Transcending Violence: Harry Clarke’s Sublime Lea-Wilson Window

Percival Lea-Wilson was assassinated by the IRA 100 years ago tomorrow, June 15th, 1920. The story has been well documented and is truly a tale of horror. Lea-Wilson was a Captain in the British Army detail looking after the prisoners who had surrendered from the General Post Office during the 1916 Rising. He was distinguished by his rough treatment of the prisoners and in particular for humiliating Tom Clarke by ordering him to strip naked in public.

Lea-Wilson is standing on the right

His actions were observed by many, including Michael Collins. Four years later Lea-Wilson, who had since re-joined the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) was shot dead on the street in Gorey, Co Wexford, possibly by direct order from Collins. Perhaps many Irish people would not have mourned his passing, but Lea-Wilson’s wife was devastated and the depths of her feeling led to the creation of one of Harry Clarke’s masterpiece windows.

Percival as he might have looked around the time of his marriage to Marie

There is a second amazing story about Marie Monica Lea-Wilson (her friends called her Monica) and her acquisition of yet another masterpiece, Caravaggio’s The Taking of Christ, (below) now a centrepiece of the National Gallery in Dublin. My post is about the Clarke window, but you will find lots online about the Carravaggio, for example here and here.

Marie Ryan, a Catholic, grew up in Charleville, Co Cork, where she met the young Percival when he was posted there as a member of the RIC. Percival was from a well-to-do family in London (his grandfather had been Lord Mayor and his father was a stockbroker) and had been privately educated at Winchester and Oxford. They married in a Catholic Church, but Percival did not convert – the window I am writing about is in the Church of Ireland Church in Gorey, the church he attended when he moved there as a District Inspector with the RIC, having re-joined after his stint in the army.

Harry Clarke’s Lea-Wilson window, Christchurch, Church of Ireland, Gorey, Co Wexford

Marie Lee-Wilson never got over his death and never re-married but went on to become a highly-regarded paediatrician. Here she is in later life with her colleagues at Sir Patrick Dun’s Hospital in Dublin, now closed.

In shock after his assassination, she wrote to Harry Clarke and asked him to create a window for her husband. The theme of St Stephen was agreed and other elements which Marie suggested or requested were to be incorporated, such as the Wilson coat-of-arms.

The Wilson coat of arms with the motto Facta non Verba – deeds not words

At this time, Harry’s reputation was well established and he was in great demand. Marie may have been familiar with his window in nearby Wexford town, the Church of the Assumption, commissioned by Mrs O’Keeffe for her war hero son the year before. Harry had difficulty hiring and keeping apprentices and assistants, upon whom he relied given the pressure of work. In the case of Marie’s window, he persuaded Kathleen Quigly to come to work at the studio more steadily, by offering to increase her wages, and it was Kathleen who worked on this window with him, always under his close supervision and following his design.

Another detail to note is the insignia of the Royal Irish Constabulary in the top left corner – a harp within a belt

The choice of St Stephen is telling. St Stephen was the first Christian martyr, stoned to death for “blasphemy” – that is, speaking up for his truth in a Jewish Synagogue. Here’s the passage from Acts 7, King James Version.

When they heard these things, they were cut to the heart, and they gnashed on him with their teeth. But he, being full of the Holy Ghost, looked up steadfastly into heaven, and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing on the right hand of God, And said, Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God. Then they cried out with a loud voice, and stopped their ears, and ran upon him with one accord, And cast him out of the city, and stoned him: and the witnesses laid down their clothes at a young man’s feet, whose name was Saul. And they stoned Stephen, calling upon God, and saying, Lord Jesus, receive my spirit. And he kneeled down, and cried with a loud voice, Lord, lay not this sin to their charge. And when he had said this, he fell asleep.

It is evident that Marie perceives Percival as a martyr, but in her choice of inscription, lay not this sin to their charge, she also invokes a sprit of forgiveness rather than of bitterness or revenge. The wife and lover in her mourns him deeply and sees his death as an injustice and as undeserved. But the Irish Catholic woman is fully alive to the political and social upheavals of her time and understands the complications of such a situation. Her choice of iconography and scripture embodies the hopelessly tanged web of relationships and reprisals that characterised the Irish War of Independence and her own invidious position as the wife of a British Office and RIC man.

Harry Clarke understood all this too, and his sensitive design works out the emotions and the messages she wished to convey. Here is Nicola Gordon Bowe’s description of the window, from the magnificent Life and Work of Harry Clarke.

. . . the subject is St Stephen, the first Christian martyr, whom Harry has shown carrying the symbolic palm of martyrdom and bearing a book in his left arm while his right hand is extended, palm forward, suggesting his innocence. The stones by which he was slain are shown leaded into the rich purples, mauves, rubies and pinks of his simple vestments, contrasting with the emerald green of the book he holds. His face is pale and angular, the head inclined to the left with a long nose and sad, pensive eyes. This soulful Celtic face is reflected in the equally direct unstylized treatment of the hands and sandalled feet. The two girl angels above and below the Saint are gentle and childlike. . .

Interestingly there is another window, beside this one, also dedicated to Lea-Wilson and also done in the Clarkes’ establishment. But this one, although similar in many ways to the first, is not signed by Harry but bears the signature of J Clarke and Sons. It must have been done by somebody else working in the studio – perhaps by Kathleen Quigly?

The second Lea-Wilson window

This one was donated by Percival’s ‘companion and brother freemasons’. The image is of a warrior in armour and a striking red cloak. There is an upper and lower angel, to match Harry’s design. The lower angel holds a fleece, indicating that this is an image of Gideon, the biblical soldier who slew a far greater army of Midianites, under God’s guidance. As such, it does not appear to hold the same reconciliatory feeling that Harry’s window does.

Looking at the two windows, it is apparent why it is often difficult to say what is ‘a Harry Clarke’ and what is not. The design of the Gideon window is closely based on the St Stephen window, even to the floral decoration in the background. Elements of Gideon’s apparel are familiar – his helmet, for example echoes that of St Martin’s in the Castletownshend window I wrote about here.

Can you make out the signature and address? To the left of ‘and brother’ is J Clarke and Sons, while to the right of ‘freemasons’ is 33 Nth Frederick Street Dublin

But that’s the thing – Harry trained his apprentices rigorously to reproduce his style and whoever did this window would have been competent and comfortable at producing a look-alike. The fact that is is not signed by Harry, however, must be the primary guide in ascribing it to the Joshua Clarke Studio, rather than to Harry. It is possible that budget was an issue – an almost-Clarke would have been less expensive than a wholly-Clarke.

Gideon and the angel above him are painted in an exact rendition of Harry’s style

What is extraordinary about the Lea-Wilson story is that not one, but two great works of art stem directly from it. The story most often told is the Caravaggio one – I hope this post helps to redress that balance.

If you are anywhere close to Gorey, go visit Christchurch. There are more Harry Clarkes in that church and several other notable windows. For more Roaringwater Journal posts on Harry Clarke and on Irish stained glass, click on this link.

11 thoughts

  1. Terrific Blog. Harry Clarke was a genius and achieved so much in his short life. Thanks for showing this work and the fascinating background to it.

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  2. Extraordinarily beautiful work and a very interesting background story. It strikes me as odd subject material for a church though.

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  3. Really wonderful blog piece Finola. I knew of the connection between Marie and the stunning Caravaggio painting in the NG, a fascinating story in itself. But next time I’m anywhere near Gorey I will stop to view the Harry Clark windows there.

    Like

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