Ellen Desmond turns the spotlight on Ireland’s most renowned stained glass artist, Harry Clarke.
It often happens that we’re lucky enough to have a masterpiece on our doorstep and not realise it or that we become so accustomed to its presence that we forget what it means and how much it’s really worth. Harry Clarke’s stained-glass windows in UCC’s Honan Chapel are renowned gems of the Irish art world right here on campus and we walk past them nearly every day, often without so much as a second thought. Yet for the artist Harry Clarke, the works in the Honan saw a milestone in his career, establishing his reputation and leading to many of the works he was soon afterwards commissioned for.
Clarke is noted for the rich use of primary colour in his stained glass works, which when combined with his signature heavily-stylised and unique characters, set him miles apart from other stained-glass artists if the time. It is interesting to observe how these bright and intense colours led to quite dark works. An influence of Art Nouveau, French Symbolism and Art Deco, as well as the use of classic Celtic symbols, can be seen in his wonderfully fresh and original style. Whether or not you’re interested in art, if you’ve seen one Harry Clarke piece you’ll most likely be able to recognise another, yet somehow his works are all very different.
Clarke’s glass pieces often over shadow his amazing work in illustration, which in my opinion are even more impressive. He worked as an illustrator for Hans Christian Anderson and Edgar Allen Poe, among others and the level of detail he incorporated into each individual work is incomprehensible when one stops to consider that these were done by hand in ink. He was a meticulous worker and every minute detail is catered for in any illustration I’ve ever seen by him. A small room on the top floor of Cork’s Crawford Art Gallery has been given over to a collection of these illustrations, as is the occasional display in the National Gallery. These are more than worth a visit as a close-up inspection is the only thing that can truly do them justice.
Clarke is unusual too for the level of diversity in the content of his work. It is rare that one artist dives so far into both the religious and fantastical genres. It is rarer still that he managed to carry his dark style across two such different sides of the genre scale. Clarke succeeded in working his almost Tim Burton and gothic-in-the-modern-sense style of imagery into churches and having it appreciated by the highly religious people of an extremely conservative period in history. Clarke’s pieces in my opinion show that art can be for anyone; this is perhaps symbolically reflected by his stained-glass windows of Bewley’s café in Dublin. These are seen and appreciated every day by the average caffeine consumer, not just visitors at an art gallery or tourists in a chapel.
Unfortunately, Clarke’s life was cut short and he died in his prime due to tuberculosis. Many historians today claim that the level of toxic chemicals involved in the stained-glass making process led to the illness and that his incessant workaholic personality combined with his constant sickly nature ultimately led to his own downfall. Whatever the case, we are lucky to be left with an immense body of phenomenal artworks that Clarke managed to pack into a very short lifetime. If you’re not pushed about going to either of the galleries at least have a quick sconce towards the windows of the Honan the next time you’re passing – you won’t regret it.