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Gorgeous and Sinful

Catherine Marshall

Harry Clarke and Artistic Visions of the New Irish State, eds Angela Griffith, Marguerite Helmers and Róisín Kennedy, Irish Academic Press, 372 pp, €29.95, ISBN: 978-1788550451

Seeing Harry Clarke’s Saint Ita and Saint Gobnait windows in the Honan Chapel, Cork in 1917, Edith Somerville wrote to her brother: “I almost disliked the blue one and the Aubrey Beardsley female face thought horrible: so modern and conventionally unconventional.” She thought his windows had “a kind of hellish splendour … gorgeous and sinful”. Somerville’s own paintings and her comic writing reveal a wholesome view of the world, but recognising the opposing elements in Clarke’s work she knew that wholesomeness is no match for splendour. It was the promise of splendour that led discerning patrons like Harold Jacob to go to Clarke when they wanted something “out of the run of ordinary stained glass” to embellish their homes.

Harry Clarke and Artistic Visions of the Irish Free State proves the case for the pre-eminence of Clarke among Irish artists. His work can be read in a variety of ways – as modernist, late Victorian, political, even apolitical, but whichever way one argues about interpretations it is hard to question his achievements. Yet Fionna Barber doesn’t mention him in her important Art in Ireland since 1910 (2013), and Brian Fallon, although an admirer, relegated him to a chapter on “The Crafts Revival” towards the end of his 1994 book. Their dismissal is surprising since Barber and Fallon, like the editors of this book, are interested in the artistic visions of the Irish Free State and Barber even wrote a challenging essay on Clarke’s wife, Margaret Crilley, in 2017. As the editors of the new book point out, monographs on twentieth century Irish artists were rare, yet Clarke has been the subject of several, so why was he so spectacularly omitted?

Clarke was a stained glass artist, illustrator and graphic designer and no matter how brilliant he was in terms of concept and execution, his practice was not central to the concerns of the Royal Hibernian Academy and consequently, the Irish art establishment, until long after his untimely death. It took rebellious students to force the National College of Art to add “Design” to its title and terms of reference in 1971 and despite the fact that in a single generation Ireland produced three world leaders in stained glass in Clarke, Wilhelmina Geddes and Evie Hone, the art form was not taken seriously in the country until Nicola Gordon Bowe’s appointment to teach design history in the reformed NCAD in 1979. In the light of this, Eimear O’Connor’s essay on the personal relationship between Clarke and Sean Keating serves as a welcome challenge to expectations of polarisation, although it does not combat academic exclusivity.

Thankfully, this book operates on the assumption that we have all learned to appreciate good art where we find it, and has no truck with artform prejudice. In recognising the centrality of Clarke to any discussion of Irish visual culture in the early years of the state, it looks at questions of modernism, nationalism, attitudes to religion and ecclesiastical imperialism, international influences that range from literature and science to psychoanalytic theory, and roots it all in a number of discussions about the patron-artist relationship and the practicalities of running an art enterprise. Jack Yeats (who commissioned Clarke to design his book plates) was also involved in the business of his sister’s Cuala Press, but they did all the managerial work. Clarke, on the other hand, was obliged to take over the running of the family stained glass business from the mid-1920s, until ill-health forced him to hand it over to others, and despite his ambitions to illustrate the kind of books that inspired his vision he had to take on more commercial marketing work, including promotional material for Jameson’s whiskey, a window for Bewley’s Oriental Café and designs for Seamus O’Sullivan’s The Dublin Magazine.

Was Clarke a modernist or a late Victorian? A nationalist or a sceptic in relation to the nationalist project? And for someone whose family business was closely interwoven with the ambitions of the Irish Catholic church, how far did he share the church’s vision? In the opening essay Ann Wilson looks at the international pressures on Irish Catholicism to conform to an increasingly centralising Roman authority and measures it against the influence of the Celtic Revivalists at home, and the church’s place in the growth of nationalism. She suggests that Clarke shared the nationalist spirit enough to propose Irish saints in the Honan Chapel and to give them red hair, but rejected bigoted nationalism and clericalism, speaking of the clergy as “clods of priests”. The Honan Chapel, one of his greatest achievements, was so successful, Wilson argues, because he worked not to a clerical patron but to the Dublin solicitor John O’Connell, who understood his aesthetic vision and did not seek to proselytise for church or state. Wilson believes that this was probably the only church commission where the artist was free to indulge his own taste.

Jessica O’Donnell and Róisín Kennedy tackle two of Clarke’s great secular windows: the Eve of Saint Agnes window, now in the Hugh Lane Gallery (commissioned by Harold Jacob for his own home) and the so-called “Geneva” Window, commissioned by the Irish State for the International Labour Court in Geneva. The Geneva Window was Clarke’s major opportunity to show his skills to an informed international audience, but it was never installed there as the government reneged on the project. Kennedy examines the cultural geography, architecture and existing decoration of the ILC building, including an earlier window by Max Pechstein, outlines the Irish context, especially the literary texts that Clarke chose to interpret, and the petit bourgeois, Catholic attitudes that led the Irish government to censor it. Establishment rejection was only partially offset by the surprising support the window received from Bishop Fogarty of Killaloe, as Kennedy notes, a close friend of President Cosgrave’s.

Essays by Angela Griffith and Kathryn Milligan bring us firmly back to Dublin and the business of surviving as an artist. A marketing exercise for John Jameson’s whiskey is skilfully placed in the context of the burgeoning advertising industry, although Griffith’s optimistic speculation that the task was entrusted to a Roman Catholic like Clarke as a gesture across the nationalist sectarian divisions of 1920s Dublin is misplaced. Jameson’s commitment to Protestant unionism was such that it refused to appoint a Catholic to its board until the late 1950s or early 1960s. Clarke was chosen because of his reputation for quality. Kathryn Milligan notes the trend in Irish magazines to focus on identity in the 1920s whereas those in Britain were more concerned with aesthetics. Clarke’s cover designs for The Dublin Magazine offer a highly ambiguous vision of the city, which refuses to engage with the politics of nationalism.

A cluster of essays look at Clarke’s book illustrations and his strong interest in literature. These range from a close examination of his adult illustrations for Swinburne’s Selected Poems (1928) by Elizabeth Helsinger; Jarlath Killeen questioning the role of fairy tales, especially Little Red Riding Hood; and Marguerite Helmers’s introduction to a minor but popular genre from the 1920s, the illustrated children’s poetry anthology. At a time when the national project was intent on consolidating an image of Irishness, Helmers calls attention to Clarke’s subversive tendency to “de-familiarize” accepted literary and visual norms, thus opening up wider, more unruly perspectives. These essays and Kerry Sullivan’s study of Clarke’s interest in plant and pond life build a picture of an artist who was not only highly skilled and imaginative but a serious and in-depth reader whose work was informed by the Russian ballet, symbolist art and literature, fellow illustrators from Aubrey Beardsley to Japanese print artists and, as several of the essayists acknowledge, psychoanalytical writing.

Two essays on the Clarke Studio practice provide particular insights into the artist’s role in the family business. Fiona Bateman tracks much of the work of the studios in Irish missionary churches in Africa, providing a valuable insight into the nature of that work in terms of race representation and white dominance – into what Joe Lee refers to as “One of the more remarkable conquests of the age of imperialism” – and into the international functioning of an Irish art production company in the mid-century. Because of their essential connection with the fabric of the buildings in which they were placed and the cost of production, stained glass windows were seen as a major and long-term investment, so the statements they made wielded considerable influence, and sadly, were all too likely to reinforce notions of Euro-centred, male power structures. Bateman does point out that only one of these windows was completed during Clarke’s lifetime, but she doesn’t offer any reason to believe that he would have challenged the conventional orthodoxy. A fascinating revelation is that the studio listed its commissions geographically under the headings of Ireland, England, USA, Australia and New Zealand, but failed to list Nigeria, Kenya, Zambia and South Africa. Bateman could not find an explanation for this. Paul Donnelly’s essay on the studio after Clarke’s death suggests that it was very proud of its African work, showing each completed window to the public in the studio before shipping to Africa, itself a logistical nightmare for the time. His essay is important for its insights into cultural and religious attitudes and the inevitable shift from an artist’s studio in Harry Clarke’s lifetime to a commercial business. It is a pity that Donnelly does not discuss the part Margaret Crilley played in both her husband’s life and in the studio after his death.

Luke Gibbons argues that it is his insistence on marginal detail that best earns Clarke’s place in modernism. Gibbons acknowledges modernism’s clarity of focus and love of clean line, but calls attention also to a modernism of a different kind – the kind initiated by Baudelaire, whom Clarke dreamed of illustrating, and explored to its limit by James Joyce. For both Joyce and Clarke those chance giveaways that we discover through dreams and slips of the tongue offer a route to our hidden desires and repressed identities. (There is no evidence to date that Clarke read Freud but his dense and intense images are constantly echoed in a lighter vein by Joyce, who certainly did.) In that and in their refusals to be defined by republican nationalism, Catholicism and bourgeois respectability, they are clear leaders in the history of Irish modernism.

This book will help to ensure that Clarke finally gets the recognition he deserves and we should all be grateful, as Jessica O’Donnell reminds us, for the foresight of Eithne Waldron when, as curator of the Hugh Lane Gallery, she persuaded Dublin City Council to buy the Eve of Saint Agnes Window – thus guaranteeing that one of Clarke’s great secular windows remained in Ireland on public access.


Catherine Marshall is an art historian and curator, formerly founding head of collections at the Irish Museum of Modern Art and Co-Editor of Twentieth Century, Vol V, Art and Architecture of Ireland, published by the Royal Irish Academy and Yale University Press, 2014.



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