A Fairyland Mise-en scéne

NICOLA GORDON BOWE examines a rare collection of Harry Clarke’s first published illustrations for Hans Christian Andersen’s Fairy Tales

Many of Harry Clarke’s original pen and ink drawings and watercolours for five books he illustrated for the London publishers, George G Harrap, are believed to have perished when their offices in Holborn were destroyed the Blitz. Those that have survived tend to have been either the unpublished versions, usually given by the artist to friends, colleagues and family, or those he retained sold at exhibitions in Dublin, Cork, London or New York during his short lifetime (1889 1931). A certain Mr Byrne Hackett of the Brick Row Bookshop in New York is known have taken regular consignments of Clarke’s original work, some of which his wife featured in an ‘Exhibition of Irish Art’ in 1930. However, those for his first book, Hans Christian Andersen’s Fairy Tales, co-published with Harrap’s American publishers, Brentano’s in New York, in the autumn of 1916 were an exception. In 1925, Clarke wrote that Brentano’s ‘took all my originals for Hans Andersen… and they were shown in their bookshop in Fifth Avenue’ – where Mr Byrne Hackett may well have seen them first. Nonetheless, Clarke’s original illustrations, those for Hans Andersen no less than for any of his others, have slow to appear either in public or private collections, or at auction.’ (1)

They are very rare and, in the case of the coloured illustrations, the original versions show how their reproductions in books give only an idea of his original work, even when featured the luxuriously produced, variously bound, signed and numbered limited edition giftbooks which were a feature of the time. There is a substantial difference between the originals and their repro ductions as full-page colour plates in the books. While his fine pen and ink drawings translated excellently into black and white through the first-rate photographic, reproduction, and printing techniques available by the end of the 19th century, this is not the case with his exquisitely detailed, subtly coloured watercolour, pen and ink with bodycolour originals. In reproduction, they are invariably flatter, less distinct, tonally altered and lacking in detail. They are also siderably smaller (c.7 “ x 5 “) than the originals (between c. 12 “x- 16” and c.8” x 11”) .(2)

This June, a treasure trove of ten out of the sixteen colour illustrations Clarke made Harrap’s Hans Andersen were exhibited for sale by the Fine Art Society in London.(3) They were discovered in America, having previously been exhibited from a private collection at the Speed Art Museum in Louisville, Kentucky.(4) In mint condition, of varying dimensions, and pleted using a steadily maturing range of narrative treatments between January 1914 and April 1915, they offer an opportunity to study the imaginative inventiveness of the finest earliest published work in colour by Clarke. George Harrap described how, shortly before Christmas 1913, the ‘slim, pale and youthful’ Dublin art school graduate had arrived at his office in Kingsway: ‘very shyly and with delicate fingers [he] drew out his lovely drawings’ from his portfolio having been rebuffed by the eleven other London publishers on his list. As well as illustrations to Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, Oscar Wilde’s De Profundis, W B Yeats’ Song of Wandering Aengus, George ‘AE’ Russell’s poem, The City, Alexander Pope’s Rape of the Lock, John Keats’ Eve of S. Agnes and La Belle Dame sans Merci and Synge’s Playboy of the Westem World, Clarke had already drawn at least one illustration to Hans Andersen’s Fairy Tales. This may well have given Harrap the idea of giving this ‘unknown and untried’ young artist the remarkable opportunity to produce forty full-page illustrations (twenty-four in black and white as well as the sixteen in colour), plus sixteen additional pen and ink decorative embellishments, for the sort of lavish production usually only given to well-established illustrators such as Edmund Dulac, Arthur Rackham and Kay Nielsen. ‘Why did not the very first publisher take this Irish genius to his heart?’ Harrap mused later, recalling their meeting which resulted in Clarke leaving his office with a commission worth the princely sum of 200 guineas and the publisher taking a major risk, even if it was for such a popular collection of children’s stories.(6)

However enthusiastically Harraps introduced the ‘fresh interpretation’ of their ‘new Irish artist’ to the book ing market, forecasting how satisfying his ‘new and tional treatment’ would be to ‘art lovers’… intellectual emotions’(7) they clearly saw Clarke as providing direct tion with their rival publishers, Hodder & Stoughton. Hodder had published Edmund Dulac’s twenty-eight plates to their immensely successful de luxe and cloth tions of Stories from Hans Andersen, a number of whose Clarke would also illustrate, some directly comparably.(8)

‘Why did not the very first publisher take this Irish genius to his heart?’ Harrap

Clarke’s ‘delicate and intricate details’ are even closer in Hodder’s other star, the young Danish artist Kay Nielsen, decadently stylised, neo-Rococo and exotically theatrical tions to Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch’s In Powder and Crinoline, Fairy Tales (1912) and PC Asbj0msen and Jorgen Moe’s East Sun, West of the Moon (1914) directly anticipate Clarke’s.

Aware of Clarke’s skills as a ‘craftsman who devotes drawing’ the same marvellous ‘infinity of pains’ that to his stained glass, which had already won him critical Harraps perhaps hoped to pitch him as their new ‘Celtic’ to the ‘Nordic’ flavour of Nielsen’s evocative imagery, they promoted their other recent discovery, the Hungarian Pogafiy, as a rival to Dulac. Clarke was not unique in ing decorative and compositional elements from Beardsley, Indian and Persian miniatures, Japanese prints, Ballets Russes and the decorative vocabulary of rococo-and its revivalist successor, Art Nouveau; to these he Elizabethan miniature and Russian folk tale illustrations was, however, unusual in working simultaneously with a high degree of skill, imagination and original ity in both stained glass and graphic illustration at such an early age, in a narrative idiom.

After incorporating tiny, intriguing figures into the Honan Chapel windows for Cork on which he was working at the same time as the Hans Andersen commission,(9) he soon began to transpose his minia ture painting technique into a series of unique small, autonomous glass figural panels. By microscopi cally painting, plating, etching and staining two pieces of ‘flashed’ glass, one ruby, the other blue, reg istered against each other, he was able to produce a range of tones and ‘effects – and in a technique – undreamt of by his predessors’ with a delicacy ‘hardly to be surpassed with the finest pen and the most fluid ink on smoothest Bristol board’.”(10)

No doubt what is most striking about these illustrations is the exuberantly inventive pattern visible everywhere, and the sumptuously rich colour combinations

For example, this newly discovered Hans Andersen series includes Clarke’s first published colour illustration, for The Swineherd (Fig 1), on which he started working in London on 4 February 1914, as he recorded in his diary. In 1917, he would adapt this into the beguiling virtuoso cabinet panel illustrating Walter de la Mare’s poem, The Song of the Mad Prince (coll. NGI), that he made specially for Thomas Bodkin, barrister, art connoisseur and future director of the National Gallery of Ireland. Similarly, he would use the oval format he strikingly intersects in his early 1914 frontispiece illustration for The Hardy Tin Soldier (Fig 7) – “Tin Soldier!’, said the Goblin, ‘Don’t stare at things that don’t concern you!’ – for his beguiling stained glass illustration of Heinrich Heine’s ominous poem, The Meeting (NMI) in 1918. Perhaps the most beautiful of all the illustrations here, from late 1915, is for The Elf-Hill (Fig 2) ‘They danced with shawls which were woven of mist and moonshine’ – which depicts three elegant, pale, elfin dancers in decollete, cobwebby gowns with pendant earrings and billowing red hair. Their dramatic colouring is reminiscent of Clarke’s St Gobnait of Ballyvourney (1916) in the Honan Chapel, the submarine excrescence above which they dance would reappear less ethereally in Clarke’s Orders of Architecture windows (1927) for Bewley’s Cafe in Grafton Street, while the supernatural realm the elfin goddesses inhabit anticipates the woodland glade in which Titania beguiles Bottom in the haunting Midsummer Night’s Dream stained glass panel of 1922. Closest to the elaborately costumed, hieratic Snow Queen (Fig 3) and the coy yet fancifully attired Shepherdess and the Chimney-Sweeper (Fig 4) are the processional figures of J M Synge’s Queens, the poem Clarke illustrated in nine cabinet panels on blue, ruby and gold-pink glass in 1916 (see IAR, Summer 2006).

Contemporary with these illustrations of elaborately attired marionette-like divas are those for slightly larger scale calendars he designed: in 1914, The Lady of the Decoration, for the Glasgow paint manufacturer, James Duthie; and in 1915, two symbolic depictions of Hibemia, for the Hibernian Fire and General Insurance Company. The Hans Andersen illustrations shown here reveal the inspiration of the travelling scholarship he received in 1914 to look at medieval stained glass in France while working on this commission, as evidenced by the deep blues and rubies, and oranges and yellows offset with grisaille lacey greys. No doubt what is most striking about these illustrations is the exuberantly inventive pattern visible everywhere, and the sump tuously rich colour combinations of the exotically detailed cos tumes, headdresses, jewellery and footwear of the characters Clarke depicts. Full-scale or tiny, masked, wide-eyed, dreaming, coy, alluring or fiendish, stiffly posing or lyrically floating, they are set against idiosyncratic theatrical backdrops concocted from his fertile imagination. From their impossibly tapering, rouged fingers to their slender narrow feet, whether flying diagonally through the air drawn by beribboned swans or posturing in spurred Cordoban boots, they draw the viewer into a magical world entirely of the artist’s making. Three years later, the pictorial devices he conjures up here to ‘choreograph’ the picture frame would be dramatically developed in his alternately beautiful and macabre iconic illustra tions to Edgar Allen Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination.

Photography courtesy The Fine Art Society, London.
NICOLA GORDON BOWE is author of The Life and Work of Harry Clarke (1989).

1 The only original published coloured illustration for Hans Andersen in perfect condition that the author has seen being the exquisite oval, ‘Dancing over the floor as no one had yet danced’ from The Little Sea Maid, sold recently from a private American collection at Christie’s (London). Other than that, ‘She is fat – she is pretty – she is fed with nut-kernels’ from The Snow Queen, in poor condition, is in a French private collection.

2 One reviewer commented that admirers of his stained glass would scarcely recognise ‘Mr. Clarke’s jewels’ in the fuzzy, reduced plates (Studies, Vol. VI, no. 22, p. 299).

3 See Harry Clarke 1889-1931: Ten Original Illustrations for Hans Christian Andersen’s Fairy Tales (London, 2008), published for the exhibi tion, ‘Harry Clarke: Original Drawings for Hans Christian Andersen’s Fairy Tales’, The Fine Art Society, London 4 June to 2 July 2008.

4 Between 20 September 1994 and 22 January 1995 from the A. & M. Shands collection (see M. M. Steenson, A Bibliographical Checklist of the work of Harry Clarke (London, 2003), p. 21).

5 George G.Harrap, Some Memories 1901-1935 (London, 1935).

6 The book was published in three editions: at 20/- boxed, full leather for 30/- and in a signed, limited edition of 125 copies on vellum at 3gns. For the variants, see Steenson, op.cit.

7 Harraps’ prospectus, quoting their advertisement in the Christmas supplement of The Bookman (1916, no. 50, p.84) issued to promote the pub lication of the book.

8 For an example of the influence of Dulac on Clarke in his illustration for The Nightingale, see Nicola Gordon Bowe, Jhe Life and Work of Harry Clarke (Dublin, 1989), p. 32, figs. 42 and 43.

9 He drew his first designs for the Honan Chapel in October and November 1914.

10 Thomas Bodkin, ‘The Art of Mr. Harry Clarke’ in

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