Fables & Fairytales; Harry Clarke @ the NGI
The National Gallery of Ireland is currently holding an exhibition entitled ‘Fables and Fairytales’ which features the work of Paul Henry, John Butler Yeats, Richard and Charles Doyle and Harry Clarke. Today (January 6th) marks the 81st anniversary of the death of Harry Clarke, an individual regarded as one of the greatest stained glass artists of all time. Despite his renown however, it would seem that few are aware of his background; his struggle to establish himself as a professional artist (a struggle likewise experienced by his father), and on a darker note the tragic nature of his premature death and the misfortune surrounding his burial. Outlined below is a brief backdrop to the three works by Clarke displayed within the exhibition, and some interesting facts about the artist’s life.
Henry Patrick (Harry) Clarke was born in Dublin in 1889. His father Joshua emigrated to Ireland from Leeds at 18 years of age to establish a craft studio here. He married Harry’s mother Brigid, a Sligo woman, and they had four children, Harry, his brother Walter and two sisters Kathleen & Florence. In 1904 when Harry was just 14 years of age, Brigid- whom he was particularly close to, passed away. Harry dropped out of school and began an internship in his father’s studio on North Fredrick’s street the following year. He took night-classes at the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art (now referred to as the National College of Art Dublin) during this time and eventually attended full-time under Alfred Child. Child was an important influence on Harry, and a noted member of ‘An Túr Gloine’; this studio co-operative fought to establish an Irish based stained glass industry in opposition to the vast amount of glass that was being imported from abroad at this time. Harry married a fellow DMSA student, Margaret Crilly, in 1914 and they had three children David, Michael and Ann. His brother Walter went on to marry Margaret’s sister the following year!
While initial attempts to obtain work in London proved futile, Harry was offered a great opportunity in 1913 when George Harrap commissioned him to illustrate Hans Christian Anderson’s ‘Fairy Tales’. This commission was to become his first major publication and was hugely significant in the development of his career. Harry was indebted to Harrap in this sense, for granting a then largely unknown and arguably inexperienced artist with a much needed opportunity in illustrating not one but two editions of Anderson’s Fairy Tales. Harrap’s description of Harry reveals his modest character:
“He came into my room late in the afternoon, slim, pale and youthful, with an air of one who has had rebuffs. He opened his portfolio very shyly, and with delicate fingers drew out his lovely drawings.” Costgan.L and Cullen.M, 2010. Strangest genius: the stained glass of Harry Clarke.
Sixteen vividly coloured plates and twenty-four intricate monotoned illustrations comprise the volume. Two of the coloured works, The Little Seamaid 1915, and The Nightingale c.1915 are on display in the NGI exhibition.
The Little Seamaid, 1915
Most of us have seen Disney’s version of this tale retold through the medium of film as ’The Little Mermaid’. Many of the essential details of the Hans Christian Anderson original were maintained in the film; the little mermaid encounters, saves and falls in love with the handsome prince. She trades in her beautiful voice for human legs on the grounds that she must secure the prince’s love to obtain a mortal soul. In the original however, the little seamaid’s dealings with the seawitch are even more lurid, as is the eventual outcome of the exchange. Each step she takes causes her extreme pain, as if she was ’treading on knives’; yet the little seamaid dances repeatedly for the prince in an effort to entice him to marry her. In the Disney version, the prince eventually marries the little mermaid and the seawitch is banished for eternity. The little seamaid’s fate however is not so easily secured; having been warned by the seawitch that she would be converted to ‘sea foam’ if she failed to make the prince fall in love with her, the seamaid is heartbroken when he marries another. Yet rather than simply converting her to foam, Anderson typically introduces a clause; because of her good nature and true (yet unrequited) love for the prince, she becomes a ‘daughter of the air’ who must spend 300 years watching over the children of the world in order to obtain an immortal soul. For every good child she encounters her 300 years will be shortened by a day, and for every bad child a day will be added on. The fairytale was no doubt intended to incentivise children to behave in order to save the little seamaid!
Harry draws on Anderson’s narrative in the most subtle ways in this striking illustration. He depicts the little seamaid’s elegant dance with no suggestion that she is suffering; instead the beautifully poised seamaid pirouettes for her prince. Her clam-like dress and the rich colour-scheme of the work- the deep blues and mediterranean greens, recall her true form. The composition is also noteworthy; the oval shape reinforces the elegance of the little seamaid while careful juxtaposition of areas of intense detailing alongside areas of pure, rich colour allow for visual contrast.
It is interesting to note that while Harry’s true passion was creating stained glass, it was his illustrations that paid the bills. His technique in either medium appears to have informed the other; he incorporated the bold outlines of his stained glass characters into his illustrations and imbued them with the rich colours that would naturally have occurred when the stained glass was illuminated by light. Likewise, he aspired to reproduce the detail and elongated forms that defined his illustrations in his stained glass work.
The Nightingale, c.1915 (full illustration above)
This beautiful illustration tells the story of the Nightingale who lived unbeknownst to the Emperor of China, deep within the woods of his palatial grounds. The Emperor took great pride in his palace and its surrounds, and when he caught word that those who had travelled to his empire were most impressed by the song of this bird he demanded it be brought to him. He exclaimed: “The whole world knows what I possess, but I don’t know it myself!”. The Nightingale was delighted to hear that the Emperor wanted to hear him sing and was even more touched when the Emperor cried upon hearing his music, so beautiful was the melody! He offered to bestow gifts upon the bird but the Nightingale refused- the Emperor’s gratitute was enough for him. He agreed to live with the Emperor and sing at his request even though he missed the woods and his freedom. After some time however the Emperor was sent an elaborate music box in the shape of a nightingale which could reproduce it’s songs and had the added advantage of being more aesthetically pleasing- it was decorated with diamonds, rubies, sapphires, silver and gold. The real Nightingale on the other hand was a rather plain grey bird; it’s exterior was no reflection of it’s exquisite voice. When the real Nightingale realised he was no longer valued by the Emperor he flew off into the woods and the Emperor declared him an ungrateful creature!
Harry depicts the wealthy Emperor amidst his treasures. The artificial nightingale is positioned in the foreground and is lavishly decorated with gold and jewels. The interior of the Emperor’s bedroom, his clothing and accessories are relieved with a multitude of patterns suggesting various texture and surface qualities; they are exquisitely depicted and convey the wealth and opulence of the Emperor’s palace.
A few years later, the parts of the music box began to wear thin and the Emperor himself grew ill. The people were initially dismayed but then grew weary of the Emperor and decided to have him replaced. Death ‘sat on the Emperor’s chest’ and ushered up spirits that recalled the good and bad deeds enacted by the man over the course of his life. The Emperor pleaded with the music box to sing and drown out the sound of the malevolent spirits- alas, it could not be wound up. The Nightingale heard the Emperor’s plight however and appeared at the window; death was so charmed by the bird’s voice that he flew away! Again the Emperor thanked the Nightingale and promised him all of his jewels but the Nightingale refused them once more and pleaded with the Emperor to understand that he was grateful for having been appreciated and needed no material return. The moral of the story is to value the true beauty given to us by nature and developed in our relationships with each-other; a difficult feat when contemplating the beautiful aesthetics of Harry Clarke’s craftsmanship!
Harry also illustrated Edgar Allen Poe’s ‘Tales of Mystery and Imagination’ 1919/1923, Goeth’s ‘Faust’ in 1925 and Charles Perrault’s ‘The Sleeping Beauty in the Wood’ in 1922- the latter is detailed below. When his father died in 1921, Harry assumed responsibility for the business alongside his brother Walter. Between them they managed to produce over 170 windows in just under ten years but unfortunately at this stage both developed serious health issues; they had inherited not only their good looks from their mother but also her weak lungs. Walter died of pneumonia in 1930, Harry of Tuberculosis in 1931. He had travelled to Switzerland with a view to receiving treatment pioneered over there, but unfortunately died and was buried in Coire, Switzerland, 1931. Margaret had a simple headstone erected on his grave but unfortunately due to Swiss customs that the Clarke family were unaware of, the grave was repossessed after 15 years and Harry’s remains were disintered and buried elsewhere. Harry’s great friend, the Abbey playwright Lennox Robinson offered some consolation in professing that Harry would be remembered not by his grave, but rather by the fantastic windows executed by him, scattered around the country.
”They are there, for our generation, and for generations to come; those windows…glories from his imagination. They will shine and glow; those blues and reds-oh how he loved blue!” Costgan. L and Cullen. M, 2010. Strangest genius: the stained glass of Harry Clarke.
He Saw, Upon a Bed, The Finest sight was Ever Beheld, 1922
George Harrap also commissioned Harry to illustrate Charles Perrault’s ‘The Sleeping Beauty in the Wood’ in 1922. Once again this story was reinterpreted and arguably morally ‘softened’ by Disney according to contemporary fashion for folklore. Once upon a time, a King and Queen struggled to conceive, and when they eventually succeeded in having a precious baby girl, they held a celebratory banquet in their palace. Seven fairy Godmothers were invited to attend but one was most grieviously forgotten by the King; she cursed the child, and fortold that she would die by pricking her finger on a spindle. While this curse could not be unwritten, one of the fairy Godmothers redeemed the situation by adding on a condition; the princess would not die, but instead fall into a profound sleep, only to be awoken by true love’s kiss.
It is this moment that Harry focuses upon. The elaborately dressed prince comes across the young princess in her bed, wearing a beautiful diaphanous gown. The servants who had likewise been sentenced to slumber until the prince’s arrival (so as the princess would not be lonely!) are as slender and elegant in form as the central characters. The colours in this particular work have become noticeably muted over time, but Harry’s penchant for blue is still discernible in the piece. Note the figure on the floor in the right hand corner; he is fantastically animated according to Harry’s creative imagination.
The central plot remains largely unchanged in Disney’s version, however the second half of the original narrative conceived by Perrault was entirely omitted. In the original, it transpires that the prince’s mother is in fact a child-eating ogress! He is forced to hide his bride and their two children Aurora and Day from his parents until his father passes away and he assumes control of the kingdom. The prince forbids his mother from eating his family but when he is away she orders her cook to kill all three and prepare them in a meal for her. The cook is so taken with the beauty and kind nature of the three however, that he decides to slay his animals instead and deceives the ogress into thinking she has consumed human flesh. Unfortunately she later comes across the young family while out in the woods and just as the ogress prepares to throw them into a pit of snakes her son returns home; she is so ashamed of her actions that she jumps in herself instead!
I will not attempt to unpack the moral here but rather will leave it up to the reader, and hope that you will find the time to visit these wonderful works in the gallery itself. The exhibition will run until March 25th 2012 and is a testament to Harry Clarke’s skills. For more information please see the National Gallery website.