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Harry Clarke: Modernising a medieval art


Born in Dublin on St. Patrick’s Day in 1889, Henry Patrick (Harry) Clarke would grow up to both take over his father’s respected stained glass and interior décor business and to become one of Ireland’s greatest artists and craftsmen. Working with a variety of media, Harry Clarke illuminated books and transformed windows across the world with his signature style of vivid colours, precise techniques, and intricately detailed, imaginative illustrations.

Clarke was educated at Belvedere College, the same school James Joyce attended and used for the setting of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. After school Clarke apprenticed at his father’s studio and later took night classes at the Metropolitan School of Art. His natural talents and artistic vision were awarded several times, and before long his reputation and commissions grew.

When the First World War broke out in 1914 the supplies of glass and lead for artwork ran short. However, Clarke continued to create illustrations for books such as The Fairy Tales of Hans Christian Andersen. He was also commissioned by his old Belvedere College to design and install nine windows in the Honan Chapel between 1915 and 1919, which lead to a further rise in his reputation.

During the Easter Rebellion in 1916 Clarke and fellow workers were not allowed to leave their studio just north of O’Connell Street (then called Sackville Street) for four days, and although no one was injured Clarke’s blocks and illustrations were damaged from fire.

In 1924 the Irish Government asked Clarke to design a window for the International Labour Court in Geneva. Clarke’s design incorporated scenes from Irish literature including works by writers Joyce, Yeats, O’Flaherty and O’Casey. The conservative government disproved of this non-secular and ‘decadent’ subject matter and never installed the window.

Despite this setback, overwork at the studio and ailing health Clarke continued to undertake new projects, including windows in Australia, the UK and the US. In 1929 he was diagnosed with tuberculosis. He travelled twice to Switzerland to try to improve his health, but died there in January 1931. He was 41 years old.

In his lifetime Clarke created over 160 stained glass windows for religious, commercial and private patrons. Today he is recognised as a talented artist and exquisite craftsman, who combined several styles, media and movements (Art Nouveau, Symbolism, Art Deco, Arts & Crafts, and the Celtic Revival) in one original expression.

After Clarke’s death The Irish Times wrote:

“Harry Clarke…with his brilliant and exotic colouring and his exotic figures – perhaps too exotic for religious sentiment – gave glass a new orientation, and modernised a medieval art.”

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