Harry Clarke’s Geneva Window

Harry Clarke’s Geneva Window


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Harry Clarke
Nicola Gordon Bowe
Stained Glass


Nicola Gordon Bowe recalls how Harry Clarke’s homage to Ireland’s most celebrated writers fell foul of censorship in the early days of the Irish Free State

In November 1926, when Harry Clarke received an invitation from the Department of Industry and Commerce to prepare a draft scheme for a stained glass window to be the new Irish Free State’s proposed gift to the League of Nations in Geneva, he was at the peak of his career. The first he had heard of this proposal was an informal letter sent from Geneva in early June 1925 by Miss Brighid Stafford, a delegate representing the Department at the League’s Annual Conference. She ‘suggested that Clarke should advise as to the feasibility of installing stained glass in five openings of the new buildings which looked onto an interior fountain court, and to supply an estimate of the cost’.1 Her letter followed a memo sent on 4 April 1925 by the Department to Cabinet ‘seeking approval to spend not more than £300 on an official Irish gift to the new International Labour Organization in Geneva.’2 Various possible gifts were suggested, including ‘a stained glass window by one of the best known Irish stained glass artists, a carpet either Dun Emer or Donegal, a work of art in Irish marble or a picture representative of Irish life’. As Germany’s offer of stained glass had already been accepted by the ILO, it advised that stained glass should be omitted from the list but eventually, after protracted discussions about possible sites and their quality of light and prominence, Geneva revoked this and ‘requested a stained glass window’ from Ireland.3 This decision may have been influenced by the impressive (and well-reported) exhibition by Harry Clarke and his painter wife, Margaret, enthusiastically launched by President William T Cosgrave in August 1925.

Clarke visited the suggested staircase site outside the Deputy Director’s room in the International Labour building in April 1926, just after his 37th birthday. He did this on his way back via Paris and London from a convalescent trip to Tangier and Spain arranged by his friend, the writer Lennox Robinson. Not only had Clarke become exhausted by his unmitigatingly heavy schedule of stained glass and graphic work (including the publication in October 1925 of 86 illustrations for a limited edition of Goethe’s Faust), but his health (his eyes in particular) had been suffering. While preparing to escape to London in January 1926 from the pressures of running the church-decorating studios he ran with his brother Walter in Dublin’s North Frederick Street, he had fallen off his bicycle, resulting in serious injuries. But by the time he reached Geneva, he felt reinvigorated, excited by the prospect of such a prestigious international commission, and was soon back at work in Dublin.

At the end of October 1926, he received a letter from Gordon Campbell, Secretary of the Department of Industry and Commerce, suggesting they meet to discuss the still unresolved Geneva commission but first he should revisit Geneva so as to survey window locations and ‘make a report on practical aspects of the whole idea’.4 This Clarke did, in November, sending the Irish government a report detailing ‘the possibilities and importance of seven locations with estimated costs of filling them with stained glass’,5 estimates according to treatment, and his preferred choice of the seventh site, the staircase window he had already looked at. As for subject, his recommendation was ‘not necessarily’ to ‘do with labour, but preferably something from the work of a modern Irish writer. It should give opportunities for phantasy rather than be of mythological or classical interest’. Following his report, his expenses were settled, the fee increased by the Department of Finance to £450, and in November he was asked to prepare sketch designs of ‘selected subjects’ for a window in eight panels for the staircase site.

Not until 17 February 1927, when Harry Clarke was back in Dublin, was he given authority to proceed with the window in his own personal technique, in his preferred location, on condition that he first submit sketches of whatever subject or subjects he chose for the consideration of the Minister, Patrick McGilligan, and that this be done as soon as possible.

Not until 17 February 1927, when Harry Clarke was back in Dublin, was he given authority to proceed with the window in his own personal technique, in his preferred location, on condition that he first submit sketches of whatever subject or subjects he chose for the consideration of the Minister, Patrick McGilligan, and that this be done as soon as possible. He replied that although he was ‘tremendously pleased and proud’ to receive formal confirmation of a job of such national distinction, he would not be free to embark on it for two or three months, and then it would take ‘about four months to complete, as this is work I’d have to do entirely myself’.7 He duly sent off a preparatory pencil sketch of the window to the government at the end of July, having discussed possible subjects with his many writer friends and colleagues. Back in London again in August, he reported to Thomas Bodkin (appointed Director of the National Gallery of Ireland in June 1927) that W B Yeats was ‘wildly enthusiastic’ about his plan to ‘work in panels for fifteen Irish writers’, and had been ‘of tremendous help with his suggestions’ of whom to choose.8 By December, after Clarke had made some informally stipulated alterations to his drawings, radical in the case of those for Synge’s Playboy of the Western World, they were approved, and a completion date set for March 1928.

The final plan was for a window consisting of eight panels illustrating a brief extract from the work of fifteen early 20th-century Irish writers. The fifteen were Padraig Pearse, Lady Gregory, G B Shaw, J M Synge, Seumas O’Sullivan, James Stephens, Seán O’Casey, Lennox Robinson, W B Yeats, Liam O’Flaherty, George AE Russell, Padraic Colum, George Fitzmaurice, Seamus O’Kelly and James Joyce. But Clarke’s health was deteriorating badly, aggravated by incipient tuberculosis as well as the volume of his own work, including an imminent deadline for an illustrated edition of Swinburne’s poems, and supervising the Clarke Studios. A reminder from the Department in April 1928 suggested a presentation date of the end of May for the window, but Clarke was unable to push himself further to meet this. Although progress was good as he translated his detailed pencil and watercolour studies into glass, yet again he was impeded by his illness which had become critical by the end of the year. On 17 March 1929, he was admitted to a Swiss sanatorium in an attempt to arrest advancing tuberculosis in both lungs. He entrusted the final stages of the window to his studio artists, with whom he corresponded during the fourteen long months he remained away. On his return in May 1930, he could at last complete the window himself, and have it ‘mounted in a specially constructed frame’ for viewing in early September.9 The window, 71 Ω‚Äù x 40‚Äù, is signed ‘Harry Clarke 1930′. But disaster was about to strike.

By 30 September 1930, the President’s objections to the ‘subject matter of certain of the representations’ illustrating ‘scenes from certain authors… as representative of Irish literature and culture’ had gathered momentum

After personally viewing the window he deemed ‘a most remarkable and successful artistic achievement’,10 President Cosgrave wrote to Clarke, expressing apprehension about the panel illustrating the novelist Liam O’Flaherty’s provocative Mr Gilhooley. In view of the official nature of this governmental gift, it was suggested that Clarke be funded to make a new, replacement panel before the window was publicly exhibited. Worried and aggrieved, Clarke demurred, mainly due to his health. By 30 September 1930, the President’s objections to the ‘subject matter of certain of the representations’ illustrating ‘scenes from certain authors… as representative of Irish literature and culture’ had gathered momentum. Reluctantly, he felt forced to conclude that these, principally Mr Gilhooley, but also Seumas O’Sullivan’s The Others ‘would give grave offence to many of our people’ and ‘would give rise to misunderstanding and much adverse comment’ if presented to the ILO in their present form. He thought it unfair to ‘lay’ Clarke’s ‘beautiful work…open to hostile criticism’ before further discussion and amendment. Gordon Campbell advised Lennox Robinson that even an illustration of the censored James Joyce could not be justified, and to avoid ‘undesirable public controversy’, the window might simply be acquired by the government but not be exhibited or gifted abroad unless altered.

Almost immediately (2 October) following the receipt of Cosgrave’s dictat, Clarke had to travel once more to the Swiss sanatorium, advising that any Geneva-related correspondence should be forwarded to him, leaving the window in the studios, its future unresolved. He wrote anxiously to Cosgrave from Davos on 5 December, enquiring about the government’s decision, but two days before the cabinet’s New Year decision requesting the studios to set up the window’s panels for further consideration, Clarke died, on 6 January 1931, still in Switzerland.

As Lennox Robinson later wrote: ‘The window was erected in Government Buildings in Merrion Street [to be] sniffed over. After many, many months of evasions and half-truths Harry’s widow was to be allowed to buy it back for the price the Government had paid for it.’11 A year later, the window was still there, when the newly elected President De Valera noticed a first crack in it, and a year later a second crack. On 9 June 1933, Clarke’s widow, Margaret, was authorized to effect its removal to the studio at North Frederick Street. After her death in 1961, the window was loaned to the Dublin Municipal Gallery of Modern Art between 1963-80, initially under James White’s curatorship but was removed by Clarke’s two sons when relegated to storage there. In 1988 it was exhibited and sold by the Fine Art Society in London, when it was acquired for a sum ‘in excess of £100,000’12 by the Wolfsonian Foundation in Miami, Florida, where it is now displayed.

Harry Clarke images: The Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection TD1988.34.
The Wolfsonian-Florida International University, Miami Beach, Florida
Nicola Gordon Bowe is Associate Fellow in the Faculty of Visual Culture at NCAD.

From the IAR Archive
First published in the Irish Arts Review Vol 30, No 1, 2013

1 Michael Laurence Clarke, ‘The Geneva Window’ in The Stained Glass of Harry Clarke 1889 – 1931 (The Fine Art Society, London 1988), n.p.
2 Mary E. Daly, ‘Harry Clarke Geneva Window’, unpublished manuscript, n.d., based on file S4367A, National Archives of Ireland and the Blythe Papers in the Department of Archives, University College, Dublin. I am indebted to Michael O’Callaghan for sending me Dr. Daly’s report, compiled for his late father, Michael O’Callaghan of the ILO, Geneva.
3 Ibid.
4 Clarke, 1988.
5 Ibid.
6 Nicola Gordon Bowe, The Life and Work of Harry Clarke (Dublin 1989), p. 199.
7 Letter, 28 February 1927, Clarke mss., TCD Library, quoted in Bowe, p. 203.
8 Letter, 8 August 1927, Clarke mss., NLI, quoted in Clarke 1988 and Bowe 1989, p. 204.
9 Clarke 1988.
10 Unsigned, handwritten letter to Clarke, appended by President Cosgrave in his letter dated September 24 1930, quoted in Daly, p. 3.
11 Lennox Robinson, Curtain Up (London 1932), p. 215. James White recorded the shocked official response to perceived representations of “a nation famed as a Catholic stronghold” as “bizarre almost viciously evil people steeped in sex and drunkenness and yes, sin” (Clarke 1988).
12 Sarah Jane Checkland, ‘‚ÄùReject‚Äù up for sale – at more than £100,000′, The Times May 2 1988, p.4.
13 For a full description of the window, see Bowe, Harry Clarke: The Life & Work (Dublin 2012), pp. 270, 276, 291-300.

Caption for Panel 1
The beauty of the world hath made me sad
This beauty will pass,
Sometimes my heart hath shaken with great joy
1 ‘The Wayfarer’ by Patrick Pearse
The poignant words of Patrick Pearse’s last poem, ‘The Wayfarer’, written in Kilmainham Gaol, Dublin on the eve of his execution on 2 May 1916, are simply inscribed on a cartouche of black enamel painted onto gold-pink glass, bordered with a swag of signature Clarke flowers

Caption for Panel 2
They bruised His brow with their crown of briars;
They mocked Him with every ugly thing;
He that could have shrivel them all with fire
He held His silence and He is a King
2 The Story brought by Brigit: A Passion Play in Three Acts by Lady Gregory (first performed at the Abbey Theatre in1924)
In her invented Kiltartan dialect, Lady Gregory tells the story of Christ, whose foster mother was traditionally believed in Gaelic Ireland and Scotland to have been St Brigid, seen here elegantly floating over her native County Kildare. Her right hand bears an effigy of the monastic settlement she founded, her left hand points to the crucified Christ suspended in a golden vesica while her elaborately bonneted profile is framed by a Celtic cross

Caption for Panel 3
O God that made this
beautiful earth,
When will it be ready
to receive thy Saints;
How long, O Lord, how long?
3 Saint Joan: A Chronicle Play in Six Scenes and an Epilogue by George
Bernard Shaw (first published in 1924) The final words of the epilogue of Shaw’s play about ‘the most notable Warrior Saint in the Christian calendar’, a ‘pious Catholic’, ‘one of the first Protestant martyrs’, ‘the pioneer of rational dressing for women’. Thus Shaw describes this 15th- century teenage martyr whom he reckoned was either miraculous or an ‘unbearable’ upstart, ‘finally canonized in 1920′. Clarke depicts her in armour with fashionably cropped hair, a Celtic cross as a nimbus, illuminated by the dying embers of the day as she awaits her fate, abandoned by her executioners. Flowery and leafy garlands disguise the leadlines in these two top twilight scenes, as they did in Clarke’s Eve of St Agnes window and his Bewley’s Oriental Café Orders of Architecture series

Caption for Panel 4
Well the heart’s a wonder; and I’m thinking there
won’t be our like again in Mayo, for gallant lovers, from this hour today
4 The Playboy of the Western World by John
Millington Synge (1907) Clarke illustrates Christy Mahon and Pegeen Mike as coy young lovers from their romantic scene together before tragedy strikes, in Act III of Synge’s controversial three-act play. Pegeen’s ruby dress and shoes recall the red flannel skirts of Aran island women, while Christy’s fancifully patched trousers, red pampooties, crios and traditional vest are less striking than his wandering hands or the new moon sending a glowing pink light over the County Mayo landscape behind them

Caption for Panel 5
And now they pause in their dancing
And look with troubled eyes,
Earth’s straying children
With sudden memory wise
5 ‘The Others’ by Seumas O’Sullivan (published in Padraic Colum’s Anthology of Irish
Verse (1922)) The seventh verse of the haunting poem by the artist’s friend and fellow editor on The Dublin Magazine provides Clarke with the image of a ‘young maiden…of mortal birth,/ her young eyes laden with dreams of earth’, borne through the whispering twilight in a shimmering starlit dress by ‘a youth/ entranced – his brave/ lost feet enchanted with/ the rhythm of fairy sound.’ His minimal pink costume and provocative right hand caused more official consternation than the tiny, phosphorescent, naked ‘elfin crew’ dancing behind them

Caption for Panel 6
The dark curtain of night moved noiselessly,
and the three angels stepped nobly in the firelight
6 The Demi-Gods by James Stephens (1914) Clarke here illustrates
another twilight scene, from the second chapter of ‘Book I. Patsy MacCann’ in Stephens’ novel, dedicated to their mutual friend, Thomas Bodkin. Rustic Patsy and his daughter Mary are eating a camp supper beside the glowing brazier of a ‘little bucket of fire’ when they are amazed to see three angels ‘gorgeously apparelled in silken robes of scarlet and gold and purple; upon their heads were crowns high in form and curious of intricate workmanship, and their wings …of many and shining colours’. While Patsy is aghast, his daughter (in glowing ruby dress) ‘had slipped swift and noiseless…into the darkness behind her’.

Caption for Panel 7
Joxer’s song, Joxer’s song – give us
wan of your shut-eyed wans
7 Juno and the Paycock by Seán O’Casey (published 1925) In this
vignette, we see the immediately recognizable actor, F J McCormick, one of Clarke’s favourite actors, who created the part of Joxer Daly at the Abbey Theatre in 1924. In Act II of O’Casey’s play, he stands beneath the original set, featuring ‘the crossed festoons of coloured paper chains’ stretched across the ceiling of the vulgarly over-decorated room, about to respond to his side-kick Captain Boyle’s ‘Ordher for Joxer’s song!’, stoked up by the ‘bottle o’ stout’ and ‘dhrop o’ whiskey’ graphically depicted beside him

Caption for Panel 8
If I were to die tomorrow, all I would ask from the world
would be the charity of its silence
8 The Dreamers by Lennox Robinson (1915) The shadowy figure of
Robert Emmet,’wearing the boots and breeches’ of his Irish Volunteer uniform beneath a sweeping blue cloak, gazes sadly ahead. His words are from Act III of Robinson’s three-act nationalist play, when he tells Sarah and Jane Curran that he cannot leave Ireland ‘while my followers are being apprehended, are suffering, are perhaps dying’. Soon after, he is led to his martyrdom at the scaffold

Caption for Panel 9
I have heard a sound of wailing in unnumbered

hovels, and I must go down, down, I know not where
9 The Countess Cathleen by W B Yeats (1892) Clarke’s exotic queenly figure
idiosyncratically portrays Yeats’ iconic heroine who sells her soul to the devil so she can save her tenants from starvation and damnation. Here, trance-like, with ‘sad resolve’ she utters her farewell at the end of Scene 3 in the poet’s verse drama, as she stands motionless before ascending the steps to the door of an oratory. Her magnificently brocaded dress and Ballets Russes-inspired headdress are silhouetted against a darkly wooded backdrop and a turreted city rising in the distance behind her. Beside her is the despairing poet Aleel

Caption for Panel 10
She came towards him dancing, moving the folds of the veil
so that they unfolded slowly as she danced
10 Mr Gilhooley by Liam O’ Flaherty (1926) Clarke selects the most risqué passage from
Chapter XI of the censored O’Flaherty’s novel, where the beleaguered would-be ‘voluptuary’, Mr Gilhooley, has moved into a rented flat with his mistress, the mystifying Nelly, who calls him ‘uncle’. Intoxicated after their inaugural supper, she responds to his plea to marry him by dancing for him. Pale, slender, lithe and bacchanialian with ‘a thick mass of sparkling golden curls’, she advanced across the floor, barefoot, wearing ‘nothing but a veil’ so ‘her body, as she moved, showed through its folds’ seductively disclosing her beautiful form until, ‘with a cry, she dropped the veil and stood quite naked before him’. Drunkenly, he watches her from the divan, glass of wine and cigar in hand, ‘the bald spot on the top of his head, his thick red neck, the pockmark on his nose, his wrinkled cheeks and the limpness of his fleshy limbs’ all too visible

Caption for Panel 11
I know the great gift we will give to the
Gael will be a memory to pity and sigh
over: and I shall be the Priestess of Tears
11 Deirdre by George ‘AE’ Russell (performed 1902, published 1907)
The beautiful Deirdre, in exile with her beloved warrior Naisi in a wooded dun by Loch Etive, reminds him in Act II of AE’s three-act drama of their meeting three years ago ‘when we fled that night; as I lay by thy side – thou wert yet strange to me – I heard voices speaking out of the air’. Aware of the great gift they were to bring, she tries to make her doomed lover promise he will never go back to Ulster. Her naked form, barely covered by a diaphanous robe, met with more disapproval than her modern 1920s blonde bob

Caption for Panel 12
Mavourneen is going from me and from you,

Where Mary will fold him with mantle of blue
12 A Cradle Song from Wild Earth by Padraic Colum (1907, set to
music by Arnold Bax 1922) Clarke depicts a pale young woman in a brown cloak cradling her small baby with sad concern, watched by two men bidden to tread softly when they enter from the fields beyond. Above her is a banner emblazoned with the protective Virgin and Child

Caption for Panel 13
It’s the pleasure and diversion of the world
You’ll hear and see in them magic glasses
13 The Magic Glasses by George Fitzmaurice (first produced at the Abbey Theatre
in 1913, published 1914) Jaymony Shanahan, wearing rainbow-coloured clothes and boots, repeats the words of ‚Äúthe brown woman‚Äù from whom he has purchased a set of nine magic glasses to his father, Padden, his mother Maineen and the suspicious Mr. Quille. Already bewitched, he answers Quille’s question, ‚ÄúWhat’s in the three red glasses?‚Äù with ‚ÄúWomen. Full of the purtiest women was ever seen on the globe. It’s myself got very fond of one of them, and maybe of two. And in the glass I could see myself and the one I was doting on….‚Äù.

Caption for Panel 14
The widow thought that the world was
strange, the sky extraordinary, the man’s
head against the red sky a wonder, a poem
14 The Weaver’s Grave by Seamus O’Kelly (1919) Clarke evokes the end of Part V of
O’Kelly’s short story, where the figures of the two ancient, bent gravediggers, Meehaul Lynskey and Cahir Bowes, are silhouetted in miniature against the golden orb of a setting sun in the dramatic red-streaked sky above the graveyard. Framing them are the exotically beautiful young dark-haired widow of Mortimer Hehir the weaver, magnetically aware of the sensual attractions of the young gravedigger, poised alluringly in his pseudo-military uniform, spade in hand

Caption for Panel 15
There’s music along the river
For love wanders there
Pale flowers on his mantle
Dark leaves on his hair’
15 A poem from Chamber Music by James Joyce (1907)
The second verse of the first stanza of Joyce’s youthful collection of thirty-six poems, which he hoped could be set to music, is personified by Clarke as a pale, soulful Pre-Raphaelite mandolin player. Robed in purple silk and wreathed, he wanders dreamily beside a moonlit river, pinnacled spires silhouetted against a tumultuous silver sky


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