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Harry Clarke - Biography and Legacy

Irish Stained-Glass Artist and Book Illustrator

Born: March 17, 1889 - Dublin, Ireland
Died: January 6, 1931 - Chur, Grisons, Switzerland

Biography of Harry Clarke


Born on Saint Patrick's Day, Clarke was the eldest son of Brigid née MacGonigal and Joshua Clarke, a church decorator who moved to Dublin from Leeds in 1877 to start a decorating business. This business became Joshua Clarke & Sons following the birth of Harry and his younger brother, Walter. The two boys would inherit their mother's respiratory problems, from which she died in 1903. This was very painful blow for young Harry who had been especially close to his mother.

Clarke attended Marlborough Model School, and later, Belvedere College, the same Jesuit college attended by James Joyce some years prior. It is Joyce in fact who provides an insight into Clarke's educational experiences through his novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man which describes Belvedere as a place where young boys are terrorized by stories of tortures in hell for those who sinned and especially for those who were sexually prurient. Indeed, the art critic Philip Hoare notes that Harry's "family worried that this influence led to Clarke's 'fascination with the terrors of damnation'". When asked about his father's time at Belvedere, Clarke's eldest son, Michael, told how the priests left him with a "grim understanding of the quality of hell and an idealized version of an improbable Paradise". Despite these formative experiences, Michael added that his father, who was not devout, never decried Catholicism, and while its dogma irritated him, the "deeper mysteries" of religion filled him with awe.

Early Training and Work

On leaving school, Clarke was briefly apprenticed as a draughtsman to architect Thomas McNamara before joining his father's stained-glass business. During his apprenticeship he was tutored by William Nagle, a prominent artist and craftsman in Dublin. He also attended night classes at the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art. Art critic Tom Walker writes: "At the Metropolitan School of Art [Clarke] took life-drawing classes with William Orpen and was instructed in stained-glass design by A.E. Child. A former assistant of the leading British stained-glass artist Christopher Whall, Child had come to Dublin in 1901; to remarkable effect, he helped conjure Ireland's exceptional Arts and Crafts stained-glass industry, also teaching the likes of Wilhelmina Geddes and Michael Healy". Clarke's skill as an artist and colorist did not go unnoticed and between 1911 and 1913 he was awarded no less than three gold medals by the Board of Education National Competition.

After graduating from the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art in 1913, Clarke won a scholarship to tour France where he studied the stained-glass windows of prominent medieval Churches and Cathedrals. His excursion would have a great influence on his own career, especially his visit to Chartres Cathedral with its magnificent twelfth and thirteenth century widows featuring jewel-like shades of blue, red, magenta, emerald, purple, burnt orange and gold. Clarke became transfixed by the deep blues and ruby reds which he would learn to animate by applying aciding and plating to his finished glass. This effect would become a hallmark of his work.

Clarke looked beyond gothic French Cathedrals as he absorbed the influence of the best of French symbolism, Art Nouveau, Art Deco, and the Vienna Secessionists (notably Gustave Klimt). His love for the arts, and his interest in poetry, literature, ballet and cinema, impacted on his stained-glass work and his illustrations. He was also a keen photographer and often produced photographic portraits as a reference point for figures (often in difficult poses) in his window designs.

Clarke's reputation for skill and innovation soon spread amongst Dublin's golden circle of literary, political, legal and artistic figures. Laurence "Larky" Waldron, a stockbroker, Nationalist MP, and Governor of the National Gallery of Ireland and Belvedere College, was part of this group. He would emerge as Clarke's greatest champion. It was he who, in 1913, first commissioned Clarke to illustrate Samuel Taylor Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Alexander Pope's The Rape of the Locke though, in the event, Clarke failed to fully complete either project. His illustrations were well received as whimsical and wistful, but some critics accused his work of verging on "boring". Clarke wasn't to be deterred, however.

In October 1914, Clarke married the artist and teacher Margaret Crilly. The couple had met at the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art where she was one of the most prodigious pupils of the Irish artist, Sir William Orpen. In the month of his marriage, Clarke was also commissioned to design nine stained-glass windows in the Celtic Revival Style - the Celtic Revival being a literary and artistic movement that began in the 1880s and sought to shape a modern Irish national identity through a revival in the native Gaelic language and ancient folk traditions - for the Royal University in Cork's Honan Chapel. This would prove a key turning point in Clarke's career.

Only the finest craftsmen in the country were commissioned for this chapel, and Clarke insisted on using only the best materials. As it was the height of World War One, some of these materials were not available in Ireland. With the help of his bookkeeper, Miss Sullivan, Clarke had specialised lashed glass, lead and the fluoric acid required for etching, smuggled in from England (apparently concealed in a small leather case). His efforts were rewarded with the Irish Times stating that the Honan Chapel windows "rival in beauty some of the most remarkable products of Continental art", and contemporary Irish novelist Edith Somerville noted that with their "hellish splendour - In a chapel dedicated to the Infernal Deities they should be exactly right, gorgeous and sinful". Somerville's comment was no doubt an allusion to the sinners, thieves and depraved figures that appear amid the intricate designs of the Honan windows.

In the summer of 1915 the Clarkes took a delayed honeymoon on the island of Inisheer, the smallest Island of the Aran Islands in Galway Bay. The Island was a special place for Clarke who had spent many previous summers there with his friends from the Dublin Metropolitan School. As the art critic Philip Hoare writes, Clarke "spent six summers, often with his friend, the artist Austin Molloy, on Inisheer [...] where he dressed in a white felt báinín suit made from the wool of local sheep and wore peculiar red raw-hide shoes called pampooties. He might have been a faun in a design for [founder of the Ballet Russe] Diaghilev by [costume designer] Leon Bakst".

It was a location proved to be inspirational for Clarke's work. While he is not noted for his landscapes (as other stained-glass artists such as Louis Comfort Tiffany are) his work is often adorned with minute blossoms and creatures that symbolize the beauty of nature. Indeed, Tiffany's work focused his windows on a natural scene such as a willow tree, whereas Clarke worked much more in the mode of a symbolist. He used elements from nature rather to represent certain attributes, such as purity, love, innocence and peace. Inisheer's flora, fauna and marine life inspired many of these natural motifs in Clarke's work.

Also in the summer of 1915, Clarke's younger brother Walter married Margaret's sister Mary, and the two couples would remain close. Harry and Margaret had three children and led busy lives, Margaret becoming an established artist of Royal Hibernian Academy status, and Clarke's stained glass commissions growing in number. But Hoare suggests that Clarke may have been leading a double life and that his biographies "do not extend to the issues [of his sexuality] raised by his work". As he says, Clarke married and had three children "Yet the queerness in his work seems startlingly explicit, hiding in plain sight: in convents and chapels, in popular publications and in his [own] dandified performance. Given the fate meted out to Oscar Wilde, his fellow countryman, Clarke might have hesitated to transgress too far. But it could hardly be possible to make a more public statement than he did. His gloriously strange vision still bursts triumphantly through those leaded windows". Though Hoare's observation is no more than informed speculation, his close friendship with the famous gay English/Irish stage actor Michaeál Mac Liammóir, with whom he socialized away from Dublin on the London's West End theater scene, may have helped feed this suggestion.

One of Clarke's “menacing” illustrations from Poe's <i>Tales of Mystery and Imagination</i> (1919).

In London, meanwhile, Clarke joined the prominent publisher George G. Harrap. Shocked that Clarke's first publisher had not retained his services, Harrap commissioned Clarke to illustrate The Fairy Tales of Hans Christian Andersen. It would be his first completed work and featured a mix of color plates and black and white illustrations. Before the decade was out, Clarke contributed similar content for Edgar Allen Poe's Tales of Mystery and Imagination (1919) and an anthology of modern poetry, The Years at the Spring (1920). During these years, J. Clarke and Sons Studios had become incredibly busy and Clarke would occasionally help his father with important commissions before he himself became manager of the Studio's stained-glass division on his father's passing in 1921.

Mature Period

Left: Photograph of Clarke in the posture of crucifixion. Right: Close up of <i>The Crucifixion and the Adoration of the Cross by Irish Saints</i> (1920) in St Joseph's Church, Terenure, Co. Dublin

The 1920s was the most prolific period of Clarke's career. He produced more than 130 stained glass windows with some of his most important works coming during this time. He produced three windows - The Crucifixion and the Adoration of the Cross by Irish Saints (1920), The Annunciation (1922) and The Coronation of the Virgin in Glory (1923) - for St. Joseph's Catholic Church, in Terenure, Dublin with the Annunciation winning first prize at the Aonach Tailteann Art Exhibition and Celtic Revival Festival.

In 1924 Clarke completed The Eve of St Agnes, a window which earned him great acclaim. Indeed, in 1925 he was given the great honour of being elected an associate of the Royal Hibernian Academy. During this golden period, Clarke divided his time between Dublin and London. In London his favourite pastime was to visit the theater and the Ballet Russe. The Diaghilev ballet was his favourite and the exotic costumes of the dancers, designed by Léon Bakst, would directly influence his work. Clarke cut a dapper figure on the London theater scene. While attending performances at the Alhambra Theatre in London, for instance, he made the acquaintance of the actor Michaeál Mac Liammóir who later remarked on how exquisitely Clarke was turned out, commenting specifically on his tall and slender frame, his dark good looks and his immaculate formal attire.

One of Clarke's illustrations for John Jameson three-star whisky (1924)

The first quarter of the twentieth century is also considered a golden-age of gift-book illustration. Adding to his previous commissions for Harrap, Clarke illustrated Charles Perrault's Fairy Tales of Perrault in 1922 and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's great masterpiece, Faust in 1925. His work for Harrap was of such quality it would see him ranked next to other master illustrators of the period including Arthur Rackhan, Key Nielson and Virginia Frances Sterrett. His other important commissions during this period included a set of illustrations for Ireland's memorial Records in 1914-18 for Maunsel and Roberts Ltd. in 1923, and two sets of illustrations, A History of a Great House (1924) and Elixir of Life (1925), for Jameson's of Dublin whiskey distilleries.

Next to the "frivolous" commercial designs for Jameson's, Clarke's other illustrations were becoming darker; full of macabre imagery and increasingly controversial. His illustrations for Faust, for instance, carry scenes of death and decay as well as erotic imagery. These dark and sexual tendencies also seeped into his stained-glass commissions, although with religious commissions he was rather obliged to work with a greater sensitivity.

By the mid-1920s, Clarke's work was being ranked among the international masters, such as Tiffany, Burne-Jones and the medieval colourists. He had significantly changed the style of stained glass work in Ireland which, before Clarke, had consisted of mass-produced panels of poor quality that were imported from Europe, primarily Munich, Birmingham or London, and assembled in Ireland. His links to the Celtic Revivalists helped to distinguish his style. Indeed, Celtic motifs swirled through his work which, already considered exotic in Ireland, carried the Celtic theme around the rest of the arts and crafts world.

Late Period

In 1926 the Irish Government commissioned Clarke to create a window for the International Labour Building in Geneva. The Geneva Window was to become Clarke's most famous, and most controversial, commission. Nicola Gordon Bowe, Associate Fellow in the Faculty of Visual Culture at Dublin's National College of Art and Design, describes how "Clarke visited the suggested staircase site outside the Deputy Director's room in the International Labour building in April 1926, just after his 37th birthday. He did this on his way back via Paris and London from a convalescent trip to Tangier and Spain arranged by his friend, the writer Lennox Robinson". Clarke had been suffering from exhaustion following a "heavy schedule of stained glass and graphic work [and] his health (his eyes in particular) had been suffering".

Bowe adds that "While preparing to escape to London in January 1926 from the pressures of running the church-decorating studios he ran with his brother Walter in Dublin's North Frederick Street, he had fallen off his bicycle, resulting in serious injuries [but] by the time he reached Geneva, he felt reinvigorated, excited by the prospect of such a prestigious international commission, and was soon back at work in Dublin".

Detail from the <i>Geneva Window</i>

The eight-panel window was to feature vignettes representing the work of 15 twentieth century Irish writers: Padraig Pearse, Lady Gregory, G B Shaw, J M Synge, Seumas O'Sullivan, James Stephens, Seán O'Casey, Lennox Robinson, W B Yeats, Liam O'Flaherty, George AE Russell, Padraic Colum, George Fitzmaurice, Seamus O'Kelly and James Joyce. While there was (and is) general agreement that the Geneva Window was Clarke's great masterwork, the project was poised to go down in Irish cultural history as one of its most ill-fated ventures. As Bowe describes it: "On 17 March 1929 [Clarke] was admitted to a Swiss sanatorium in an attempt to arrest advancing tuberculosis in both lungs. He entrusted the final stages of the window to his studio artists, with whom he corresponded during the fourteen long months he remained away. On his return in May 1930, he could at last complete the window himself, and have it 'mounted in a specially constructed frame' for viewing in early September [...] But disaster was about to strike. By 30 September 1930, the President's objections to the 'subject matter of certain of the representations' illustrating 'scenes from certain authors... as representative of Irish literature and culture' had gathered momentum".

The panels representing the work of Joyce and O'Flaherty, for instance, were considered licentious and decadent by the Catholic church and generally detrimental to the image of the new Irish State. Government officials did visit Clarke's studio but as elections approached the First President of the Irish Free State, William T Cosgrave, declared that the work might "give grave offence to our people" and worried that the government might sacrifice votes from influential groups, in particular the Catholic church, if the offending window was sanctioned. No final decision was reached, however, and the fate of Clarke's career-defining masterpiece hung in the balance.

In July 1930 Clarke's brother, Walter, died from pneumonia. This tragedy, coupled with the pressure of completing the Window, led to a relapse in his own health and Clarke was forced to return to the Swiss sanitorium in October. Bowe writes that he left for Davos leaving instructions that "any Geneva-related correspondence should be forwarded to him" but that this left "the window in the studios, its future unresolved". She describes how he "wrote anxiously to Cosgrave [...] enquiring about the government's decision, but two days before the cabinet's New Year decision requesting the studios to set up the window's panels for further consideration, Clarke died, on 6 January 1931, still in Switzerland".

The Geneva Window was rejected and Clarke's widow, Margaret, was offered the work at the price of Clarke's original commission. Following her death in 1961, the window was loaned to the Dublin Municipal Gallery of Modern Art between 1963-1980 but was removed by Clarke's two sons when the Window was put into storage. The Geneva Window was then sold for a sum "in excess of £100,000" to the Wolfsonian Foundation in Miami, Florida where it is proudly displayed to this day.

The Legacy of Harry Clarke

During his life, Clarke created over 150 windows and a number of panels for churches and private establishments in Ireland, England, the USA and Australia. The distinctive jewel-like appearance of his windows; his dazzling use of color in both glass and illustration, helped widen and elevate the aesthetic influence of both mediums. W B Yates called Clarke "Ireland's greatest artist in stained glass" while George ("AE") Russell referred to Clarke as "one of the strangest geniuses of his time"; a man who might very well "have incarnated here from the dark side of the moon".

In assessing his legacy, Philip Hoare called Clarke a modern artist "at the heart of the nascent Irish Free State, negotiating the secular and the sacred at a time when the twin powers of state and church collided and colluded". Yet within the darkness, Clarke's work was "Ethereal and beautiful and, in its wit and contemporaneity, strangely compassionate"; an art that reflected an Irish society "much more cosmopolitan, sophisticated and aesthetically aware than has normally been acknowledged".

The art critic Tom Walker agreed, writing, "It is clear that Harry Clarke and his chosen media - stained glass and book illustration - are now central to any sense of early 20th-century Irish art, while Lennox Robinson, wrote on Clarke's death that his art would live on for "our generation, and for generations to come", and said of his colors, "They will shine and glow; those blues and reds - how he loved blue! - an inspiration to the faithful".

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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
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First published on 26 Apr 2021. Updated and modified regularly
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