Harry Clarke, illustrator and the master of the art of stained glass
The early years of Harry Clarke
Harry Clark was born on the Day of Saint Patrick, 17 March 1889. So it is not surprising to know his full name was Henry Patrick Clarke. He was the youngest son of Joshua and Brigid. His older siblings were Walter, Kathleen and Florence.
Harry Clarke is today known as important book illustrator but even more impressive is his work in the field of stained glass design. He is not only the most known designer of stained glassed windows in Ireland but one of the best in this specific art form in the world ever.
Let's explore Harry Clarke's beautiful illustrations and try to understand the passion which drove him to create so many powerful works and eventually led to his early death.
Ever heard about the illustrator Harry Clarke?
Like father like sons
Joshua, Harry's father changed his name from Clark to Clarke when he converted from Protestantism to Catholicism to marry Brigid McGonigal.
He moved from Leeds to Dublin to start a business with church decorating items which was soon expanded to production of stained glass.
Harry' mother Brigid who suffered of lung problems at the age of 43 when he was 14 years old. Harry and his older brother Walter had problems with lungs for the most of their lives too. Walter Clarke also died only 43 years old.
But before that both Joshua's sons worked in their father's workshop (named Joshua Clarke & Sons) and after his death they continued with business.
Even their children stayed in stained glass business decades after Walter's and Harry's deaths!
Harry Clarke's education
For about a year he was studying architecture at Thomas Francis McNamara, who advised him to give up architecture and focus on art.
He started working in his father's workshop under guidance of William Nagel by day and studying stained glass in Dublin's Metropolitan School of Art as a pupil of Alfred Edward Child.
We have to mention one more important influence on Harry Clarke's artistic development. In 1907 he saw paintings by Aubrey Beardsley at the exhibition and this certainly made large impact on him.
Several years later he even illustrated the same work (humorous epic song The Rape of the Lock) as Beardsley but Clarke's version was never printed.
There is even speculation it was originally meant exclusively for a private client anyway.
Some personal trivia
- Harry received three consecutive gold medals for his stained glass at national competitions in London from 1911 to 1913
- he met five years older Margaret Crilly who was a painter and a student (later assistant) at Alfred Edward Child classes and they married in 1914
- they had three children: Anne, Michael and David
- Walter Clarke married Margaret's sister Mary in 1915
- Harry among other projects illustrated two books for legendary whiskey distiller Jameson
First published book illustrated by Clarke's was Hans Christian Andersen's Fairy Tales. After several rejections he got this job for George Harrap who later published more of Clarke's books for children and adults.
After Andersen's Fairy Tales Clarke started illustrating something completely different. In Edgar Allan Poe's Tales of Mystery and Imagination we can already see Clarke's sense for grotesque.
Tales of Mystery and Imagination - Harry Clarke's view of PoeClick thumbnail to view full-size
Beardsley, Clarke & Poe
The illustrations above clearly show how similar to Aubrey Beardsley's was the use of pen and ink at Harry Clarke. There are great areas of black, strong contrasts and many sometimes almost invisible details.
Harry Clarke was master of black color.
Harry Clarke, illustrator
His illustrations are special for many reasons. The use of color is one thing, the absence of using the perspective which make the images two dimensional and helps to fuse the images with text is another. The Fairy Tales by Charles Perrault is Clarke's second and last book for children. In the gallery below we will easily recognize some of the most popular characters from famous fairy tales, from Red Riding Hood and Puss in Boots to less known as Donkey Skin and Riquet with a Tuft.
Charles Perrault's Fairy Tales - illustrated by Harry ClarkeClick thumbnail to view full-size
Fairy Tales by Perrault and Clarke
Perrault is often called father of the modern fairy tale. Red Color of the Red Riding Hood, glass slippers of Cinderella and spindle in Sleeping Beauty are all his inventions.
This is a beautiful book with classic fairy tales which are too often known only as sanitized versions from TV and similar mass media.
Well, we can say it all started with this book. Although brothers Grimm made bigger and better collection, they were familiar with Perrault's and so were their oral sources.
Harry Clarke's illustrations beautifully complete the magic, sometimes funny and sometimes dark feel of these collection of stories everybody should be familiar with.
Harry Clarke's style
Harry Clarke fused his own style from:
- Victorian era was clearly declining but still present,
- French symbolism and decadence,
- art deco (compare his colors with colors in Anne Anderson's illustrations),
- secessionism and art nouveau (compare his illustrations with delicate figures on Virginia Frances Sterrett illustrations),
- Gothic elements,
- influence of pre-Raphaelites and Arts and Crafts movement from England, ...
Influences on Harry Clarke
After graduation he got schoolarship to visit France. Medieval cathedrals, especially the one in Chartress made life-long impact on the aspiring artist. It is not hard to recognize the magic effect of deep blue and rubin red in his works.
Wide open eyes, delicate elegance, radiating power, saints staring at miracles, using light coming from different angles to express and emphasize the emotions... All these stayed part of Clarke's artistic expression even when his style turned to grotesque, which can be clearly seen in illustrations of Goethe's Faust - he designed image of Faust by his own!
Clarke's life inspired several documentaries
Another word about education...
It is obvious Harry Clarke's characters can look innocent, ethereal in some but sneaky and evil on other occasions.
Maybe we can find the reason for this dual angelic / demonic part of his works in his early education.
He visited Jesuit Belvedere College, the same school which few years before visited another famous Irishman James Joyce.
Joyce's setting for his Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man was this very school known by its strict Catholic doctrine about sin, damnation and fight against dark forces.
Faust - by ClarkeClick thumbnail to view full-size
Harry Clarke: stained glass
Harry Clarke was paying special attention to every single detail and window never made out of his workshop if he wasn't 100 percent satisfied with the result. Of course the beauty of stained glass is depended on the position of its display.
Harry visited the locations where windows should be buld-in to estimate the effect of light and shadows as much as possible, but traveling didn't go well with his weak health.
Spectacular colors and astonishing brilliance soon became Harry Clarke's glass' signature sign, achieved through the use of flame, acids and other strong chemicals. This poisonous working environment certainly didn't help Clarke's health condition too.
After diagnosis of tuberculosis Harry Clarke visited Switzerland several times to improve his health. He died in sleep in Coire, Switzerland on 6 January 1931. He wasn't even 42 years old.
Geneva Window is Harry Clarke's most controversial work. It was ordered by the government of Ireland for the International Labour Court in Geneva. Harry Clarke spent years for making this masterpiece, but the customer wasn't satisfied with the result.
Harry Clarke's Geneva Window didn't fit with conservative views or official Ireland. Famous scenes from Irish literature were recognized as inappropriate. Authors like O'Flaherty and Joyce were already blacklisted as too decadent and some of chosen writers were not in favor because they were Protestants.
The most problematic were O'Casey's scene with Joxer (panel 4 - right half) and O'Flaherty's with Mr. Gilhooley (panel 6 - left half). First was found offensive as it might portray typical Irishman as drunkard and the second was too explicitly erotic because the dancer is taking her veil off.
Harry Clarke died before he found out about the government decision on the window. It was paid after his death but never made to Geneve. Harry's widow Margaret bought it back about a year later and after decades of display in galleries in Dublin and London until it was finally bought by private collector Wolfson.
It is now permanently displayed in Miami, at the University of Florida.
My resources - For everybody who wants to know more
- Random History of Picture Books
Every post is dedicated to an author, book or event which is now important part of the history of picture books for kids. This blog is in Slovene language.
- Why are some illustrations bettere than others?
Graphic presentation of the most influential books, characters, authors and styles from children literature with emphasis on picture books.
- Meet the important names from the field of illustration
Each post presents one illustration made by one author. There are few facts from his life too. Nothing less, nothing more.
Genious is dead
Harry Clarke Studio continued to work until 1973. There were both Harry's sisters, Harry's and Walter's widows and all children involved in business and although they didn't lack of skill and comissions, it is clear the genius of Harry Clarke was lost and the Harry Clarke Studio became conventional workshop.
The image above clearly shows there was already a decline in expressive effect of the stained glass only few years after Harry Clarke's death.