustrations.

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