When Harry Met Edith: Part 3: “A Charming Little Nativity”

The Nativity that Harry designed for St Barrahane’s is, according to Nicola Gordon Bowe*, technically remarkable, but let’s look at the design, starting from the top. Here I am relying on Gordon Bowe’s extraordinary design vocabulary – all the quotes in italics are hers. (If you haven’t yet read them, Part 1 is here and Part 2 is here.)

Harry’s re-designed and very Gothic tracery is filled with clear quarries – pieces of glass, leaded together in a diamond pattern, joined here and there with tiny coloured ovals. The use of clear glass was necessitated by the lack of light filtering from behind the east window, as there is a bank with tall trees immediately outside. However, this is not clear, or plain, transparent glass as we know it. Each quarry has been worked in some way. Those that started out life as clear glass have been chosen for their irregularities and have been treated with matt washes, stipples and semi-abstract lacework sequences so that each differs from its neighbour. Some of the quarries were not clear to begin with, but were flashed in pinks, blues or green, and these have been acided to the barest shimmer of colour. The result is that each individual quarry is intrinsically interesting without detracting from the overall effect of a subtly embroidered patchwork quilt in which the light lingers. These quarries occupy most areas of the window except for the main nativity scene and provide the backdrop for the top two sections – the saints and the angels. The signature panel at the bottom of the window is a good place to observe the quarries up close.

Edith was very much in tune with the Arts and Crafts Movement in Ireland but also with the Celtic Revival (see my posts on the work of Watson of Youghal for a thorough discussion on this style and the term). Within the literary tradition of the Revival there was a focus on the study of our ancient saints and a scholarly emphasis on translating various Lives and Martyrologies, many of whom were alive in the folklore and memory of the countryside. Of the three saints depicted here, Brigid is considered one of our three National or Founding Saints (see this post for more on Brigid), while Fachtna and Barrahane (or Béarchán) are local to West Cork. 

Harry used Revivalist interlacing as a supporting device for Brigid and Béarchán. Interlacing – so popular in Ireland at the time – was in fact quite rare in his work, although it had appeared in a couple of the Honan windows, such as the Joseph window, above, in a similar position. Harry was much more influenced by Continental art movements than by the conventions of Revivalist decoration, but Edith was still keen on it, as witness her later design for a mosaic floor in the chancel of the church, so this element may have been at her suggestion, or at least responding to what he saw as her preferences.

For her turn, Edith had done her homework and knew what saints she wanted, discarding Finbarr (Patron Saint of Cork) after an initial dalliance with him. Barrahane had given his name to the area around Castletownshend, Glenn Barrahane, as well as a medieval church (now ruined) and a popular Holy Well pilgrimage (in which I participated in December). Edith’s informant was James Bourke – I have laid out all that information in my post Honouring St Barrahane, so I won’t repeat it here, but do take a look at the detailed photos of the St Barrahane window in that post, including the little surprise that Harry inserted in this window. Interestingly, while Brigid and Fachtna are underpinned by revivalist interlacing, Barrahane is floating on a cloud.

Fachtna was the saint who had founded Rosscarbery and was patron of the diocese of Ross; Harry depicts him holding a church and with his bishop’s crozier. He is gazing contemplatively downwards as if on the Nativity. Notice how the interlacing below him ends in a bird’s head finial.

Brigid is clad in blue (perhaps that same blue that Edith had said ‘hits your eye like a living flame or a blast of wind’. She looks directly out, calm and wise. In her right hand she holds a golden lamp (looking suspiciously like an illustration from the Arabian Nights) and between the fingers of her left hand is entwined the stem of a twig of oak leaves, another of her attributes, tying her to Kildare (or Cill Dara, the Church of the Oaks).

Beneath the three saints are three angels, floating above the Nativity. Although they form a wonderful trio, each is remarkably individual. The middle angel (with a fashionable bob) incorporates the star which is a traditional element in Nativity scenes. 

The left and right angels have elaborate, flowing or pleated robes and complicated coiffures. One holds a dove while the other has hands held in prayer. Gordon Bowe, in trying to analyse the decorative element at the centre of these angels says in her thesis Both seem to be manipulating jewelled levers, similar to the studded gun holsters favoured by cowboys.

I love this sentence but perhaps understandably it didn’t make it into her book, where she merely remarks that the saints and angels abound in intriguing decorative detail.

The central scene, of the Nativity, is beautifully constructed. Besides the angels above it, the framing devices consist of three elements. The first is an arc of silver chain upon which everything rests, most importantly the manger. You can see a close up of it in the signature panel above. The second is the rock face which stretches above and behind the Magi and the Shepherds. The third is one of Harry’s typical expanses of ‘floral ornamentation’ – one of his future hallmarks. Of this fantastical conglomeration of flowers, leaves, mosses, jewels, geometric shapes Gordon Bowe says always inventive and subtle in his pen and ink and watercolour illustrations, ingenious when painted or acided onto his glass by himself, but too often repetitive and lifeless . . . when imitated by his followers.

The robes of the lowest Magi and the lowest shepherd extend beyond the supporting chain-like arc, bringing a slight sense of perspective to the composition. Gordon Bowe likens the rich treatment of the fabric to the work of 

Gustav Klimt here and his flat treatment of interlocking decorative patterned, often symbolic planes, in which he would sometimes use coral, gold, mosaic, turquoise and semi-precious stones with casein paint to make up his richly mantled figures . . .Both men rely on the faces and hands of their figures to convey a human expressiveness and only here does any attempt at modelling occur. The eyes of their figures transport the spectator into a world of opulent trance. Both artists are equally unconcerned with perspective, reality or a third dimension. In the tradition of the best purely decorative work, background and foreground, figure and setting are equally important and integral. Any light is reflected from within the fabric of the design. Movement is created by how the light affects the surface of the picture and by the sinuous symbolic fluidity of the line. This is what W Hoffman has called Synaesthesia – a stylised ornamented style, where people are statues, backgrounds are wallpaper and interchangeable linear formulate are used as arrangements for figures and settings in different colour relationships, so that obstruction and symbol interrelate.

The Life and Work of Harry Clarke
Ph D Thesis by Nicola Gordon Bowe, 1981, P 249

As Gordon Bowe shows us, Harry was totally tuned in to the modern movements of his day – decorative and symbolist traditions that envisioned an idealised, stylised and imagined-medievalist form of representation that was the opposite of realistic depiction. She notes – there is no attempt whatsoever to suggest that the kneeling shepherd has ever set hands on the earth or worked as a shepherd.

Three gorgeously apparelled Kings are balanced by equally splendorous shepherds, each holding gifts. Almost hidden to the right of the upper shepherds is the head of a cow – it is hard to see as it is done in a dark purple glass. Local lore is adamant that this is an homage to Edith who apparently pioneered the introduction of Friesian Cattle into Ireland. 

Joseph stands guard over Mary and the Baby, holding a chain with a lantern and gazing out directly at the viewer. Mary’s expression is gentle, her hair is a golden blond, surrounded by a halo of pearls, her robe, in traditional blue, studded with star-like flowers. 

The baby, looking more like a wise elder than a newborn, lies in the manger, his hands up to embrace the world, his halo a delicate filigree. The coats of arms lie at the bottom of the panel – they were done and installed after the rest of the window was finished and Harry came down to supervise their insertion. That probably explains why this window has two signatures (did you go back and check the St Barrahane post?). Unfortunately, the wooden screen that stands behind the altar obscures the base of the window and makes it impossible to photograph the Townsend coat of arms (below) except from the side, but it’s another good opportunity to view the quarries.

Let us remember that Edith had misgivings about the choice of Harry to do this window. She was concerned about the “hellish splendour” of his Honan windows, the “burning and furious brilliance” of his glass, which she found “perfectly amazing but not quite pleasant.” In a letter referred to by Rauchbauer she “insists again that something a little less intense is required than the Bertie windows.” She may well have been concerned about the effect of full-on Harry on elderly parishioners, who had to be onside for the windows to go ahead. In any event, it looks like she managed to communicate well with Harry, and that he understood the brief – to “adapt his work to the church & to realise how to get harmony into it.” 

It is, indeed, charming and harmonious. No macabre beings peer out from behind the figures (as they do in the Honan and in the St Louis window down the aisle in St Barrahane’s), there are no Aubrey Beardsley stern and “horrible” faces and no predella scenes of sacrifice or death (see St Dympna, for example). All is gentleness and serenity, compassion and contemplation. One wonders if Harry would have been so biddable a few years later.

A final special photograph to finish this series. Here I am in front of the window, with Harry’s two granddaughters, Etain and Veronique, during a recent visit to Castletownshend

In this post I am relying both on Gordon Bowe’s Life and Work of Harry Clarke and on her Doctoral Thesis, lodged at NIVAL. I am deeply grateful to David Caron for facilitating my viewing of this material.

11 thoughts

  1. We visitied St. Barrahane’s last May and had a lovely, long wander as we were the only people there. The windows are spectacular. Forgive my ignorance, but how are the faces done?

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  2. That was a most enjoyable read and scrutiny of your fantastic photos. I am totally in awe of the quarries before even looking at anything else. As always it is the details and complexities that are so awe inspiring. I have to say I find Mary a bit doll-like though.

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  3. STUNNING. MY FATHER IN LAW RICHARD J KING, WAS TRAINED UNDER HARRY CLARKE, AND WAS MANAGER OF THE HARRY CLARKE STUDIO FROM I THINK 1935. AND THEN WENT ON TO MOVE HIS OWN STUDIO TO HIS HOME IN THE VICO ROAD DALKEY . THEY WERE AMAZING MEN.

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