The publisher George G Harrap described his first meeting with Harry Clarke in 1913: “He came into my room late in the afternoon, slim, pale and youthful, with the air of one who had rebuffs. He opened his portfolio very shyly and with delicate fingers drew out his lovely drawings.”
That meeting led to commissions for Clarke to illustrate Hans Christian Andersen's Fairy Tales, and, in 1919, Edgar Allan Poe's Tales of Mystery and Imagination.
But however brilliant he proved as an illustrator, Clarke is even more esteemed as an artist in stained glass. This was, in part, the family business: Clarke grew up next to the studio of Joshua Clarke & Sons, on North Frederick Street in Dublin.
He crowned his early fame by making a set of beautiful windows on religious themes for the Honan Chapel at University College Cork.
Although his father was English, Clarke was also comfortably part of Irish nationalist culture, visiting the Aran Islands and learning Gaelic. Yet neither nationalism nor religion has any bearing on one of his great masterpieces, the Eve of St Agnes window, based on the poem by John Keats. Indeed, it might be seen as a visual representation of James Joyce’s determination to “fly the nets” of those forces.
It is a work of almost pure fantasy, redolent of an imagination so luxurious that it seems to transcend the straitened circumstances and conservatism of the early Irish Free State. It is, both literally and in terms of its joyous defiance of oppressive realities, gloriously escapist.
The window was commissioned by Harold Jacob, owner of the famous Dublin biscuit factory, for his house on Ailesbury Road. Its smaller, more domestic scale brought out Clarke’s astonishing ability to draw the most finicky and precise detail out of a very difficult medium. His process involved precise etching on to layers of glass, which were then fitted into a cumbersome lead armature.
Where the earlier book illustrations showed how many variations in colour and depth could be gained from black ink, the stained glass allowed Clarke to indulge his love of shimmering colour. Keats’s poem is vibrant in its invocation of colours, especially reds, purples and blues, and indeed of moonlight filtered through a stained-glass window, and Clarke, who suggested the theme to Jacob, was clearly drawn to its visual energy.
Keats’s tale of elopement is made all the more powerful through the contrasts between the jewel-like comforts of the palace where the heroine sleeps and the frozen wastes outside, to which she and her lover must flee. Clarke’s glittering blues and jagged, pointed forms confirm that their elopement will have a cold and tragic end. And in this the window is sadly prophetic: Clarke himself would not escape either a tragic fate or the narrow-mindedness of the new Ireland.
The Eve of St Agnes window seemed to guarantee him a glittering future. But a cycling accident in 1924, pressure to run the family business after his father’s death, and deteriorating health brought about his early death just seven years later.
His last years were made sadder by the government’s rejection of one of his greatest works, the so-called Geneva Window, which it commissioned in 1926 as Ireland’s gift to the United Nations International Labour Building, in Switzerland. Clarke created 15 scenes from contemporary Irish literature, but the window was rejected because the writers thus celebrated included unapproved figures like Seán O’Casey and Liam O’Flaherty.
For more, see the Royal Irish Academy’s Art and Architecture of Ireland at ria.ie