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Jim Vadeboncoeur Jr
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Harry Clarke - signature Clarke is in issue #3 of
Black and White ImageS

Harry Clarke - photographClarke was born in Dublin in 1889. His father was a craftsman who produced, among other objects d'art, stained glass windows. Most of us know Clarke's work from his drawings which are all too often and all too unfairly compared to Beardsley, but it was as a stained glass designer and artisan that he devoted the most of his too-short life. He studied in his father's studio and for a short time in London. In 1907 he was exposed to the works of Beardsley at the Irish International Exhibition, but was likewise entranced by the art of Rossetti, Annie French, E.J. Sullivan and others. By 1909 he was accepting the occasional graphic commission and working at the more creative and critical aspects of the stained glass process. That same year he was awarded a Scholarship in Stained Glass and commenced daily classes with A.E. Child at the Dublin Art School.

Harry Clarke - Consecration of MelHis first entry to the Board of Education National Competition won the Gold Medal in the stained glass competition in 1910. It was The Consecration of St. Mel, Bishop of Longford, by St. Patrick, as seen at left, and demonstrates the maturity he displayed early on in his chosen field of endeavor. His education continued via scholarship and he won the Gold Medal for stained glass in the National Competition three times. After his three year course, he traveled to London where he began his illustrative career with two major efforts that never saw print: The Rape of the Lock and Rime of the Ancient Mariner. The former was a private commission that raises a lot of questions. Beardsley had illustrated the poem not 20 years prior and comparisons would have been inevitable due to the stylistic similarities. It strikes me as perhaps a youthful challenge that Clarke dared not refuse. It may never have been intended for publication and the extant images are not that impressive. The Rime of the Ancient Mariner was much more mature and displayed the density of texture and design that would be his trademark.

Harry Clarke - Andersen's Fairy TalesHarry Clarke - Rime of the Ancient MarinerThe Rime, (at left) was intended for his first published work, but it wasn't to be. While in London in 1913, he made the rounds of the publishers looking for illustration work. He met with no success at a dozen publishing houses. Then George Harrap divined his genius and hired him, on the spot, to provide illustrations for an edition of Andersen's Fairy Tales in both a trade and deluxe edition - almost unheard of for an untested, unknown and very young illustrator. The image at right is from The Nightingale and shows Clarke's debt to both Dulac and Nielsen. The Rime was put on hold and work began immediately on the Andersen. This was to occupy several years and finally see print in 1916, the same year that The Rime project was abandoned after most of the drawings and all of the blocks were destroyed in a devastating Dublin riot called the "The 1916 Easter Rising." By this time, however, Harry was already planning and working on Tales of Mystery and Imagination by E.A. Poe.

Harry Clarke - Honan Chapel stained glassIt's very important to pause here and realize that Clarke wasn't just illustrating books. To only consider this aspect of his creativity is greatly misleading. Illustrations may have paid the early bills, but stained glass was his career. He continued to submit designs to competitions and one of his panels, The Baptism of St. Patrick was selected for an exhibition in the Louvre in 1914. Clarke saw this exhibition while he was traveling in Paris on scholarship, studying the stained glass of the great cathedrals. He submitted designs for windows in the Honan Chapel in Cork. He would eventually craft five stunning windows, installed there in 1916-17, that would make his reputation (see the sample at left).

Harry Clarke - A Meeting stained glassThe Arts and Crafts movement triggered a resurgence of Irish art. Clarke designed fabrics and handkerchiefs, boxes and lanterns, but primarily he designed windows. The illustrations for Andersen and Poe, for example, extended from 1913 to late 1919. Two books, during which time he designed and crafted more than a dozen windows for war memorials and chapels, as well as several panels for private commissions. These were often interpretations of poems or ballads done in small (7"x12") format. A Meeting appears at right.

Another grand glass commission was The Eve of St. Agnes which illustrated Keats' poem of that name. We tend to think of stained glass windows as religious icons, but Clarke spent much of his time on secular and literary designs. These images, and many more, are reproduced in Nicola Gordon Bowe's excellent The Life and Work of Harry Clarke. (see below for more stained glass)

Harry Clarke - Tales of Mystery and Imagination, colorGetting back to books (you just knew I would), I've always considered Clarke's Tales of Mystery and Imagination to be the "World's most common rare book." Published in October of 1919 to record sales and critical success, it went through numerous Harrap editions including a 1923 enlarged edition with eight color plates added. These new color plates show strong design elements of his glass work, as can easily be seen from the image at left, but I'm not sure they add that much to the book. The book was published in America by Brentanos and Tudor and went through innumerable editions of varying print quality.

Harry Clarke - Tales of Mystery and Imagination b&w It was the black and white work that made Tales a success. Though his work is still often compared to Beardsley, I find the images much more elaborate and more interesting than Beardsely. Certainly more disturbing! Clarke brought with him the stained glass techniques that he was so familiar with and the majority of the Poe images rely on white lines and patterns picked out of a black background. The resulting images are stunning, but they do rely heavily on a quality printing job to achieve their maximum effectiveness. The web isn't the greatest venue for reproducing fine-line b&w artwork, but look at the reduced version of the plate from Poe at right and then examine the detailed enlargement below to see just how dense the texture of the image really was.

Harry Clarke - Tales of Mystery and Imagination b&w detail

Harry Clarke - Geneva stained glass windowHarry Clarke - FaustOther illustrated books would follow. The Year's at the Spring, Fairy Tales of Perrault, Faust, and Selected Poems of Algernon Charles Swinburne featured both pen and ink and pen and wash drawings and/or more advanced color work. Faust was laden with dark and grotesque art that "anticipates the psychedelic, drug-induced fantasies of the 1960s." according to Bowe. The sample at left is ample proof of that claim. There were 64 vignettes in the text, each more disturbing than the previous. The work met with little critical success in 1925, but Clarke considered it his best book.

Swinburne was published in 1928, giving him a total of six major books illustrated in 15 years. Compare that to the more than 130 stained glass windows that he and his studio designed and crafted and it becomes very evident where his passions lay. His techniques and talents in glass often surpassed the drawing skills of other artists. The 1929 Geneva Window (sample at right) shows just how creative and daring he could be in a medium that was technically difficult to begin with. The colors, patterns and expressions surpass much of what was being published at the time. And this is merely a small portion of one half of one of eight panels of one stained glass job.

Ill-health plagued him much of the last years of his life. He worked at a feverish pace creating glass and book illustrations while trying to maintain his father's decoration studio, which he and his brother Walter ran after the untimely death of their father in 1921. In 1930, shortly before his death, he split the stained glass business off from the decorating business and closed the latter. Walter died in July and Clarke worked even harder, despite his own frailty, to inspire confidence in his newly formed studio. He died in early 1931 while trying to recuperate from his efforts. He was 41.

References

To learn more about Harry Clarke, see:

Harry Clarke Nicola Gordon Bowe, 1979 Douglas Hyde
Harry Clarke: His Graphic Art Nicola Gordon Bowe, 1983 Dolmen
The Life and Work of Harry Clarke Nicola Gordon Bowe, 1989 Irish Academic Press
The Vadeboncoeur Collection of Knowledge Jim Vadeboncoeur, Jr.
The Vadeboncoeur Collection of B&W ImageS 3 Jim Vadeboncoeur, Jr. 2006, JVJ Publishing

To see a little more of Clarke's stained glass windows, visit the Saint Patrick's Church in Glenmaddy site.
Or visit the Camel Productions site for information on their documentary: Harry Clarke: Darkness in Light.

Illustrations are copyright by their respective owners.
his page written, designed & © 1998 by Jim Vadeboncoeur, Jr. Updated 2011.

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