Strangest Genius: The Stained Glass of Harry Clarke

Strangest Genius: The Stained Glass of Harry Clarke.
Fig. 1. Strangest Genius: The Stained Glass of Harry Clarke.

Strangest Genius: The Stained Glass of Harry Clarke

by Lucy Costigan and Michael Cullen, hardback, 320 pages, numerous colour illustrations, The History Press Ireland, 2010, price £50.

This book celebrates the life of Harry Clarke (1889–1931), for many Ireland’s greatest stained glass artist. It includes a brief biographical introduction to his life and a discussion about the different influences which shaped his designs. By far the bulk of the text is devoted to a catalogue of his work with accompanying descriptions and illustrations. Anyone who likes his work will love this book. [Fig. 1]

Harry Clarke was born into stained glass. His father Joshua (1858–1921) hailed from Yorkshire, but after emigrating to Dublin opened a church decorating business which, in 1892, added making stained glass to its portfolio.

In 1905 Harry became apprenticed to his father’s business and soon began winning awards and commissions, first as a book illustrator and subsequently as a stained glass designer. Between 1915 and 1918 he made nine windows for the Honan chapel at Cork University and thereafter commissions followed in Ireland, elsewhere in the UK, America and the British Empire.

His work was shaped by numerous influences, including the sleekness of Art Nouveau, celtic ‘symbolism’ with its emphasis on fantasy and mood, and central European ‘secessionism’ with its delight in opulent decoration. By experimenting with plating and acid-etching techniques Clarke was able to recreate such imagery in stained glass, producing windows with elongated bodies, gaunt faces, expressive eyes and rich depths of colour.

The authors describe 160 windows which Clarke made or designed for churches, commercial organisations, and private patrons during his brief life.

Of these the most controversial was probably the Geneva Window which the New Irish Free State government commissioned from him in 1925 as Eire’s contribution to the International Labour Organisation’s headquarters. Basing his designs on Irish literature, including the work of authors like James Joyce (1882–1941), the result offended conservative republican tastes with its depiction of Irish drunkenness and scantily dressed women and was never installed. After it had been bought from the government by his widow, the window was subsequently sold to an American collector. It is now on permanent display in the Wolfsonian Museum, Miami Beach, Florida, USA.

Although this book makes no claims to rival Nicola Gordon Bowe’s excellent life of the artist, The Life and Work of Harry Clarke (1989), the authors deserve credit for their effort in compiling this catalogue and producing an extremely attractive book about an artist whose distinctive work deserves greater study.

Colin Barker

Name that Roundel! Solution

Jael and Sisera.

Fig. 1. Jael and Sisera.

This month’s roundel shows Jael hammering a tent peg into the head of the sleeping Canaanite general, Sisera. [Fig. 1]

The story of Jael and Sisera is told in the Old Testament book of Judges 4: 1–24, particularly 17–22 and Judges 5: 24–6.

The story begins with the Israelite general, Barak, defeating a powerful Canaanite army led by Sisera.

After the battle the routed Canaanite general took refuge in a tent belonging to a married couple, Heber and Jael, who recognised the fugitive. After giving him milk Jael waited until Sisera fell asleep before driving a tent peg through his temple. When Barak’s search party came to the tent she showed him the dead general. (Judges 4: 22).

The roundel shows the scene in a landscape rather than a tent.

The subject was popular in the late Middle Ages when Jael’s triumph over Sisera, together with the Biblical story of Judith killing Holofernes (Book of Judith), and the ancient Greek story of the Massagetae queen, Tomyris killing the Persian emperor, Cyrus, were regarded as prefigurations of the Blessed Virgin Mary’s victory over the devil. The associations are depicted in a Flemish manuscript, Le Miroir de l’Humaine Salvation, made in 1455 for Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy, now in the University of Glasgow.

The roundel itself comes from an extensive collection of sixteenth-century glass in the church of St Michael at Begbroke, (Oxfordshire), donated by Thomas Robinson (1780–1848), a wealthy Oxford-based grocer who was also a partner in a local banking business.

The panels were installed in the late 1820s after Robinson had purchased Begbroke Manor and thoroughly restored the adjacent church at his own expense. Innovations to the building included new windows, the removal of the south porch, the construction of buttresses at the corners of the chancel and of the nave, and the provision of a new font.

The glass was arranged by the well-known glazier, Thomas Willement (1786–1871) who also made some armorial panels for the church.

Robinson’s interest in, or access to, collecting old glass was almost certainly inspired by his relationship with his uncle, William Fletcher (1739–1826), another Oxford-based banker, who was thrice Mayor of the city, 1782/3, 1796/7 and 1809/10, and a figure best remembered today for his generous gifts of displaced medieval glass to the parish church of St Bartholomew at Yarnton (Oxon), a village less than two miles from Begbroke.

Robinson was Fletcher’s heir. He was Mayor of Oxford in 1817/18. In 1849, after his death, some of glass he had installed at Begbroke glass was removed to another nearby church, St James at Stonesfield (Oxon).

Further Reading

  • W. Cole, A Catalogue of Netherlandish and North European Roundels in Britain, CVMA (GB), Summary Catalogue 1, Oxford, 1993
  • P. Newton, assisted by J. Kerr, The County of Oxford: A Catalogue of Medieval Stained Glass, Corpus Vitrearum Medii Aevi Great Britain, Volume One, the British Academy for Oxford University Press, 1979, pp 34–35

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