The Eve of St. Agnes by John Keats
and other works.
The Crawford Gallery is fortunate to have benefited from the wise judgement and adventurous foresight of the Gibson Bequest´s advisory Committee. In May 1924, they purchased 23 illustrations by the artist whom “AE”, George Russell, would call “one of the strangest geniuses of his time”. Among these was a set of 19 preparatory coloured drawings for what may arguably be called Harry Clarke´s secular masterpiece - his window (purchased by the Hugh Lane Municipal Gallery, Dublin in 1978) illustrating John Keats´ romantic poem, The Eve of St. Agnes.
Completed on April Fool´s Day, 1924, the series of miniature panels was described as “a revel in blue” and caused a sensation when exhibited at the Royal Dublin Society that summer. These exquisite pencil, wash and gouache studies offer a rare opportunity to study how one of the great post-medieval masters of stained glass deftly and unhesitatingly evolved those magical, ethereal images for which he is now rightly world-renowned. Like all his
designs for stained glass, they are deliberately intuitive and sketchy, giving only a mere suggestion of the rich, jewel-like colours and details of the completed work.
Clarke may be described as Ireland´s major Symbolist artist, whose synthesis of literary, musical, poetic and imagined visual images draws on a wide range of eclectic, sometimes obscure sources to produce an entirely original and idiosyncratic vision. This is as firmly rooted in the Yeatsian Celtic Revival and National Romanticism of late 19th/early 20th century Ireland as in European Symbolism, Decadence, and Art Nouveau of the same period, with the unusual extra dimension of consummate technical skill in stained glass. Clarke´s ability to express his art through one of the most demanding of crafts, in a modern yet traditionally inspired Arts and Crafts idiom, gives his work a sumptuous richness and depth usually only evoked, rather than realised, by his
contemporaries. In Ireland, this fusion of vision and skill was only achieved by his contemporaries, Wilhellmina
Geddes and Michael Healy, of An Tur Gloine stained glass studio in Dublin, and, more recently, by the two
contemporary Cork-based artists, Maud Cotter and James Scanlon.
The medieval-inspired stained glass movement in England, for which the early 20th century Irish revival grew,
reached its fullest expression in the Arts and Crafts teaching and workshop of Christopher Whall. His influence, which was strong on both sides of the Atlantic but formative in Ireland, is apparent in the three remarkably mature student Clarke panels which mysteriously turned up in Cork´s collection. The Consecration of St. Mel, Bishop of Longford, by St Patrick is Clarke´s earliest extant work in stained glass, made as part of a competition entry in 1910 under the tutelage of Whall´s former assistant, A.E. Child, at the Dublin School of Art. Like The Godhead Enthroned of 1911, it represents a section worked from a full-length cartoon and was instrumental in winning a rare Gold Medal for Clarke at the important National Competition held in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London during his first year as a full-time student in Dublin. The young artist´s dramatic and technical skills were particularly praised in the Brendan and Judas panel (1910-1911), leading to his decision
to concentrate mainly on stained glass.
Clarke´s antithetical, fundamentally medieval predilection for both the sublimely beautiful and macabrely
grotesque (sometimes in the same context) is often most marked in his book illustrations, where his love
of detail can be examined more closely than in many of his windows (e.g. those in the Honan Hostel Chapel, University College, Cork). Sadly, few of his original coloured illustrations have survived, for it is only these, rather than their reproductions, which reveal the microscopic delicacy and subtle detail of an artist whose graphic work is essentially that of a miniaturist. The Crawford Municipal Art Gallery is unique among public collections is owning 4 originals for the best known, most successful and often reprinted of Clarke´s illustrated book, Tales of Mystery and Imagination by Edgar Allan Poe. When Clarke´s illustrated version of the book was first published in London in 1919, a critic wrote, “Never before…have these marvellous tales been visually
interpreted with such flesh-creeping, brain haunting, illusions of horror, terror and the unspeakable”.
The image of the heartless heroine Ligeia (1918), drawn in pen and ink, is inscribed by the artist in pencil
on the back, “In the excitement of my opium dreams (for I was habitually fettered in the shackles of the drug).
I would call aloud upon her name, during the silence of the night – or among the sheltered recesses of the
glens by day”. Cork´s other three illustrations were produced in 1923, for a new, coloured edition of the book: The Pit and the Pendulum (1923), in black and white, depicts the tortured story-teller at his death sentence; the spine-chilling Fall of the House of Usher (1923), in pencil and watercolour, is inscribed, “Yes, I hear it, and have heard, long-long-long- many days have I heard it”; while Marie Rouget (1923), also in colour, strikes a less menacing note with its 1920´s vamp and japonniste vases (even though one is painted with a tiny murder scene). It could be claimed that Aquarius (1920), a pen and ink illustration for Robert Graves´ poem Star-Talk, which was published that year in a poetry anthology Clarke illustrated, is of less interest simply because, however well composed, it is whimsical, matching the banality of Graves´ poem, and does not enable Clarke to evoke an extraordinary, supernatural image or idea.
Clarke was at his best when his complex imagination, nurtured by his avid reading and interest in a wide
range of past and contemporary European art and literature, was free to draw upon a rich vocabulary of
images to depict the strange creatures of a singularly original and uncompromising spirit. Although his work relates so strongly to the first 30 years of the century in which he lived, both its vision and skill now hold a
particular appeal to many younger contemporaries, as was prophesied by his own generation.
The following images are pencil and watercolour studies for the stained glass window "The Eve of St. Agnes"
by John Keats. The finished window is on exhibition in The Hugh Lane Gallery, Dublin.
Click here to see the window.