Sunday, 8 January 2017

‘A Dark Beauty’ - Harry Clarke's Controversial Window.

Small panel, originally part of the Geneva window.
Now on permanent display in the HUGH LANE GALLERY, Dublin.

The windows of Harry Clarke are like jewels, strung out across Ireland. 

Long after visiting, their glowing colours,

eloquent faces

and subtle detail remain in the memory.

The artist, Henry Patrick Clarke, was born in 1889 in Dublin, where his father owned a decorating firm,
Joshua Clarke & Sons. 

The business later grew to include a stained glass workshop in which Harry became an apprentice whilst continuing his education at evening classes in the Metropolitan College of Art and Design.
Aged 25, Clarke married the artist, Margaret Crilley, and later, with his young family, spent time in London working as a book illustrator. 

Clarke’s first commission was to illustrate the Little Mermaid
by Hans Christian Anderson.

After the death of his father they returned to Dublin in 1921 when Harry and his brother, Walter, took over the business.
Clarke was later diagnosed as suffering from tuberculosis which was exacerbated by the use of chemicals and lead in his stained-glass work. Despite poor health Harry created over 150 windows, many on religious themes. 

However, it is his darker, secular windows with their astonishing blues, passionate reds and fanciful characters which really captivate me.

The glorious 'Eve of St. Agnes' window at the Hugh Lane Gallery, Dublin.

Details from 'The Eve of St. Agnes'.

In 1926, at the peak of his career, Harry Clarke was commissioned by the Irish Free State Government to create a masterpiece. His instructions were to make a window for the International Labour Building in the League of Nations, Geneva, which would be a gift from the Free State to promote Irish cultural identity internationally.

Harry’s vision was to combine words and images to illustrate the work of fifteen modern Irish writers. Of those to be included some were members of the Gaelic League, others were associated with the Abbey Theatre, some were ‘disgraced’ writers and several were Protestant.

The Geneva window, described by Thomas Bodkin as 
‘the loveliest thing ever made by an Irishman’. 


A year later was he given permission to proceed with his design on the condition that he first present sketches to the Minister for Industry and Commerce, Patrick McGilligan.

The top tier of the window is dominated by two female saints.
 St. Brigid, from Lady Gregory’s play ‘The Story brought by Brigit’,
is surrounded by the flora & fauna of Kildare.

Joan of Arc, from George Bernard Shaw’s 'Saint Joan', 
stands in full armour against a backdrop of the Wicklow Mountains.

Clarke’s work on the Geneva window was interrupted by other commissions and by his increasing ill health.
With advancing tuberculosis in both lungs he was admitted to a Swiss sanatorium in 1929 and was forced to entrust the final stages of the window to his studio artists.

The second tier shows the embrace of lovers.

Christy Mahon holds Pegeen with her flaming hair & scarlet dress,
from Synge’s 'Playboy of the Western World'. 
Whilst, from Seamus O’Sullivan’s poem, 'The Others', 
a couple are watched from standing stones by dancing green spirits. 

He returned to Dublin in May 1930 and though still unwell, Harry completed the window. 

The thirds panel depicts James Stephens’s fantasy novel, 'The Demi-Gods'.
Here three phantoms startle Patsy McCann at the fire 
whilst his daughter, Mary looks on. 
The scene from Sean O’Casey’s 'Juno and the Paycock',
includes a bottle of Guinness standing on the table.

The finished Geneva window was then inspected by officials at the Government Buildings on Merrion Square, Dublin.

Image ©

The third tier begins with Robert Emmet dressed in the green uniform, 
from Lennox Robinson’s play, 'The Dreamers'. 
Next is Yeats’s 'Countess Cathleen', who sells her soul to the devil so that 
she can save her tenants from starvation.

After the viewing, President Liam Cosgrave, objected to the inclusion of the work of certain authors, feeling that the images ‘would give grave offence to many of our people’. 
Others were shocked at the nudity and sexuality portrayed and wanted to prevent its installation in Geneva.

“ a nation famed as a Catholic stronghold was to be represented as bizarre 
almost viciously evil people steeped in sex and drunkenness and, yes, sin. ” 

Image ©

The most controversial section, from Liam O’Flaherty’s novel, 'Mr. Gilhooley', 
shows the anti-hero drunkenly leering at his young mistress Nelly
whilst she dances in gossamer veils. 
To the right recline Deirdre & her lover Naisi from AE’s play. 

By this time Harry’s health had deteriorated again, forcing him back to the sanatorium where he received letters updating him about his creation. He was also awaiting payment for the Geneva window commission.

A scene of mourning, taken from Padraic Colum’s poem 'Cradle Song'. 
A young mother embraces her dead infant whilst the Virgin and Child appear above 
& men come in from the fields to pay their respects.

In George Fitzmaurice’s play, 'The Magic Glasses', 
Jaymony obtains a set of magic glasses that allow him to escape into 
a world of fantasy where all desires come true. 

On 6th January 1931, fearing that he would die abroad, Clarke began the journey home to Ireland.
Hours later, aged 41, Harry Clarke died in Switzerland. He never discovered the fate of his window.

The last panel depicts Seamus O’Kelly’s 'The Weaver’s Grave',
where a widow & a young gravedigger exchange glances between the tombstones. 
Finally, a minstrel from Joyce’s poem, 'Chamber Music', stands on a river bank surrounded by a lush landscape.

After his death Harry’s widow finally received payment. She was told by the government that they had decided against presenting the Geneva window to the League of Nations, instead it would remain in the buildings on Merrion Square.

Margaret Clarke did not want Harry’s masterpiece to be hidden from public view and she bought the window back from the State two years later, paying the full price of £450. 
The Geneva window was finally displayed in front room of the Harry Clarke Studios, in the Hugh Lane Gallery and in the Fine Art Society in London. One journalist wrote:

“ This was the last piece of work Harry Clarke ever did before illness took him away forever. 
In it he is at his most imaginative and the glory of colour, which was his chief gift, 
is a strange blend of dark beauty and almost spectral luminosity. ”

In 1988 Harry’s sons, David and Michael, sold the Geneva Window to Mitchell Wolfson 
of the Wolfsonian Museum in Miami, Florida, where it remains.

Harry Clarke was buried in the graveyard of the Catholic Cathedral of Chur, Switzerland. 
His widow marked the grave with a headstone commemorating Harry’s life as an Irish artist.

Margaret understood she had paid for Harry’s final resting place but in fact she had only leased it for 15 years and his remains were removed to an unmarked communal plot.
When Clarke’s son visited, in the 1970’s, there was no trace of his father's grave.

Self portrait by Harry Clarke.

‘He might have incarnated here from the dark side of the moon … 
Harry Clarke is one of the strangest geniuses of his time’  
- George AE Russell

To discover more about Harry's life and work visit: HARRY CLARKE.NET


  1. Thanks for that Jane, beautiful!

  2. Harry Clarke he was a superb artist and a master craftsman ! Thank you for displaying some of his wonderful work.

    1. His work was magical - glad you liked the post.

  3. Jane thanks so much for this lovely blog. A stunning artist who's craft has transported through time with no dimming of its magic

    1. Thanks Áine Máire - I completely agree !

  4. What an amazing artist and such a story. You nearly couldn't write it. Dark genius being courted by church and state but the beauty of his creation was just to much for an unenlightened time. Thanks for another wonderful post Jane

    1. Yes, Squid and very sad that no memorial (except for his work) remains.

  5. Anyone seen the film Harry Clarke - Darkness in Light? You can get it here Amazing film about Clarke. Thanks, Lenny

    1. Haven't seen the film but I do have the book now - which is wonderful. Thanks for the comment Lenny!

  6. I am fascinated by his work. Ireland's greatest Artist in my eyes.

  7. Think I'd have to agree with you there Jim!


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