History, pride and Harry Clarke
The Dublin artist's diverse legacy reflects the confidence of a newly forged state, though his avant-garde edge led to conflict, writes historian Róisín Kennedy
Harry Clarke is best known for his religious stained-glass windows. In his short life, he also produced secular stained glass, book illustrations and graphic design. Now a new book, Harry Clarke and Artistic Visions of the New Irish State, takes a closer look at some of his key works and uncovers the complex and at times problematic relationship between the artist and the new Irish state.
Clarke was active in artistic, literary and theatrical circles in Dublin in the 1920s. He was a prominent member of the Arts and Crafts Society of Ireland, a teacher at the Metropolitan School and designer of programmes for the Dublin Drama League, the Abbey Theatre, and the United Arts Club. His ubiquitous designs include windows for Bewley's café on Grafton Street and the early cover of the Dublin Magazine, founded by Seumas O'Sullivan in 1923. This proclaims the intellectual confidence of the newly independent state while holding on to its peculiar sense of history and pride.
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Clarke's elaborately designed promotional booklets for the long-established Dublin distillers, John Jameson and Son Ltd, attest to the historical origins of the company and to its embrace of modernity and the need in changed economic and political circumstances to advertise in a distinctive and imaginative manner.
Clarke's highly productive career spanned the period from World War I and the early years of the Irish Free State to his premature death from tuberculosis at the age of 41 in 1931. His legacy was continued by the hundreds of windows produced by the Clarke Studios which continued in operation until 1973.
Through these, Clarke's vision became pervasive throughout many churches and religious institutions across Ireland, and in England, the US, Kenya, Zambia, South Africa, Nigeria, New Zealand and Australia.
His first major commission was to make 11 windows for the new Honan Chapel in University College Cork in 1915, installed to great acclaim in 1917. Rather than producing generic saints of the type that dominated so much conventional religious stained glass in Ireland at this period, Clarke created a distinctive iconography for each Irish saint. In the St Gobnait window, giant bees and the faces of terrified robbers peer out from behind the saint's blue robes. This refers to the story that the Ballyvourney saint miraculously defended her church from thieves by sending a swarm of insects to sting them.
Clarke also produced stained-glass for secular patrons such as The Eve of St Agnes window which was made for the wealthy Dublin biscuit manufacturers, the Jacobs. Now in the Hugh Lane Gallery, it was originally installed on the staircase of the Jacobs' home in Ailesbury Road. The window illustrates John Keats's gothic poem in which the young heroine, Madeline elopes from her father's moonlit mansion with her lover Porphyro. References to blue, purple, rose, red, gold, silver and white throughout the poem are mirrored in the brilliant colours of Clarke's window. Clarke suggested the subject which reflected his interest in the fantastical and the macabre. This is also manifest in the artist's admiration for contemporary Irish writing which inspired several stained glass works and illustrations.
The most notorious was the Geneva Window, commissioned by the Irish government in 1927, as a gift from the Irish Free State to the International Labour Organisation in Geneva. It illustrates scenes from 15 texts by modern Irish writers including James Joyce, Seán O'Casey, and WB Yeats. Its decadent air, like that of the Eve of Saint Agnes window, is partly due to its referencing of the Ballets Russes, the contemporary avant-garde company known for its extravagant costumes and sets, and for the erotic nature of its dance performances. Unfortunately, the government viewed the window and particularly a striptease scene from Liam O'Flaherty's novel Mr Gilhooley, as too salacious and redolent of "sex and drunkenness," and refused to send it to Switzerland. It is now on permanent display in the Wolfsonian Museum, Miami.
Clarke's international reputation as an illustrator benefited from the rise of publishing in illustrated gift books after World War I and his collaboration with the London publisher, George G Harrap. His ability to pick up on the subversive nature of the fairy tale is evident in his image of Little Red Riding Hood which appeared in the 1922 Fairy Tales of Charles Perrault. Armed with an umbrella, Red is presented as playful and powerful rather than the victim of the predatory wolf preferred by guardians of public morality. In the sumptuously illustrated, The Year's at the Spring (1920), an anthology of contemporary poetry, Clarke creates a fantasy world in which angels, fairies and mermaids inhabit bizarre landscapes, dominated by strange anthropomorphic foliage. One review of the book noted that Clarke "can make a daisy look corrupt".
His work reveals the artist's deep knowledge of biology and the natural world, especially of the flora and fauna of Ireland. He modified botanical forms which he studied in books, the Museum of Natural History and on visits to the Aran Islands, to create a distinctive ornamental style in both glass and illustration. Over the course of the 1920s, Clarke's use of organic imagery becomes increasingly grotesque, perhaps because of his own sense of mortality, suffering as he was from the physical symptoms of tuberculosis.
It could also have been a reaction to the increasingly prescriptive nature of life in Free State Ireland, something which Clarke and many of his fellow artists resisted. In 1928, George Russell referred to the emaciated figures in Clarke's illustrations to the Selected Poems of Charles Swinburne as forms too frail for bodily enjoyment of any desire".
Building on the scholarship of Nicola Gordon Bowe, which revived Clarke's reputation, Harry Clarke and Artistic Visions of the New Irish State explores the extensive artistic and cultural references in his work and what they meant to his contemporaries. It counteracts the cliché that visual art did not matter to modern Ireland.
Dr Róisín Kennedy is a lecturer at the School of Art History and Cultural Policy at UCD and a co-editor of the 'Harry Clarke and Artistic Visions of the New Irish State', published by the Irish Academic Press