Harry Clarke: The Master of Stained Glass
On the 17th of March 1889, Harry Clarke, an Irish stained glass artist and book illustrator, was born in Dublin, Ireland. The second son of Joshua Clarke and Brigid McGonigle, he was remarkable already as a child for his extraordinary individuality and intelligence. After attending several schools, including the Model Schools in Marlborough Street, he became a pupil in Belvedere College at an earlier than college admission age. Allegedly, his exceptional ability in drawing was spotted when he produced a series of caricatures of his professors and school friends. After completing his education at Belvedere College he joined his father’s business, the Stained Glass Studio, where he met William Nagle, a student of the Hibernian Academy Schools, who taught the young Clarke drawing and designing for stained glass; he also stressed to him the importance of discipline and precision in this kind of art.
His first success came in 1910, when being a student at the Metropolitan School of Art in Dublin, he won a gold medal for his stained glass work The Consecration of St. Mel, Bishop of Longford, by St. Patrick in the 1910 Board of Education National Competition. In 1913, he won a travelling scholarship from the Board of Education, which enabled him to see stained glass windows in many French cathedrals and churches. This experience had a great impact on his later style; especially the windows in the cathedral in Chartres made a lasting impression on him. After returning from France, he pursued a career as a book illustrator. He got a commission from Messrs. George G. Harrap of London to illustrate edition of Tales of Mystery and Imagination by Edgar Allan Poe. This led him on to receiving other commissions, among them: Fairy Tales by Hans Christian Andersen, Goethe’s Faust or a selection of poems by Swinburne. His illustrations are exceptional in the way that they combine the simple line with masses of black, thus creating an atmosphere of mysterious tension. George Russell reviewed some of Clarke’s illustrations in his book, The Living Torch. In the book he said: “Harry Clarke is probably the ideal interpreter of Edgar Allan Poe, and wherever the imagination of Goethe conjures up the macabre, the witch, the imp and the devil, Clarke will add a shudder which is congruous with the drama. Nothing in these drawings represents anything in the visible world: all come from that dread mid-world or purgatory of the soul where forms change on the instant by evil or beautiful imagination… But hardly anywhere is there a shape which in its shapelessness has not a terrible precision which reveals how the souls which have lost the Light which lighteth every man who comes into the world, becomes blighted when that Light has gone out and nothing remains save that which made the revolt against Heaven. In these illustrations Harry Clarke is not the artist of men and women, but the seer of the forms which their passions and imaginations assume.” (George Russell, The Living Torch: Æ).
Despite his successful career as a book illustrator, Clarke has been mostly recognised for his stained glass works. His style of design was new in the realm of sacred art, and had come a long way from the excessively sentimental style of religious art generally accepted in his time. There are also visible influences of Art Nouveau and Art Deco. “Harry Clarke was an avid student of other masters; his work shows how thoroughly he absorbed their lessons and, ultimately, expanded on them… Clarke used both brushes and pens to apply his vitreous paint and in this way his approach was like pen-and-ink drawing (though, unlike paper, glass is slippery!). It is interesting to note how similar the two mediums in which Clarke excelled are. With pen and ink, black ink is used in opposition to the white paper; in stained glass the opaque paint is used to hold back the often unruly light. In glass painting, light bursts through any opening left in the paint, and a perceptive artist exploits that, and controls it. Clarke’s glass painting shimmers as he allows the light in. His inventiveness with the details he devised to control the light and to further his composition is marvellous.” (Lucy Costigan, Strangest Genius: The Stained Glass of Harry Clarke).
Clarke created many religious windows but also much secular stained glass. To his most renowned windows belong those of the Honan Chapel in University College Cork, illustrating John Keats’ The Eve of St. Agnes (now in the Hugh Lane Municipal Gallery in Dublin), the famous Crucifixion Window in St. Joseph’s Church in Dublin, and windows in other numerous churches of Dublin. His works can also be seen in various parts of Ireland, among the most notable, in the Lough Derg Basilica, the Roman Catholic Church in Newport (Last Judgement), The Roman Catholic Church in Tully Cross, the Church of the Assumption in Wexford, the Protestant Churches in Skibbereen. Clarke also received many commissions from Great Britain, for the Notre Dame Convent in Ashdown Park, Surrey, the Protestant Church in Nantwich, the Catholic Church in Colwyn Bay, and Dowanhill Convent in Glasgow. He also got commissions from the U.S.A. His first important commission for America was a complete series of windows for the Church of St. Vincent de Paul in Bayonne, New Jersey, which was completed after his death.
Harry Clarke was a very prolific artist, passionate about his work. But he was also a great, warm and loving person. In the recollections of her grandfather, Sunniva (Clarke) Sheridan said: “Today, thinking of my grandfather’s prodigious output of work in his tragically short life fills me with awe. I have travelled far and wide to see his work. Much has been written about him, and his life has been comprehensively and beautifully documented by Nicola Gordon Bowe. But how do I see him? What was he like? I think he was extraordinarily gifted, intelligent, sensitive and thoughtful, yet at the same time very practical, with a caring attitude towards his family. I know that he truly loved his children, was a wonderful storyteller and possessed a magical, whimsical sense of humour.” (Costigan).