What is it?
Madeline, St Agnes’s charmed maid
(detail) is a watercolour by Harry Clarke (1889-1931) painted around 1923.
How was it done? More a drawing with a watercolour wash than a watercolour per se, it is part of his preparatory work for a major commission. Approached by businessman Harold Jacob (of Jacob’s biscuits), who wanted something outside of the ordinary domestic stained-glass window for his Ailesbury Road house, Clarke leaped
at the chance. He first dissuaded Jacob from his more general thematic ideas with a counterproposal offering a choice of literary sources, including John Keats's 42-stanza poem with a medieval setting, The Eve of St Agnes.
Given the go-ahead, he devised a challengingly elaborate design of 22 small leaded panels, each derived from a specific part of the poem’s narrative (the relevant lines are inscribed at the base of each panel). Clarke was a brilliant illustrator, and the visualisations he created in the preliminary graphic works form the essence of the finished window, but are noticeably freer than the densely patterned, intensely coloured glass panels. Kathleen Quigley worked with him on the actual panels, which amount to a tour de force of stained-glass technique. It is in the collection of the Hugh Lane Gallery in Dublin, where it is a perennial public favourite.
Where can I see it?
It is included in a new exhibition,
Dreaming in Blue: Harry Clarke Watercolours
at the Crawford Art Gallery, Emmet Place, Cork (until February 14th,
). In 1925, the Gibson Bequest committee acquired 19 pencil drawings, watercolours and gouaches related to The Eve of St Agnes, plus six original illustrations, for the Crawford. The bequest, of major importance to the gallery, was left by Joseph Stafford Gibson, originally from Kilmurry and a keen amateur artist, when he died in 1919. Because it is light-sensitive, the work is not on permanent display, so this is an exceptional chance to see it. The show also includes two booklets illustrated by Clarke, a display of his earliest, prize-winning stained-glass panels and John J Doherty’s 2003 documentary,
Harry Clarke: Darkness in Light
. An audio dimension is provided by Fiona Shaw, who reads Keats’s poem. It runs until Valentine’s Day, a nod to the heightened romance of both the poem and what Clarke made of it.
Is it a typical work by the artist?
It is one of Clarke’s masterpieces, and typical in that it crystallises every aspect of his talent at the time. Consciously so: he could certainly have opted for something simpler and less demanding, but he was driven. The appeal of Keats’s poem, inspired by the folk belief that a young woman might under certain circumstances foresee her husband-to-be in a dream, is obvious. Centred on the illicit love of Madeline for her family’s enemy Porphyro, the poem allows Clarke the symbolist endless scope for invention. He conjures up a feverish, sickly, fantastical atmosphere, a heady mix of obsession, danger and eroticism, blurring dream and reality.
Sadly, the tragically short-lived Clarke was increasingly unwell during the 1920s as tuberculosis, which eventually killed him, took its toll. Despite illness, he was extremely productive as an artist and his reputation, always secure, continues to grow.