The House Style: William Dowling and the Harry Clarke Studios

In the years before he died (in 1931), as he was ill and overburdened with commissions, Harry Clarke came to rely on a stable of brilliant young assistants in his studios. Austin Molloy, Kathleen Quigly, Millicent Girling, George Stephen Walsh, Philip Deegan, Richard King, William Dowling and others were all trained by Harry to execute his designs according to his exacting standards. This post is about the work of one of those artists, William Dowling.

As I explained in my Harry Clarke Quiz post, according to Nicola Gordon Bowe’s classification scheme,  a stained glass window can be labelled a Harry Clarke if it was designed and executed entirely by him, if it was designed and partially executed by him (A), or if it was designed by him and the execution was done under his close supervision (B).  An excellent example of this is the Tullamore St Brendan window (above and below). This is one of Harry’s (B) windows: he designed it but it was executed by William Dowling in 1928 under Harry’s close supervision. Compare it to the St Brendan in my lead image, which was done by Dowling for Knockainey Church in Limerick in 1939.

This is the predella (lowest panel) of the Tullamore Brendan window. When the window was relocated from Rathfarnham, the predella was separated from the main window and is now backlit, in a dark corner.

Harry researched his subjects extensively and ensured that anyone working on his windows did too. Paul Donnelly*, in his fascinating essay Legacy and Identity: Harry Clarke, William Dowling and the Harry Clarke Studios (in Harry Clarke and Artistic Visions of the New Irish State) tells how he sent his apprentice, William Dowling, off to the National Library to read all that was available on his subject when he was working on the Rathfarnham windows. He would come by every day to deliver encouragement – his assistants all adored him and although he was demanding he was also supportive and kind.

While the three Tullamore windows (originally in Rathfarnham) are credited to Harry Clarke, all the other windows in this post are credited to William Dowling

William (everyone called him Willie) Dowling was recommended to Harry by Austin Molloy, who was his teacher at the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art. Having himself worked with Harry, Molloy recognised the special talent that Willie brought to his painting, a talent that he felt would be well used at Harry’s studio. Willie probably worked on this one (above) too – it’s the predella of the St Paul window now in Tullamore. You can see that it is the inspiration for the predella of a St Paul window from Knockainey in Co Limerick (below), done in 1930 while Harry was in Davos. The full Peter and Paul window is below that one.

How right Molloy was! Not only did Harry come to rely on him greatly while still alive, but Willie was one of the group of artists (along with Richard King) who stayed on after Harry’s death in 1931, filling the many outstanding commissions still on the books and the new ones that continued to pour in. He eventually took over as manager when Richard King left in 1940, while continuing also as chief designer, and stayed until the Studio closed in the 1970s.

Peter and Paul from Knockainey Church in Limerick, dating to 1930

From the moment he arrived at the Studio in 1927 Dowling was committed to Harry’s style. As Paul Donnelly puts it, 

Dowling worked with Clarke, learning the craft of making stained glass according to his standards and design aesthetic. He had the benefit of Harry Clarke’s direct instruction for more than a year before ill-health force Clarke to seek medical treatment in Switzerland.

. . .In his role as principal designer, Dowling was charged with delivering work which was derived from the distinctive artistic legacy left by Harry Clarke. Dowling wrote that the aim of Clarke Studios was to ‘avoid the mundane and commonplace. That was the ideal of Harry Clarke and one which we have done our very best to follow.’

Paul Donnelly, Biographical Sketch of William Dowling
Gazetteer of Irish Stained Glass
Christ Crucified, Patrickswell, Co Limerick, by William Dowling, 1943. This window is above the balcony and is a brilliant example of the mixture of figurative and non-figurative elements, specially designed for the space it occupies

After Harry’s death the demand for Clarke-style windows was relentless and the studios delivered. Well into the 40s they were still producing windows that, to the untrained eye, looked very like ‘a Harry Clarke.’ During that time, the quality of the glass, the art and the workmanship was superb and the busy studios were exporting their windows world-wide. 

Ita and Brigid, Knockainey, 1930. The predella panels are below.

Then, and for many years to come, the Harry Clarke Studios did not allow individual artists to sign their work – all windows were signed Clarke or Clarke Studios. Strict adherence to the House Style and refusal to allow signatures, while understandable as marketing decisions, had several unfortunate consequences.

The predella panels from the Ita and Brigid windows. Upper: The vision of St Ita, in which an angel appeared to her in a dream, offering her three glowing gens, representing the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Lower: St Brigid looking after the people of Kildare- the figures on the left are clearly inspired by, as Nicola Gordon Bowe puts it “Harry’s unique ability to depict the gruesome, macabre and palsied in an exquisite manner.”

First of all, it is difficult to identify individual artists with their work, and this includes Dowling himself. Herculean efforts, though, by Ruth Sheehy and Paul Donnelly have allowed us to acknowledge in some cases the work of Richard King, William Dowling, and occasionally others (such as Charles Simmonds and Terry Clarke, Harry’s nephew).

The Presentation, Patrickswell, 1943. By this time the style was becoming less ornate. This window might remind you of the Dowling windows Robert showed in his post about the Seamus Murphy church in Cork, which dated to 1945

Secondly, the lack of clarity caused by all windows being labelled simply Clarke Studios causes enormous confusion about what is a true Harry Clarke, versus a Harry Clarke Studio. See my Quiz posts (the Quiz and The Answers) for more on this. If I had a euro for every time I have seen a window falsely claiming to be a Harry Clarke, I would be wealthy by now. Conversely, those who buy stained glass  panels labelled “Harry Clarke” when they are manifestly not by the master himself, might be poorer.

Jesus Found in the Temple (or Christ Among the Doctors), Patrickswell, 1943

Thirdly, the policy caused some artists, in frustration, to leave. While it is possible that they had other motivations as well, both Richard King and George Stephen Walsh left to go out on their own, eventually shaking off the constrictions of the house style to follow their own artistic visions under their own names.

Two version of Peter receiving his keys. Upper from Patrickswell, 1940 and lower from Knockainey, 1930

Finally, all artists deserve credit for their work. William Dowling is a case in point – while he spent many years producing windows in the House Style, they were not simply imitations, copies or reproductions of Harry’s designs. Willie brought his own genius to each window and when you’ve seen several you begin to recognise his stamp – the way he does faces, for example, or how he loves cascading folds of drapery, or his clever juxtaposition of Harry’s dark ‘floral ornamentation’ device (known as FO’s by assistants, or even as Fried Onions) with bright figurative scenes, such as in the Patrickswell Crucifixion, further up.

Above is a detail from one of Dowling’s Mysteries of the Rosary windows in the Dominican Convent in Wicklow, done in 1938. This is a mocking soldier from a Christ Condemned window and it comes from Dowling’s own artistic imagination, not from a Harry Clarke design

I recently visited two William Dowling Churches in Limerick, Patrickswell and Knockainey, and I have mainly used images from these two churches to illustrate this post, along with a few from the wonderful Mysteries of the Rosary windows by him in the Dominican Convent in Wicklow which date from 1938/39. The windows in Knockainey were done for an older church in the 30s and 40s and then relocated to the new church in 1973. While relocating windows is not always successful (Tullamore is a case in point), in this case the relocated windows (with two minor exceptions) create a startlingly beautiful interior, and an interesting counterpoint to their modern surrounds. The Patrickswell windows are original to the building, dating from 1940 to 1943, although an awkward balcony obscures some of them to the detriment of the overall effect. I, and my companions, were bowled over by these two churches – it felt like we were stepping inside a glowing gallery full of stunning artworks.

The predella from the large Christ the King window in Knockainey (1931) showing three scenes from the Life of Christ

Willie continued to manage the studios right until it closed in 1973. In the end, the Studio’s adherence to the House Style meant that its stained glass, once so in-demand, was seen as not really evolving with the times. Other artists with more modern aesthetics started to win commissions from architects looking to build contemporary churches that fitted post-Vatican II liturgical changes. Ironically, by the 60s and 70s Willie had started to design (and sign!) windows with a very different look to the House Style. His later output could form another post, but for now I wanted to concentrate on the early House Style period.

The 4th and 5th Glorious Mysteries from the Dominican Convent in Wicklow, The Crowning of Our Lady as Queen of Heaven and the Assumption. 1938/39

I want to finish with some personal memories of Willie Dowling. He lived until 1980 and he is remembered fondly by Etain and Veronique Clarke, Harry’s granddaughters. “He was a very lovely man,” Veronique told me, “Soft spoken and shy. Always dressed in his suit with a dressy wool coat and scarf. I believe he wore a fedora as well.” He was patient and kind (a bit like Harry) and he never minded them around the studio. Etain says “I remember going into the glass room with him – It was right by his office at the studios. He was pointing out to me how much antique glass was in there. French and German I remember particularly. Incredible colour, and textures. Handmade glass, so beautiful!” It was his dedication they both remembered, and how he helped their father, David, to keep the Studios running as long as possible.

This is a tiny detail from a crucifixion window in Wicklow, showing Willie’s mastery of technique: achieving the multiple colours in the skull calls for extraordinary skill

* I am indebted to the scholarship of Paul Donnelly for this post. Paul has conducted in-depth investigation into the work of the Harry Clarke Studios and has identified many windows in the Gazetteer of Irish Stained Glass based on his research. Thank you, Paul for your erudition and generosity.

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