When Harry Met Edith: Part 1 – “Like a Living Flame”

St Barrahane’s Church of Ireland in Castletownshend, West Cork, is unique in many ways and a national treasure, not least because of its three Harry Clarke stained glass windows. I have written about the St Luke window and also about the St Louis/St Martin window. Both are gems. But for some reason I have not yet properly written about the East Window and it seems fitting to start that post now, since Harry Clarke died 92 years ago this week at the all-too-young age of 41.

The East Window, the largest part of which comprises a nativity scene, was one of the first commissions Harry received after he burst on the scene in 1916 with his series of saints for the newly opened Hiberno-Romanesque Arts and Crafts masterpiece that was the Honan Chapel at University College Cork. That’s a small detail from his Joseph window for the Honan, below.

The Somerville siblings had been planning for a long time to commission a new window to honour their grandparents, the existing one being hideous and gloomy. In 1907 they had requested a new design from the Manchester firm of Walter J Pearce, but had not followed up with a commission. Besides her intense dislike of the ‘Berlin Woolwork’ (as the family called the despised stained glass) Edith Somerville thought the window openings themselves too long and narrow and felt they should be shortened to produce a more pleasing proportion for a stained glass scene. However, none of the schemes progressed beyond the Somerville siblings procuring permission from the church committee to remove and sell the offending window and replace it with a more suitable memorial to their grandparents.

This illustration is from Somerville and Ross: A Biography by Maurice Collis.

On January 14th 1917 Cameron, the oldest of the family and hence the one who had to have final approval over expenditures like this, went to see “Bertie’s windows”. Sir Bertram Windle was the President of University College Cork and a first cousin to the Somervilles (below, captured from the UCC website). He had worked with Sir John O’Connell to actualise the Honan Bequest which resulted in the building of the Honan Chapel with the inclusion of stained glass windows by An Túr Gloine and by Harry Clarke.

Cameron records in his diary:

Bertie took me to see his jewel of a chapel – quite the best modern building I have seen – & the windows – all but one – very good & some – the Clarke windows- supremely lovely. I have never seen such glass except in 14th century windows – the whole chapel simple & lovely nothing mean or tawdry […] After luncheon went again to the Chapel for another look at the windows.

The Edith OEnone Somerville archive in Drishane :
a catalogue and an evaluative essay /
by Otto Rauchbauer

Edith Somerville got up to see the windows for herself in March. Edith was already an established writer and artist, who had studied in France and was familiar with modern art movements. At that point in her life she was slowly coming to herself again, after a period of intense mourning on the death in 1915 of her beloved cousin and collaborator, Violet Martin with whom she had written a series of highly successful novels and stories under the name Somerville and Ross.

Violet Florence Martin, in an 1886 portrait by Edith Somerville, from the National Portrait Gallery, used under license

Her own artistic knowledge and sensibilities are evident in her reaction to the windows. She wrote to Cameron: 

They certainly are very wonderful in colour, & some of them beautiful in all respects. I preferred the Western three-light window [Brigid, Patrick and Columcille] & I almost disliked the blue one, & the Aubrey Beardsley female face [Gobnait] thought horrible; so modern and conventionally unconventional. The green western light was lovely and a nice design, I like 2 of the left side ones (Brigid and Patrick]. I thought the eastern Purser window just moderate (i.e. not among high class tho’ much better than average). There is to me a slight faint of coarseness in Clerke’s [sic] work. Not much finesse, though the actual glass has a quality of burning and furious brilliance that I have never seen anywhere else. The blue robe, for instance, hits your eye like a living flame or a blast of wind. Perfectly amazing, but not quite pleasant. I can rave about some of his qualities with anyone, but I am not quite a whole-hogger. However, I expect he will be artist enough to adapt his work to the church & to realise how to get harmony into it. His windows have a kind of hellish splendour – in a chapel dedicated to the Infernal Deities they would be exactly right, gorgeous and sinful. . . If that young man. . . went mad it would not surprise me, but I hope he won’t before he does our window for us.

The Edith OEnone Somerville archive in Drishane :
a catalogue and an evaluative essay /
by Otto Rauchbauer

Was it St Ita’s blue robe (above) that struck Edith so forcefully – like a living flame or a blast of wind – ? Or was it perhaps, the one worn by Gobnait, patron saint of beekeepers, cleverly worked out as a series of honeycomb shapes (below). In either case, this deep blue was one of Harry’s hallmarks – he went to great lengths to procure good blue glass.

We can unpack a lot in Edith’s letter to Cameron. For a start, it seems that Cameron had already decided, no doubt influenced by Bertie, that Harry Clarke was the artist who should do the East Window. Edith’s reaction, while often credited with being the deciding factor in choosing Clarke, was after the fact, and both more moderate and more judicious than Cameron’s. Her comments are enough to make me wonder, if the decisions had been hers to make, whether Harry would have been engaged. She was insistent, in a further letter to Cameron, that something more of ‘harmony’ and less of intensity than the Honan windows (as exemplified by his Gobnait portrait, below) would be appropriate for Castletownshend. In fact, shortly after seeing Harry’s work at the Honan, it seems that Cameron had deputed their cousin Egerton Coghill (see my post about Egerton and the St Luke window) to approach Harry, whom he appears to have known personally, but after that initial meeting, it was Edith who took charge of the process. This made sense since Cameron was not living in Castletownshend at that time, but in London. Things moved quickly – even before she had seen his work for herself, she had sent him a tracing of the East window (perhaps one that had been prepared for the proposed Pearce commission) and thereafter it was she who communicated with Harry. 

He responded to getting the tracing in a letter of Feb 1, 1917.*

Thank you for your letter and tracing of the East window of Castlehaven Church. I clearly understand your ideas about shortening the existing window but I hesitate to support your doing so until I see the church – I like long openings and the window may only look out of scale by being filled with inferior glass – I do think you would be unwise to make the three openings into two if you are going to have single figures and not subjects or a subject. Were the existing window or openings left I would have room to put small subjects from the lives of the selected saints at the top and bottom of each opening – were the windows shortened I would have room for the figure only. I am judging from the tracing and cannot tell until I saw the actual window with the light etc – the trees may present difficulties.

The approximate cost of filling the existing window with single figures and small subjects – figures to be of S Brigid S Finbarr and Barrahane will be £315 and if it were shortened by 3‘6“ the cost will be – £252.

I will be in Cork in the early spring and if it were convenient to you, could meet you at Castlehaven Church –

If you are anxious to place the commission at once I will go down any day next week (after Tuesday) that you suggest.

I do my work from start to finish myself and so take longer then is generally expected over a window – Your window would take about six months and could be started on a date mutually agreed-upon should I have the pleasure of doing it –

I greatly appreciate your asking me about the work

Letter from Harry Clarke to Edith Somerville,
Somerville Archives, Drishane House

Harry did indeed come to Castletownshend  – a diary entry records it was April 4 and he stayed to lunch, although another source says that he stayed overnight and that Edith found him shy but liked him enormously. At this time, Edith was nearing 60, (dressed as Master of the Fox Hounds, below) whereas Harry was 27. She referred to him as ‘our window boy’ in a subsequent letter to Cameron.

The letter refers to the dimensions of the window – Harry didn’t mind  the shape at all – “I like long openings.” But Edith, very much the painter, had been taken by the more horizontal orientation of windows she had seen in Exeter Cathedral, such as the Old Testament window below) and really wanted to change the windows by making them shorter and perhaps even cutting them down to two-lights. As we will see, she realised part of this ambition, but not all.

Although the decision that Harry was to do the window was now made, that’s not to say that all went smoothly from this point on. Edith had a hard time being decisive about the iconography she wanted (St Finbarr didn’t make the final cut), and at one point Cameron managed to lose Harry’s design for the window and she had to ask him to do it again. Also, there was the matter of cost, and how the rest of the family felt about it all. We’ll get into all that in the next post, as well as the elements of the window that Harry designed. Here’s a sneak preview.

*I have to record here my debt of gratitude to Thomas Somerville and the Somerville Archives, for permission to view and quote from letters from Harry Clarke to Edith Somerville and from Edith to Cameron. It is an enormous privilege (and quite a thrill) to have original material to work from.

22 thoughts

  1. Well done Finola! It is revealing to read the negotiations between the commissioner and the artist you learn something about both and also about the iconography. I await part II.
    Brian

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  2. Very timely, I’ve just added one of your photos on St Gobnait into my text. How interesting that Edith found: ‘the Aubrey Beardsley female face [Gobnait] thought horrible; so modern and conventionally unconventional;. I just love it and it seems to perfectly encapsulate the saint. Great read, looking forward to the next instalment.

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  3. As you know, I share some of Edith’s thoughts about some of the ‘Beardsley-like’ faces although that does not detract from the overall splendor of the windows.

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