Ways to support us
About The Art Story a 501(c)3 Non-Profit Org
Harry Clarke Photo

Harry Clarke

Irish Stained-Glass Artist and Book Illustrator

Born: March 17, 1889 - Dublin, Ireland
Died: January 6, 1931 - Chur, Grisons, Switzerland
"Full of stench and steaming horrors, I had to laugh at my creations [for Faust] or I would have become morbid"
1 of 7
Harry Clarke
"Many have imitated, or tried to imitate, his style, but without success, and, no doubt, his work will be sought for many years to come as amongst the most original and brilliant of the Irish school."
2 of 7
The Irish Times
"There were two sides to his imagination: the religious side, which found its expression in stained glass, and the other side which expressed itself in black and white, in designs which had about them something of the macabre... Both these sides came together in his last great work, his window for the Labour Building in Geneva."
3 of 7
Lennox Robinson
"'"Genius' is the only word in my vocabulary which does full justice to the measure of his gifts as an artist in stained and painted glass"
4 of 7
Thomas Bodkin, first director of National Gallery of Ireland
"Why did not the very first publisher take this Irish genius to his heart?... He came into my room late in the afternoon, slim, pale and youthful, with the air of one who has had rebuffs. He opened his portfolio very shyly, and with his delicate fingers drew out his lovely drawings."
5 of 7
Clarke's publisher, George Harrap
"Clarke's world is a world of fantasy and imagination... like the fantastic Orientalism of Bakst and his designs for the Diaghilev ballet."
6 of 7
Brian Fallon
"He had an originality and poetic purpose that was rivalled only by his great literary peers in Dublin at the time."
7 of 7
Artist Brian Clarke

Summary of Harry Clarke

Clarke is one of Ireland's greatest, and most controversial, modern artists. Emerging during the later phases of the literary and dramatic movement known as the Irish (or Celtic) Revival, he joined the ranks of literary greats W. B. Yates, J. M. Synge and Sean O'Casey in shaping the international reputation of Ireland as a modern sovereign state. Clarke produced a series of remarkable stained-glass windows and book illustrations that breathed new life into both mediums. His audacious designs placed saints and angels next to sexual and macabre imagery giving his work a uniquely strange and otherworldly feel. His illustrations perfectly complemented works by the likes of Hans Andersen, Edgar Allan Poe and Goethe, while his career, cut tragically short by illness, was capped with his greatest masterpiece of all, the Geneva Window, an eight panelled stained glass celebration of Ireland's greatest modern writers. Though it proved a little too exotic for the conservative tastes of the Irish State and the Catholic Church, the director of Ireland's National Gallery, Thomas Bodkin, said of the Geneva Window that it was quite simply "the loveliest thing ever made by an Irishman".

Accomplishments

  • In step with the Irish Revivalist writers with whom he became associated, Clarke was viewed as something of an iconoclast. His early church windows, which most critics agreed rivalled any of the best to be found on the European continent, celebrated early Irish saints and the parts they played in various cults and miracles. This vision was usually at odds with the devotional, Vatican approved, narratives that were at the center of Irish Catholicism.
  • In what is almost universally agreed to be the zenith of his short but brilliant career, the Geneva Window, Clarke extended his version of the Irish Revival to an eight-panel montage featuring scenes from the works of Ireland's greatest modern writers. Through the Irish authorities were less than impressed with his romantic vision of alcoholism, slum dwellings, Protestantism, nudity and sexual temptation, the Window helped confirm new Ireland's credentials as an open-minded democracy.
  • Clarke's prize-winning success as a student opened the door for a brilliant career as an illustrator. His color and black and white images, which carried the influence the Arts and Crafts movement, Art Nouveau and the Vienna Secession, adorned the books of some of the greatest fantasy writers in history. In particular, Clarke's taste for the fantastical and the terrible, which he rendered through distorted human figures, brought him international recognition in his own short lifetime.
  • Clarke revelled in his passion for fantastical stories drawn from folklore and modern literature. Reflecting his love of theater and ballet, his stained glass figures were often dressed in luxurious costumes adorned with shimmering sequins and touches of luminous blue, purple, rose, red, gold and silver. His attention to detail was extended, too, to his backdrops which revealed his unique skill at representing natural materials through the medium of glass.
  • Clarke illustrations often revealed a playful side to his character. In addition to his damaged and distorted figures, which many saw as interpretations of his own ailing body, he was fond of presenting himself in his work. These unusual "self-caricatures", as seen, for instance in his illustrations of Goethe's Faust, brought a sense of mischief to the otherwise morose imagery.

Biography of Harry Clarke

<i>The Colloquy of Monos and Una</i>, Edgar Allan Poe series (1923)

Summing up the life of his friend's unique otherworldly vision, the Irish Nationalist and mystic writer George "AE" Russell wrote: "Harry Clarke is one of the strangest geniuses of his time" and surmised that he might have even "incarnated from the dark side of the moon".

Important Art by Harry Clarke

The Garden of Paradise (1916)

Following his prize-winning success at the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art, Clarke was given his first significant book commission by the successful publisher, George Harrap of London. He was to produce 40 full page illustrations, 16 in color, and additional decorative embellishments for both special (some signed and bound in vellum with others boxed and bound in leather or cloth) and trade editions of Andersen's popular fables. The Christie's auction site records that Clarke (who was paid 200 guineas in instalments for the commission) worked "very hard to a scrupulously recorded timetabled routine in London, Dublin and in France [and] completed the job in April 1915. The book was published to acclaim in the autumn of 1916 and ran into a number of subsequent editions, some published by Harraps, others pirated". Christies also records that many of Clarke's original prints were exhibited (and sold) at Brentano's bookstore, Harrap's publishing partner, in New York and that this was "just as well as whatever original artwork by Clarke that had remained in Harraps' London premises was destroyed in the Blitz" (and thus making original coloured illustrations for Clarke's Hans Andersen collection "extremely rare").

Clarke's illustrations for the Fairy Tales of Hans Christian Andersen point towards his career-long penchant for a richly coloured palate and a love of ornamental detail. "The Garden of Paradise" illustrates the tale of a Prince who is lured into the Garden where he encounters a dancing fairy. She is flanked by "the most beautiful maidens, floating and slender, clad in gauzy mist". Clarke decorates the clothing of the figures with exquisite attention to detail; the mosaic, "Klimt-like", patterns coloured in rich reds, blues and dapples of gold helping to distinguish the female figures. The fairy herself is rendered with the whitened complexion and elaborate redhaired coiffure made popular by the Elizabethan miniature, while in the background, an indigo dark night's sky can be made out. If the Prince, who is distinguished by his plain creamy-yellow gown, ignores the fairy's warning not to kiss her he will cause all to vanish into its looming abyss.

Clarke produced many illustrations throughout his short career including single pieces for magazines, and even two rare promotional publications for the Irish whiskey distiller, Jameson. He is also known to have suggested potential future projects to Harrap including Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Huysmans's À rebours, and Bram Stoker's Dracula.

Saint Gobnait (1916)

Between 1915 and 1918 Clarke created nine windows for the Honan Chapel of St. Finbarr, at University College Cork.. Some of those windows produced before 1917 went on show in Clarke's studio where they received rave notices. The Irish Times reported for instance that "the windows, in the opinion of some of the most competent critics, rival in beauty some of most remarkable products of Continental art", while Irish novelist Edith Somerville found them pleasantly shocking within the conservative atmosphere of Ireland at the time: "In a chapel dedicated to the Infernal Deities they should be exactly right, gorgeous and sinful".

The Art critic Tom Walker writes that "The cultural energy and idealism at large in pre-revolutionary Ireland lay behind Clarke's first major commission [for the Honan Chapel]". He cites Ann Wilson's essay on the chapel that "reframes these windows as diverging from Irish Catholicism's earlier 19th-century devotional revolution, which had sought to bring the Irish church into line with Vatican-approved norms [and that the] fantastical incorporation into Clarke's depictions of early Irish saints with their associated cults and miracle stories stands at odds with all this".

The legend of Saint Gobnait involves a fable that tells how she unleashed a swarm of giant bees on a group of unsuspecting robbers. Walker wrote: "giant bees and tiny figures of frightened robbers peering out anxiously behind the blue-robed saint, whose pointed, impassive profile, unnaturally long slim hands and geometrically stylised body give her an otherworldly, non-human appearance". Walker concludes that "For a brief period, such a vision precariously coalesced with Catholic as well as nationalist Ireland", but for Clarke, "[yet] more grotesque and degenerate images [will] start to crop up in the 1920s".

The Colloquy of Monos and Una (Edgar Allen Poe's Tales of Mystery and Imagination) (1923)

The Colloquy of Monos and Una (Edgar Allen Poe's Tales of Mystery and Imagination) (1923)

While Clarke gained fame in Ireland for his stained glass, it was his illustrations that first brought him international recognition, particularly in the United States. Of the six volumes he illustrated between 1915 and 1931, Poe's Tales of Mystery and Imagination was the most widely disseminated. The book, first published by George G. Harrap in 1919, contained 8 full-colour plates and 24 black and white illustrations. It was reissued in 1923 with this more ominous cover/dustjacket. Poe's macabre exploration of the human psyche was certainly darker than Clarke's previous illustrations for Hans Andersen's fairy tales (and of course, darker than his various religious commissions).

On the cover for the second edition, a bearded and rugged figure pulls back a stage curtain with his skeletal hand, welcoming the reader to the world of Poe's (and Clarke's) fetid imagination. The stage is empty but for a small door through which a figure can be seen raising a mitre. The image evokes a sense of horror, which is echoed in its symbolist border. It is composed of decaying carcases, larval growths and distorted figures. In his review of Clark's illustrations, his friend and director of Ireland's National Gallery Thomas Bodkin wrote "Mr. Clarke gives full rein to his talent for the macabre, the fantastic and the terrible ... it is safe to predict that no one will ever produce more striking effects in black and white". The critic George Russell thought of Clarke as the ideal interpreter of Poe, and remarked on the closeness of their nature. Indeed, Clarke's capacity for darker work was well known at this stage and would be even more fully realized two years later on his illustrations for Goethe's Faust.

Influences and Connections

Influences on Artist
Harry Clarke
Influenced by Artist
Friends & Personal Connections
  • No image available
    Austin Molloy
  • No image available
    George William Russell
  • No image available
    Laurence Waldron
  • No image available
    Michaeál Mac Liammóir
  • No image available
    Sean Keating
Movements & Ideas
Artists
  • No image available
    P. Craig Russel
Friends & Personal Connections
  • No image available
    Austin Molloy
  • No image available
    George William Russell
  • No image available
    Laurence Waldron
  • No image available
    Michaeál Mac Liammóir
  • No image available
    Sean Keating
Movements & Ideas
Open Influences
Close Influences

Useful Resources on Harry Clarke

websites
articles
video clips
Share
Do more

Content compiled and written by Flora Igoe

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Tony Todd

"Harry Clarke Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Flora Igoe
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Tony Todd
Available from:
First published on 26 Apr 2021. Updated and modified regularly
[Accessed ]