Reviewed by Susanna Wyse Jackson, York Glaziers Trust
Based on Dr David Caron’s doctoral research, Michael Healy, 1873-1941: An Túr Gloine’s Stained Glass Pioneer charts the life and work of a long-overlooked Irish stained-glass artist. Beginning with an exploration of the artist’s childhood in Dublin’s impoverished tenements, and his time at Dublin’s Metropolitan School of Art, this book presents a chronological overview of Healy’s long-standing career at An Túr Gloine, one of Ireland’s leading stained-glass studios of the twentieth century. Far from merely presenting a staid catalogue of the artist’s work, one year after another, the chapters in this book have been carefully curated to reflect and illustrate distinct phases in the artist’s life and artistic development. In each chapter, works from each period are explored in close detail, with accompanying photographs by Joseph Vrtiel complementing Caron’s incisive analysis of Healy’s strong design principles, figurative modelling, and conveyance of mood.
Producing approximately one hundred windows during his career, Healy’s style naturally evolved over the decades. Throughout this exceptionally well-researched book, Caron’s argument is clear; Healy was an innovator, always keen to push the boundaries of his own style and of the medium of stained glass itself. His early work displays the strong Arts and Crafts influence of Christopher Whall, brought to An Túr Gloine by his student, A. E. Child (e.g. Saints Kevin, Colmcille, Finbarr and Enda (1906), St Francis’ College, Rochestown, Co. Cork, p. 81). Rapidly discovering and developing his own artistic voice at an early age, however, Healy soon surpassed Child, his teacher at the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art, in terms of ambition, individualism, and artistic ingenuity. Healy’s experimentation with acid etching, flashed glass, and the layering of glass, as well as his ability to capture deep human emotions with sensitivity and power, quickly garnered him a positive reputation among patrons (e.g. St Christopher, Angel of Resurrection, and St Martin (1920), St Mary’s Church of Ireland, Castlecomer, Co. Kildare, p. 173; St Christopher, Angel of Resurrection, and St Martin (1920), St Mary’s Church of Ireland, Castlecomer, Co. Kildare, p. 174). A particularly rich symbolism permeates Healy’s work, informed by his strong Catholic faith and designed to provoke both spiritual and intellectual responses in the viewer (e.g. St Dominic, Our Lady Queen of the Rosary, and St Catherine (1919), Holy Cross Catholic Church, Dundrum, Dublin, p. 166.). Writing to Sarah Purser, founder of An Túr Gloine, following the installation of two of Healy’s windows in 1908, one patron exclaimed that ‘the ideas in them are so original that anyone who thinks at all must be struck by them’.1
Despite this acclaim, Healy rarely exhibited his work, and was by all accounts a reticent and reclusive man. Interspersed throughout Caron’s overview of Healy’s professional development are brief but fascinating insights into the personal life of the artist, his family, and his social connections. Among the most important of these connections was Healy’s relationship with his landlady, Elizabeth Kelly, with whom he had a son.2 Healy’s working-class background is highlighted in particular, along with the fates of his family members, many of whom fared poorly in the overcrowded and poorly-served tenements of Dublin. Healy’s diary from the days surrounding the Easter Rising of 1916 is an invaluable resource, as it provides a voice for this elusive figure.3 The diary juxtaposes commentary on the deep political upheaval happening in the city streets around him alongside snippets of his routines and day-to-day activities at An Túr Gloine, as well as those of his colleagues.
Caron successfully sets the artist and his work within the ever-evolving context of Irish social and political history. Largely due to the far-reaching social connections of Sarah Purser, An Túr Gloine became widely regarded, if not explicitly marketed, as Ireland’s ‘Protestant stained-glass company’. By contrast, Dublin’s other large studios, namely Clarke’s and Earley and Co., tended to serve the Catholic market for stained glass windows.4 A recurring theme of Caron’s book is Healy’s position among the predominantly Protestant staff at An Túr Gloine, many members of which, including Beatrice Elvery, Catherine (Kitty) O’Brien and Ethel Rhind, came from middle-class Protestant backgrounds. As a working-class Catholic, Healy occupied a unique place in the studio. Furthermore, his nationalistic interests, as manifested in his satirical and political cartoons published in Irish magazines and pamphlets such as The Leader, may have threatened to set him apart even further from his colleagues and clients.5 Caron explores this polarisation with great sensitivity and clarity, noting that Healy’s brief foray into the Dominican lay brotherhood likely informed his stained-glass designs in profound ways. Similarly, his deeply rooted spirituality may have provided common ground between the artist and his Catholic clients, with Healy having been allocated a large proportion of An Túr Gloine’s Catholic commissions by Sarah Purser.6
Caron’s admiration and passion for Healy’s work is palpable and infectious, and despite this book being rigorously informative, Caron’s writing style remains accessible and conversational. This book will undoubtedly appeal to those interested in stained glass history, and in particular the Arts and Crafts movement. However, the remit and scope of the book are such that it would also be an invaluable resource for those interested in broader themes including, but not limited to: Irish craft and design; the development of Irish art education; the political history of twentieth-century Dublin; the contentious religious landscape of twentieth-century Ireland; and the social and cultural history of Dublin’s tenements.
This is an exciting and transformative time for the study and appreciation of Irish stained glass. With the recent announcement that Ireland’s own stained-glass museum is in development, as well as an exhibition in the National Gallery of Ireland on the artists of An Túr Gloine opening early next year, Caron’s book presents a timely and much-warranted celebration of the quality, significance and legacy, not only of Michael Healy’s work, but also that of Ireland’s leading stained-glass artists of the twentieth century. With this book, Caron accomplishes for Michael Healy what Nicola Gordon Bowe did for Wilhelmina Geddes; there can be little doubt that Healy warrants a celebrated position in the Irish artistic canon.
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- D. Caron, Michael Healy, 1873-1941: An Túr Gloine’s Stained Glass Pioneer, Dublin, 2023, p. 192.
- Ibid., p. 128.
- Ibid., pp. 140-7.
- Ibid., p. 99.
- Ibid., p. 85.
- Ibid., p. 189.