Stained Glass Detectives – and a Find!

This is the story of what it takes sometimes to ferret out information about stained glass windows – often unsigned and undated and installed too far back for community memory to help. In this case, the window turned out to be a significant addition to the list of important Irish windows. Although it was I who first saw and photographed the windows in 2017, the detective work was largely done by my friend and colleague David Caron. David is the editor of the soon-to-be-published second edition of The Gazetteer of Irish Stained Glass and the most knowledgeable stained glass scholar on this island. My own contribution to the Gazetteer focusses on the work of George Walsh, but I am in the habit of photographing stained glass wherever I go, and I often send interesting windows to David or to other colleagues. In 2019, going though my photos, I came across two images that piqued my curiosity and decided to send them to David.

St Colman’s Catholic Church in Macroom (above, photo courtesy of the Buildings of Ireland) is a fine example of Gothic Revival architecture. The original church was built in 1826 – a significant achievement in the period before Catholic Emancipation and especially considering the poverty of the majority of the Catholic population at the time – and remodelled and extended in the 1890s. It has several stained glass windows inside – an Earley, some Harry Clarke Studios from the period after Harry died (such as the one below), and others that are unsigned and possibly imported. A fairly standard assemblage for a church of this period.

What caught my attention, however, were two panels in the entry porch. Rather than being fitted into true windows, the two pieces are installed in back-lit cabinets. The backlighting wasn’t quite bright enough so the windows did not show to full advantage and it was hard to make out any detail. Nevertheless, they were arresting in their modernity and in how different they were to the other windows inside the church. The first, to the left of the door, is an image of St Colman of Cloyne, patron saint of the diocese and of the church itself. He is depicted with a harp, dressed in long robes and with large bare feet. The harp is a reference to his status as a noted bard or poet – medieval bards recited their compositions to the accompaniment of the harp. The figure is surrounded by glass panes of varying shapes mostly in shades of green, and an aura radiates around his head.

The glass to the right of the door is a depiction of the madonna and child. Mary wears a wimple with a fez-like top and a long robe in olive green. She is seated and in her lap is the Christ child with one hand raised in blessing. He wears a crown and a white robe. Their faces are similar with a small mouth, long noise and heavy eyebrows (see lead image). Mary’s large foot rests on a crescent moon and her head and Jesus’ are surrounded  by an aura. Like Colman, the figures are set within irregularly shaped pieces of coloured glass in shades of green.

David decided to track down the mystery of who had made these windows and finally managed to get in touch with Fr O’Donnell, a retired Parish Priest who was very helpful indeed. He remembered that the windows had been made by a “Swedish woman from Skibbereen”. I got on the case and through a series of inquiries found Carin MacCana, who no longer does stained glass but still lives in West Cork. Below is an example of her previous stained glass work from the Skibbereen Heritage Centre, based around the sea creatures of Lough Hyne.

Carin confirmed that she had indeed done one of the windows. Wait, what? One of the windows? Yes, in fact she had been asked to match her window, St Colman, as closely as possible to the existing Madonna and Child window but she did not know who had done that one. Meanwhile, the enterprising Fr O’Donnell (now 90) was making good on his resolve to improve the backlighting. In the course of this, the signature ‘K’ was noticed on the back of the Marian panel. Fr O’Donnell recalled that the Madonna and Child had been presented by the artist Thomas Ryan, PRHA, in memory of a friend of his, a local doctor. Armed with this information, David went back to Carin who then remembered that she had been told the name of the artist was Richard King.

 Richard King in his studio, courtesy of the Capuchin Archives. The 1975 volume has extensive images and moving obituaries for King, beginning on page 169: he was the magazine’s chief artist.

Although I have written about Richard King before (see Richard King in Mayo and Discovering Richard King), I am no expert – but we know who is! David immediately consulted Ruth Sheehy. Ruth has recently published her magisterial study The Life and Work of Richard King: Religion, Nationalism and Modernism – an engaging, erudite and exhaustive study of King’s artistic output, including his stained glass. This is my well-thumbed copy.

She was delighted to confirm that this was indeed the work of Richard King, and that it was a panel she knew existed, but had never managed to find. She pointed us to a similar panel – a ‘twin’ – that King made for the Church of the Holy Cross in Aberaeron in Wales. That panel has been well documented by Martin Crampin, artist and academic, who is the acknowledged expert on Welsh stained glass. He has kindly given me permission to reproduce his photo of that window, “Our Lady of Ireland”, below. For more on that window, see his listing here: http://stainedglass.llgc.org.uk/object/970 and also his blog post about this and another Richard King window in Wales: https://stainedglasswales.wordpress.com/2020/12/17/richard-king/

Of the Welsh window, dating to 1958, in her book, Ruth says:

The Virgin Mary seated with the Christ-child shown in red, is depicted as an Irish woman with a blue shawl around her head and shoulders. The two figures are seen in the centre against a background of large areas of vibrant colour and cubist-abstract shapes. As King knew and admired Mainie Jellett’s art, he would have been aware of her meditative and indirect approach to religious themes as shown by The Ninth Hour. . . Although King’s interpretation of figuration and non-figuration was somewhat different from that of Jellett, the stained glass window of Our Lady of Ireland shows him experimenting with a cubist-abstract approach to form, light and colour which suggests an adaptation of her style.

Mainie Jellett’s The Ninth Hour, 1941, oil on canvas, Collection Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane

Regarding the Macroom window, which dates to 1963, Ruth wrote to us in an email:

The Virgin and Child are depicted here as King and Queen of Heaven and this image has similarities with another work by King entitled ‘Our Lady of Ireland’ c. 1958 which is reproduced in the book. The half moon at the Virgin’s feet refers to her immaculate conception. The red and white halo behind the Christ child wearing a crown indicates that his kingship is based on his ultimate Cross and resurrection and is not of this world.. . . . The large hands and feet of the figures and their expressive quality would suggest the influences of Evie Hone and modern German stained glass on King’s stylistic development at this period.

Fr O’Donnell has now had the windows cleaned and installed much improved back-lighting. The results are wonderful and allow us to see the windows properly, as both Carin MacCana and Richard King intended. Carin has done an outstanding job of matching King’s style, which is why we all assumed in the beginning of the hunt for answers, that this was a pair of windows done by the same artist. The colours of the St Colman window, instead of being muddy and autumnal now glow in golds, blues and greens.

As for King’s Madonna and Child window, the colours are quite different from how they appeared before. The background is dominated by light yellows and pale blues and greens, while Mary’s robe is not olive green but a brilliant azure – and it is now obvious that the ‘fez’ is a crown. The red and white halo (a favourite symbol of King’s) is also clearer now. Both of these windows beautifully illustrate the importance of proper back-lighting.

It isn’t every day that you can be part of rediscovering a ‘lost’ work of art – what a privilege it has been to be part of this journey.

23 thoughts

  1. What a fascinating account Finola and wonderful to see the responses it generated from artists, writers and family connections. And now Macroom has to be added to my evergrowing list as well as a return visit to Multyfarnham.. Well done!

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  2. I just love it when research takes you all over the place and evolves through interesting connections! Excellent detective work throughout and how amazing that Carin could just match a gorgeous King stained glass panel. They look magnificent now cleaned too, well done Fr O Donnell.

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  3. A wonderful, interesting and beautifully written entry to your blog Finola and congratulations to you and David Caron on all your detective work on these two panels by Richard King and Carin McCana in St Colman’s Church, Macroom, Cork. Great to see both stained glass windows beautifully restored, cleaned and properly back-lighted. They both look amazing! and we can see their beauty properly for the first time. Many thanks for your kind remarks on my book on Richard King which was much appreciated. Like you, I am looking forward to the publication of the Gazetteer in June. Warm regards and thanks, Ruth
    (Ruth Sheehy)

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    • Glad you liked the account, Ruth. I was very taken with your comments on the influence of both Mainie Jellett and Evie Hone on King’s work. His style evolved in such a fascinating way – it’s like looking at a history of 20th century art movements.

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  4. These are beuatiful. Yes, Stained glass windows are often quite mesmerising and I am not surprised that Mainie Jellett’s art inspired Richard King’s work. I was quite taken by his plusfours! I once saw a photograph of my grandfather wearing a pair!

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  5. Hi
    I’m Richard kings daughter in law . Delighted to see he is getting the publicity he so deserves .
    He was such a humble man . Loved privacy . His hobby was fishing and it was xxx amazing to watch him fly fishing as an art in itself .
    Hi son David king was commissioned to do 10 windows and all the art work in Multyfarnham abbey i. Along with tabernacle . Stations of the Crioss . St Anthony 7 ft tall repusee
    In copper sheet .
    Contact me if you think I can give you any further Jan king

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    • Lovely to hear from you, Jan. I’m a huge Richard King fan, having first discovered his windows in Athlone. I must visit Multyfarnham! You must be all delighted with Ruth’s book.

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