The island of Cape Clear is a constant in our daily view from Nead an Iolair. We don’t visit often enough… But this week the Fastnet Film Festival – based in Schull – had a day out on The Cape, and we went along for the excursion! That’s the harbour, above.
The dot on the horizon, seen here (above) from our ferry to Cape Clear, is the Fastnet Lighthouse. The crossing from Schull takes only half an hour and we were fortunate to have good weather and calm waters. The crowd on board was delighted by a diversion on the way – a pod of dolphins kept the boat company for a while.
Arriving in the North Harbour we were looking forward to our Teanga na Gaeilge ar Oileán Chléire: an Irish Language Day on Cape Clear. First, we had a long hill to climb to reach an Halla Mór: a whole team of islanders were on hand to provide lifts in cars and buses. Some of us chose to do it the hard and steep way, but were rewarded by stunning views and azure water.
Our first film treat was An Cailín Ciúin – The Quiet Girl.
. . . Nominated for this year’s 95th Academy Awards in the ‘International Feature Film’ category of the Oscars, Colm Bairéad’s debut feature became one of the most lauded Irish films of recent years. Adapted from Foster, a short story by Claire Keegan, it centres on nine-year-old Cáit, a shy and withdrawn child who receives little affection from a family ruled by an uncaring patriarch. When she is sent to spend the summer with her aunt Eibhlín (Carrie Crowley) and her husband Seán (Andrew Bennet), she blossoms in their care. At the end of the summer, difficult decisions must be faced . . .
2023 Fastnet Film Festival Programme
Catherine Clinch is ‘The Quiet Girl’ in the film (above). Born in 2009, this is her debut role. Happily, she joined us for our day on the island. I was affected by the story in the film, as were many others in the audience. In fact, I don’t think I have been as moved by something on screen since I was taken to see Bambi at the age of five. Although not topping the Oscars ‘Best International Feature Film’ category (this went to All Quiet on the Western Front) it has rightly gained many other accolades. I think the most apt review I read said simply:
” . . . As beautiful as it is devastating . . .” (Boston Globe).
Carrie Crowley also deserves mention for her sensitive role as the aunt of The Quiet Girl. Crowley and Clinch – below.
This Irish language film was undoubtedly the highlight of the day, but there were plenty more moments, including short film viewings, coffee and good lunches, on Cape Clear. With some long-awaited summer weather to help us enjoy the island.
We had to be sure to arrive back at the harbour before the boat left at five. The alternative would be to sleep out under the stars – tempting! For very many reasons, this was a most memorable day.
I was around in London in the early sixties, and was definitely part of the swinging Flower Power scene: beatniks, Beatlemania, Carnaby Street, flowery shirts and ties (I’ve still got some of them – below – stashed away in my wardrobe!) – the regulation Afghan coat (and its distinctive smell) . . . What I miss most, perhaps, is the purple velvet flared trousers: sadly an expanding waistline quickly did away with them.
What is less well-known – in my generation at least – is the fact that there was a similar cultural phenomenon in one part of Ireland – our own West Cork! And it was centred on Ballydehob – that’s the main street, above. It’s a colourful village today – as it was then: well-suited to the cultural heritage which the artist community of the time imposed upon it. This building on the main street in those early days was particularly significant:
One of the artists who happened upon Ballydehob at that time lived on here to tell the tale (he still lives in the village and is still a working artist):
BREAKING NEWS: BALLYDEHOB IS DISCOVERED!
. . . During the early 1960s, a group of students at the Crawford School of Art in Cork, heard a rumour that something bizarre was happening in a village called Ballydehob. Here some vestige of Swinging London had taken up residence in a painted-up building called ‘The Flower House’. I was one of those students. We decided to investigate.
Since nobody owned a car, a parental vehicle must be ‘borrowed’. Somebody’s parent was away so this could be done without controversy. One of the know-it-all students announced that Ballydehob was in County Sligo and we would need money for petrol and have to camp when we got there. Nobody owned a tent. A forever-complaining student said that ‘He didn’t want to end up arrested as a vagrant and to have to sleep in a Garda station’. A few days later we left the Crawford en-route to County Sligo. Fortunately, a more astute student rummaged in the car as we were leaving the city for the West, found a road atlas and announced that Ballydehob was actually in County Cork, a mere two hours drive over the potholes. Tent-less or Garda station camping would not be required.
We arrived, we saw, we were astonished. Cork was then a darkly conservative place, ditto the Crawford and its staff members. What we found in Ballydehob was a house on the main street of the village with enormous flowers painted on the façade. It might have been in Chelsea or San Francisco. We entered to find a hive of creativity and alternative lifestyles. This was the world of women in flowing batik dresses, bearded men with bead necklaces and leather-thonged trousers. Even a cod-piece was observed. We sat in the café and drank coffee from the brownest of chipped brown ceramic mugs, ate inedible brownies and marvelled at the range of art and crafts being produced by this creative group.
This establishment, which seemed to have landed from another planet since the remainder of Main Street appeared to have experienced no visual or economic change from the images recorded in the black + white photographs of the 1900s, was run by two women, one German, the other English: Christa Reichel and Nora Golden. Here was a living example of William Morris’s dictum, ‘Have nothing in your homes that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful’.
Some ten years later, John and Noelle Verling (participants in that epic car journey) set up the Fergus Pottery in Dripsey outside Cork, later transferring it to Christa Reichel’s former premises in Gurteenakilla, Ballydehob, where it became a fixture of the creative community. A few years following, another member of the car-team, myself and Clair, came to stay with the Verlings, and also remained in the area, setting up an etching studio on the other side of Ballydehob.
Many of those who established the creative community of West Cork have died. Another generation has grown to maturity, further expanding the tradition of West Cork as a major and continuing centre of creative engagement in all of the arts, an epi-centre of delight. . .
That’s Brian, in his studio today. Just a few years ago – in 2018 – he and I decided that that creative time in the village needed to be properly celebrated, and we gathered around us like-minded enthusiasts, and opened up the Ballydehob Arts Museum, using a room kindly donated by those who had taken over the disused bank building, right in the centre of town:
That’s the inside of the Museum above: its first exhibition opened in the summer of 2018. We had another the following year, then Covid stopped us until last year, when we featured Ian + Lynn Wright. This year’s exhibition also features a ‘couple’ of working artists: The Verlings– Noelle + John.
John Verling was a contemporary of Brian Lalor (who has written the account above), and they both studied architecture and art in London and at the Crawford in Cork. Brian has penned for us his memories of sharing a studio in London with John Verling:
THE PERILS OF A SHARED STUDIO, LONDON, 1967
. . . During the late 1960s, John Verling and I, then students of architecture in London, shared a quite substantial studio in one of the leafier areas of Kensington. The building, a large brightly lit interior behind a row of decaying Victorian villas (it might originally have been a Victorian studio, we never discovered) had many more recent uses and the first task on gaining possession was to somehow manage to get rid of what had been left behind by earlier tenants; office furniture, old matresses, much unidentifiable plumbing apparatus and a stuffed fox whose pelt had been consumed by moths, were among the challenging contents.
Conversation among acquaintances in our local, the Norland Arms, evoked interest from other drinkers, an English sculptor and a South African photographer who asked could they share the space and, very willingly offered a down payment on the rent. This was agreed and not long afterwards the studio became operational, with both John and myself busy creating in our new-found haven, with only the occasional appearance of our fellow tenants. John was at that point concentrating on elegant photomontages as well as complex drawings of Portobello costermongers and was extremely productive, while I was engaged in a substantial series of elaborate and brightly coloured timber constructions enhanced by scaffold clamps, in a latter-day Bauhaus manner. Time passed, various local artists called to view the work and admire the space. We were exhibiting successfully and the studio became in W H Auden’s phrase, ‘the cave of making’. Our fellow studio members failed to turn up and when occasionally encountered in the Norland, expressed embarrassment in being behind with the rent while offering a contribution to ‘keep their name in the pot’. This was an extremely satisfactory situation with individuals happy to subsidise the rent but too busy to actually attend the studio.
A chance encounter in the Norland brought another hopeful artist to our acquaintance, David O’Doherty, Dublin painter, he worked at the international telephone exchange. He came, he admired the studio, and invited himself to join. Fatally, we agreed. An accomplished portrait painter, he often had a sitter posed, but seemed happy to work on, undisturbed by the other occupants. Our new tenant was affable, expansive, a storyteller. He became a permanent fixture. Suddenly we realised that we were entertaining a cuckoo in our midst. O’Doherty had moved in permanently, camp bed, small stove on which there was always a fry-up in progress, an endless stream of visitors, large canvasses propped against the wall, and the catastrophic revelation of his other occupation; he was a keen traditional musician, devoted to the Uillinn pipes. Suddenly the space, ample for John and myself to pursue our work, had begun to feel like a home for the demented.
Gradually it became apparent that our studio, which a year before had been, in the midst of the city’s turmoil, as quiet and remote as a stylite’s pillar, had metamorphosed into Picadilly Circus with noise, air pollution and crowd control issues. The dream of having a secure place in which to create had floundered on the fatal choice of an individual whose concept of an ideal workplace was perilously close to Francis Bacon’s taste for irredeemable chaos. I bailed out, John lasted a little longer. And the completed series of brightly coloured scaffold-clamp constructions, what of them? Occasionally I received reports of their travels. Before he emigrated to Boston, O’Doherty sold them to a construction company and they were later spotted decorating the foyer of a social welfare office in Amsterdam. After that only blessed silence . . .
Noelle Verling (above) studied ceramics at Hammersmith College of Art. She and John met and married and – when they moved back to Ireland in 1971 – John & Noelle Verling established the Fergus Pottery in Dripsey in 1971 with Noelle as potter. She produced a wide range of domestic ware at Dripsey. When they moved in 1973 to Ballydehob to take over Christa Reichel’s studio, they adapted Reichel’s press-moulds and Gurteenakilla pottery stamp for their own work and from then on, traded as Gurteenakilla Pottery and latterly as Brushfire.
. . . The Verlings loved the windswept West Cork landscape and felt moved to record a disappearing environment. John’s paintings often depicted the doors, windows and walls of decaying buildings, repositories for the memories of past inhabitants, long gone. The windswept thorn tree is a familiar motif which connects John Verling with West Cork: the tree became his icon and frequently appeared in his paintings and on his ceramic work . . .
Alison Ospina – West Cork Inspires 2011
This is a rare photograph of John working on one of his favourite subjects: the gnarled thorn tree suffering from the ravages of harsh West Cork gales. Among the architectural work he undertook voluntarily was the reordering of the east end of St Bridget’s Catholic Church in Ballydehob. This was a major work.
. . . The gold fish hand drawn in the background of the altar and the depiction of one fish swimming against the shoal continues to evoke admiration from locals and visitors alike. He also designed the two ‘windswept thorn’ stained glass windows and etched the brass surround of the tabernacle. The Altar slab, composed of a vast monolith like the capstone of a dolmen, is a distinguished piece of sculpture and a tribute to his imaginative capacity . . .
Special thanks to Geoff Greenham for giving us this superb photo of St Bridget’s Church, Ballydehob.
The sign for the Brush Fire Ceramics Pottery, created by Noelle and John. They successfully produced a large number of individual pieces, crafted and fired by Noelle, and decorated by John.
John Verling died in 2009. Noelle Verling is living in West Cork and has been extremely helpful in providing material and information for this exhibition. Without her we would have been unable to fully present this story.
That’s John Verling in the picture above having his legs plastered by Ian Wright: this was part of a publicity stunt for the visit of a large group of West Cork artists to Zurich in 1985. John is also singing a folk song! You can read more about that particular enterprise here.
The Ballydehob Arts Museum is grateful to the town’s Community Council for providing the accommodation for the Museum. BAM is: Brian Lalor, Robert Harris, Sarah and Stephen Canty. Their combined knowledge and practical experience has ensured that our ambitions for this – our fourth exhibition – are fully realised.
We were saddened to hear recently of the death of Leda May. Hers was a familiar face in Ballydehob, where she lived for many decades. Her little pottery studio on The Parade has always been a landmark in the village:
Above – Brian Lalor and Leda May in the Ballydehob Arts Museum, 2019. Leda continued to work until her recent illness, and her blue porcelain ware is familiar to many of us in and around the community.
A documentary about Leda – ‘The Elephant & The Dandelion’, directed by Martin Daley, was made in 2015 – and is available to view here. Leda May was born in London, grew up in Suffolk, and studied ceramics at Hornsea College of Art in the 1960s. She was also drawn to the medium of stained glass which gave her the opportunity to create with colour. Here are two of her glass pieces (reproduced from the documentary film with thanks to the crew):
Leda was at first attracted to the culture and landscapes of India, but in due course Leda and her husband Bob set out in a converted ambulance ‘to visit all the potters in Ireland’, and arrived in West Cork in the late 60s, meeting Christa Reichel at Gurteenakilla. Christa encouraged them to set up their own pottery behind the Flower House: this was known as Luba Studios.
When the Ballydehob Arts Museum opened in 2018, Leda was among the West Cork artists celebrated, and she was always a supporter of the Museum, which has put on several exhibitions to date. The Museum is sited within Bank House, a colourful building owned and run by the community.
This dresser in a household within our village displays several examples of Leda’s work – and other works by Ballydehob’s creative community of artists:
We wish Leda farewell, knowing she has left behind her a legacy of original work which will always be appreciated. But she will principally be remembered as a gentle spirit and talented artist within her community.
Leda May at her wheel in Ballydehob in 1980. A retrospective of Leda’s work is currently being prepared and will be shown this year in the Blue House Gallery, Schull between Friday 28 April and Wednesday 17 May.
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.
At this stage in his career, as we saw in the last letter in Part 1, Harry was making his own windows – that is, he was designing, cartooning (making the life-size drawings and laying out the cutlines) and choosing and painting the glass. He worked in his father’s studio, Joshua Clarke and Sons, where he used the assistants and glaziers to cut and lead the glass, and to fire it in the kilns. A few years later, he was so busy that many of his designs were mostly executed by talented apprentices, under his close supervision. He was also teaching in the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art – here he is with colleagues Sean Keating, James Golden and James Sinton Sleator about this time.*
That’s one of the reasons the Castletownshend Nativity window is so special – it is Harry’s vision and Harry’s work, and only Harry’s. It’s also the reason he had to come to new terms with his father. Harry was a perfectionist who demanded only the best quality glass and worked on each tiny piece of it to make it unique and exactly how he wanted it. His father (above) was a businessman who despaired of making even a tiny profit from this laborious way of work, especially when the war had made everything scarce and expensive. Harry had quoted a price of £315 for the window as it was currently sized, or £252 if it was shortened. Gordon-Bowe** says that Joshua had worked that it would actually cost £2,300 for the time and materials involved. He was probably factoring in the cost of all the changes to the frame, discussed below, but even so, this was a huge amount for a window at that time. His father suggested that Nagle (below, with Harry and Joshua) should do some or most of the work, but as Gordon Bowe says, Harry would never have accepted [this suggestion] at this point in his career. Given the huge disparity between what it would cost and what Harry proposed charging, this window was a significant loss to the Studio, but they must have felt that it was worth it, and that it would lead to other commissions.
The arrangement Harry and Joshua came to was that Harry would pay his father for the glass, the facilities and the glazier’s time, but that he would work on his own windows, and charge his clients, independently. But it was complicated, because at the same time, Harry was, by this time, effectively running the stained glass side of his father’s business, as Joshua’s health was declining (he died in 1921). Harry’s hand and eye can be discerned occasionally in some of the other glass being produced from Joshua Clarke and Sons at this time, but mostly his role was to manage the work of others.
Here’s an example of Harry’s influence, perhaps, in a window for Charleville Catholic Church – the windows are all from Joshua Clarke and Sons, but this one in particular bears some Harry hallmarks in the sensitive drawing of the features and the elaborate decoration of every piece of glass.
15 April 1917
Dear Miss Somerville
Thank you for your letter & enclosure of cheques value 15/. – I have been knocked up with a cold since Wednesday and have not been able to work – which will I know postpone my sending you my proposals for the Castlehaven window for a few days – the Nativity would be a jolly subject for the three lights – However this is a matter you can discuss among yourselves –
But – – you as an artist can understand that these three tall narrow windows would not suit any subject – for example an Ascension or Crucifixion would be most suitable, tho’ I think a charming little nativity might be done.
LETTER FROM HARRY CLARKE TO EDITH SOMERVILLE Somerville Archives, Drishane House***
The design that Edith and Harry eventually settled on was an unusual one for a Church of Ireland church. The main scene is that of the Nativity, also sometimes knows as the Adoration of the Magi. While this is certainly part of the iconography of Protestant churches at this time, it is a tiny proportion, representing fewer than 3% of all Church of Ireland windows and often as a small scene within larger windows, or as part of a Life of Christ assemblage.
Interior of St Barrahane’s Church. In this photo you can see that the windows along the nave are longer – that is, the bottom of the windows are closer to the ground than in the east window
Edith was still determined to shorten the window, and some of the correspondence between her and Harry is taken up with details of measurements and proposals for how to get the work done – Harry will not embark on the window until he has a completely accurate set of measurements from the final shape of the changed windows.
24 April 1917
Dear Miss Somerville
I send you herewith a drawing of the alterations I suggest in the tracery of the East window of Castlehaven church – I have worked with the idea of getting some good tracery with the very least amount of carpentry work. You will see marked in red on the drawing the parts which will have to be made in new wood and these should present no real difficulties to a carpenter of ordinary skill and intelligence.
This tracery will need to be made and fixed in the position before I start the actual making of the glass as I will work from templates taken from the real openings
LETTER FROM HARRY CLARKE TO EDITH SOMERVILLE Somerville Archives, Drishane House
So – Harry not only designed the stained glass, but also re-designed the window itself. A casual visitor to St Barrahane’s would look at the window and assume that it was carved in stone and was entirely original. However, a closer examination reveals that the east window is different from all the other windows in the church in two important ways – it is shorter (foreshortened from the bottom up) and the tracery is more elaborate. In fact, it is made of wood, as are all the windows in the church, although this is more apparent from the outside than the inside, since the wood has been painted and sanded to look like stone.
From the outside, it can be discerned that the window has been shortened from the bottom up. The wooden window frame was re-built to include Harry’s elaborate tracery design, painted white outside, and inside (below) sanded to look like stone.
I am glad the proposed window has been sanctioned and bearing in mind your views and those of your brother expressed in your last letter, I hope to send you the design in September or early October. The coats of arms will do any time between this and then.
Re – re making of window frames; I suggest that it would be better if it were made in Cork and I understand that Messrs Sisk and Son of that city – who built the Honan Chapel are excellent builders and must employ efficient carpenters.
Sisk’s man could measure the job and could make it either in Skibbereen or Cork – I propose this as you would be sure of a good job if the man who measures the window either makes it or has opportunity of personally explaining the alterations and measurements to another – this would rule out any chance of miscalculation – Also – It could I think be made cheaper in Cork – and the cost of carriage from Dublin to Skibbereen for the finished wood would be considerable – If it suits you and would save you any bother I will write Sisk and explain matters – there is no hurry I suppose if you remember that the new tracery will have to be finalised before I start my window early in 1918.
LETTER FROM HARRY CLARKE TO EDITH SOMERVILLE, June 10, 1917 Somerville Archives, Drishane House
By this time (June 1917) the elements of the window have also been agreed – that is, that the main scene will be a Nativity, and that Irish saints will have a place in the window. The price has also been negotiated and even though that sum seems paltry now, it was enough to give some members of the family heartburn. Hildegard was apparently ‘scandalised at the family’s extravagance’ and Edith says she is probably right “but such fears have never yet curbed my extravagance & as I have often said, I have only regretted my economies” (Rauchbauer, p179). A woman after my own heart.
One more drama ensued before the work could start – Cameron lost the sketch design! He may have left it on a train. Desperate searches (even at Scotland Yard) turned up nothing, so Edith was in the embarrassing position of having to ask Harry to produce a new one. Harry, ever the gentleman, responded on Dec 7th.
Dear Miss Somerville
Thank you for your letter. I will do the new Nativity sketch the first time I can put my mind to it to the exclusion of my other work – I am behind time with everything now, but at any rate I will undertake to give it to you at latest on the 7 January next. – possibly I will finish sooner – I will ask you to understand the delay is not entirely my own fault – the publisher of Poe’s Tales is persecuting me for the drawings – I would have been glad long ago to have taken up your happier work but business men always nail me to a date.
LETTER FROM HARRY CLARKE TO EDITH SOMERVILLE Somerville Archives, Drishane House
It will be better in every way if I do the sketch for the 7 January – I hardly think I can do a replica of the missing drawing but if I work to this date at any rate I will and do remember the scheme, drawing, and general colour.
LETTER FROM HARRY CLARKE TO EDITH SOMERVILLE Somerville Archives, Drishane House
This second drawing is, or was, extant, although I cannot now trace where it might be. However, Nicola Gordon-Bowe must have seen it, as she describes it as being done in charcoal only and drawn surprisingly loosely and sketchily . . . in comparison with those for the Honan Chapel. However, it is perhaps not so surprising that Harry, under pressure to produce a duplicate of work he had already done in detail, should produce only a charcoal drawing. He was relying on his memory for all the details and the colour.
In this photo you can see the size, shape and relatively simple tracery of the other windows in St Barrahane’s Church. The two windows on the left are by Powells of London and pre-date the Harry Clarke windows in the church. The window on the right is Harry’s Kendall Coghill window, about which I have written here. My supposition is that the east window, although three-lights instead of two, had very similar tracery to these windows, before the changes I describe above and was of course the same length. Such elongated dimensions are well suited, as Harry pointed out, to a crucifixion or a resurrection, where the movement of the eye is upwards to the heavens. Below is Harry’s Crucifixion in Terenure as an example of what he meant. It was dedicated in 1920 but he had already won the commission when he was working on the St Barrahane Nativity.
The shortening of the window, the inclusion of the Irish saints, the addition of three angels above the scene and of coats of arms below it – all these design devices resulted in Harry giving Edith what she really wanted – a painterly canvas for the main scene, rather than a composition constrained by tall, narrow dimensions.
What Edith got, in fact was a cleverly constructed division of space in the window. The main Nativity scene is located within a square, while her saints and Harry’s angels occupy the elaborate new tracery that Harry designed to be constructed by Sisk’s ‘carpenter of ordinary skill and intelligence.’
In the end the carpentry work did not get underway until the following spring, and once it was done Harry was able to start on the glass painting in April. By the end of July, the window was finished and exhibited in his studio at North Frederick Street to great acclaim.
Gordon Bowe quotes the review by Bodkin in the Dublin Evening Mail.
It has not the sumptuousness of colour which we are accustomed to associate with [Clarke], for it is especially designed to hang in the comparative dimness of an eastern light. But it has an appropriate beauty of colour second to none of this earlier works and a suavity of design and strength of drawing that shows, if that be possible, an advance in the artist’s power.
The Freemans Journal also had a review of the window by Bodkin (he signed it A.C. for “A Critic”), under the title Genius in Stained Glass
In part 3 we will look in detail at the Nativity. I’m sorry – I know this is taking forever and perhaps few will find talk of tracery and window dimensions as fascinating as I do. All I can say is that it wasn’t until I read the real-time correspondence that I realised all the changes that had been made to the windows, and the corresponding effect that this had had on Harry’s final design. But we have finally arrived at the point where we can talk about the window itself. I think it will be worth the wait.
*My thanks to Patrick Hawe and David Britton for assistance with the first three photographs.
**Anything I write about Harry Clarke is informed by Nicola Gordon Bowe’s authoritative text The Life and Work of Harry Clarke. All of us who write about Harry owe debts of gratitude to her keen insights, formidable scholarship and her command of descriptive language.
***Once again, huge thanks to Tom Somerville and the Somerville Archives for permission to read and quote from the letters.
This fine memorial in St Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin, celebrates Mrs Hester Johnson – “better known to the World by the Name of Stella”. There is so much about Mrs Johnson that is enigmatic, not least the use of that term ‘Mrs’. Hester was born ‘Johnson’ and remained unmarried throughout her life, even though she was linked so closely to Jonathan Swift – and many commentators have suggested they were secretly married or, at the very least, lovers.
It is poignant to see the entwined plaques in the floor of the Dublin Cathedral. Both were buried there: ‘Stella’ in 1728 and Swift in 1745: he was placed beside her at his own request. Much has been written about Jonathan Swift – he was a formidable author, satirist and analyst of contemporary Irish life in the 17th and 18th centuries, while ‘Stella’ existed mainly in his shadows. We would probably know nothing of her without the association. Having written previously about Swift – and my part in his life (read it here) – I thought I would tackle the story of ‘Stella’: her name was known to me from a young age. Before going further, though, let’s solve that first little mystery – the use of Mrs on Stella’s memorial. In the Oxford University History Workshop Journal, Volume 78, Issue 1, Autumn 2014 Dr Amy Erickson claims:
. . . Mrs was applied to any adult woman who merited the social distinction, without any marital connotation. Miss was reserved for young girls until the mid eighteenth century. Even when adult single women started to use Miss, Mrs still designated a social or business standing, and not the status of being married, until at least the mid nineteenth century . . .
Dr Amy Erickson
Above left: an alleged portrait of Esther was reproduced in William Wilde’s 1849 book on Swift, and claims for it an “undoubtedly authentic” history, adding that it matches physical descriptions made of Stella during her lifetime:
. . . It was originally in the possession of the distinguished Charles Ford of Woodpark, where Stella was constantly in the habit of visiting, and where she spent several months in 1723, when probably it was painted, Stella being then about 42. The hair is jet black, the eyes dark to match, the fore-head fair, high, and expansive, the nose rather prominent, and the features generally regular and well-marked . . .
Above right: “Stella, From an Original Drawing by the Rev’d George Parnell, Archdeacon of Clogher, in the Possession of G Faulkner”
. . . George Faulkner, Swift’s Dublin publisher, placed this purported portrait of Stella across from the beginning of Swift’s memoir of her in an edition of Swift’s Works. The artist is wrongly attributed, it actually being by the poet and scholar Dr Thomas Parnell, who had been intimate with Swift around 1716, when this drawing was most likely made. Swift had begun writing his memoir on the evening of Stella’s death, on January 28, 1728, just weeks shy of her forty-seventh birthday. Their friend Thomas Sheridan, who was with Stella in her final days, preserved a story about “the secret marriage” of Swift and Stella. If they were indeed married, public recognition of their marriage never happened. According to an old lady who may have inhabited Stella’s former cottage: “. . . some says she was his wife, and some says she wasn’t, but whatever she was, she was something to him . . .“
Esther Johnson was born in Richmond, Surrey, England in 1681. She spent the early years of her life at Moor Park House, Farnham, Surrey (above). This was the home of Sir William Temple (1628 – 1699) – diplomat, statesman and essayist: from 1688 until his death he employed Jonathan Swift as his secretary (Swift’s mother was a distant relative of Temple). Esther’s parentage has been the subject of much speculation. The weight of evidence is that her mother acted as companion to Temple’s sister, Lady Giffard, and that Esther, her mother and her sister Anne were regarded as part of the family. Esther’s father is said to have been a merchant who died young, but local rumour suggested that she was Temple’s illegitimate daughter. I have found no concrete evidence to confirm or deny this.
(Above) Jonathan Swift, painted by Charles Jervas c1710. When Swift first met Esther at Farnham she was only around eight years old, and he was charged by Temple to become her tutor and mentor. He gave her the nickname ‘Stella’, but we don’t seem to know why or when. Now, here’s another enigma: in my younger days I was familiar with Moor Park House and its environs. I remember there was a cottage some distance from the estate, named ‘Stella Cottage’. It definitely existed once (and may still exist) – here’s a postcard showing it:
I was told (by my grandmother) that Swift’s ‘Stella’ lived in this cottage, and that he would walk to visit her there ‘every day’. This doesn’t quite tie in with the account suggesting that Esther Johnson lived in Moor Park House – although she could, of course, have moved away at some point. Also, at what place in its history was ‘Stella Cottage’ so named? It’s possible, even, that Swift gave his pet name to ‘Stella’ because there was already an association locally with that appellation – so the cottage itself may never have had anything else to do with Esther. As our story moves forward, Swift’s employer – Temple – died in 1699 (Swift reportedly said that “all that was good and amiable in mankind had died with Temple”). This left Swift without a job or home. Interestingly – bearing in mind we don’t know exactly where Esther Johnson figured in Sir William Temple’s life – he bequeathed to her a significant sum of money, and some property in Ireland.
Above – Castle Street at Farnham, Surrey in 1788. Swift was an ordained minister of the Anglican Church in Ireland. After Temple’s death, he was unable to maintain his lifestyle in England and returned to Ireland (his birth and upbringing were in Dublin and Kilkenny). In due course (1713) – he was appointed as dean of St Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin: a position which enabled him to indulge his many enthusiasms – writing, political commentary and satire – for the rest of his days. He encouraged ‘Stella’ also to move to Ireland, which she did in 1702, ostensibly living with her companion, Mrs Dingley. A further rumour on the relationship between Swift and ‘Stella’ needs to be quoted:
. . . Whether Swift and Stella were married has always been a subject of intense debate. The marriage ceremony was allegedly performed in 1716 by St George Ashe, Bishop of Clogher (an old friend of Swift, and also his college tutor), with no witnesses present, and it was said that the parties agreed to keep it secret and live apart. Stella always described herself as a “spinster” and Swift always referred to himself as unmarried; Rebecca Dingley, who lived with Stella throughout her years in Ireland, said that Stella and Swift were never alone together. Those who knew the couple best were divided on whether a marriage ever took place: some, like Mrs Dingley and Swift’s housekeeper Mrs Brent laughed at the idea as “absurd”. On the other hand, Thomas Sheridan, one of Swift’s oldest friends, believed that the story of the marriage was true: he reportedly gave Stella herself as his source . . .
This lady – Esther Vanhomrigh (1688–1723) was painted by John Everett Millais in 1868. It depicts another rumoured ‘lover’ of Jonathan Swift, who gave her the name ‘Vanessa’. We know very little about her actual appearance, although she was said “not to be a beauty”. She is holding a letter, which we are to assume was written to or from Swift with whom, from what we can gather, Vanessa was infatuated – although her feelings were apparently never reciprocated. The expression on her face in Millais’ imaginary portrait could imply her frustration. The artist painted ‘Stella’ in a companion piece (Sudley House, Liverpool):
It can be no coincidence that Stella is also holding a letter. In this case, perhaps, the expression which the artist has chosen to depict is less severe. Jonathan Swift kept up a remarkable correspondence with Stella while he was away in England between 1710 and 1713. He certainly never intended it for publication in his lifetime. The Journal to Stella appeared first in 1766 and consists of 65 long and detailed letters – thousands of words in all, ranging from minute accounts of his daily life, through witty commentary and some mildly intimate deliberations.
. . . If the Journal shows us some of Swift’s less attractive qualities, it shows still more how great a store of humour, tenderness, and affection there was in him. In these letters we see his very soul; in his literary work we are seldom moved to anything but admiration of his wit and genius. Such daily outpourings could never have been written for publication, they were meant only for one who understood him perfectly; and everything that we know of Stella—her kindliness, her wit, her vivacity, her loyalty—shows that she was worthy of the confidence . . .
This small account of the story of ‘Stella’ – Mrs Hester Johnson – reveals a little of what we are able to piece together of the lady and her possible (probable?) relationship with the towering figure of Jonathan Swift, a matter which has fascinated scholar-historians over the generations. We can make assumptions, but reach no firm conclusions. The enigmas of the tale remain, and are certainly celebrated wherever local geography and lore are able to relate to some aspect of the oral traditions. As an example, I was pleased to find a pamphlet dating from 1991 which tells of a ‘Stella’s Cottage’ far, far away from Moor Park, Farnham. This one is near Trim, Co Meath. It suggests that this was where Stella and her companion, Mrs Dingley, lived ‘just down the road from Laracor,where Swift had his vicarage on his half-acre of Irish bog‘.
The pamphlet is, in part, an appeal to save what was then left of the cottage, and to fund a restoration of this important piece of Irish history. The appeal was apparently unsuccessful: today the spot is marked by some low stone walls and a plaque. This is a drawing of Stella’s Cottage in 1847:
Many have been fascinated by the Swift / Stella story. In 2020 Michael Billington edited a series in the UK Guardian titled ‘Forgotten Plays’. This is one:
. . . Few plays are more forgotten than those of WB Yeats. Revered as a poet, he’s ignored as a dramatist yet he deserves to be remembered for a number of reasons. He cofounded the Abbey theatre in 1904, he put Irish legend and history on stage, and he sought to create a drama “close to pure music”. His output was huge – his Collected Plays runs to more than 700 pages. The Words Upon the Window-Pane (1930) is in many ways exceptional: it is Yeats’s only play with a realistic modern setting. Its subject is a seance held by the Dublin Spiritualist Association in rooms once occupied by Jonathan Swift’s Stella. Yeats has much fun at the expense of the visitors – one of whom wants advice about setting up a teashop in Folkestone – but the main concern is to expel an evil spirit who has been haunting past sessions. It turns out to be that of Swift whom we hear – through the medium, Mrs Henderson – bitterly rejecting offers of love from the two women who most adored him. What is astonishing is the way Yeats pulls off a double trick. Far from being an attack on Swift, the play is a defence of his refusal to beget children because of his dread of the future. But, rather like David Mamet’s The Shawl about a phoney clairvoyant with psychic gifts, the play suggests that the money-grubbing Mrs Henderson may actually have conjured up the crabbed spirit of Dublin’s celibate dean . . .
The Guardian 27 July 2020
Lastly, consider this ‘alternative view’ by Michael Foot: Debts of Honour (Faber 1980) –
. . . British politician Michael Foot was a great admirer of Swift and wrote about him extensively. In Debts of Honour he cites with approbation a theory propounded by Denis Johnston that offers an explanation of Swift’s behaviour towards Stella and Vanessa. Pointing to contradictions in the received information about Swift’s origins and parentage, Johnston postulates that Swift’s real father was Sir William Temple’s father, Sir John Temple who was Master of the Rolls in Dublin at the time. It is widely thought that Stella was Sir William Temple’s illegitimate daughter. So Swift was Sir William’s brother and Stella’s uncle. Marriage or close relations between Swift and Stella would therefore have been incest, an unthinkable prospect. It follows that Swift could not have married Vanessa either without Stella appearing to be a cast-off mistress, which he would not contemplate. Johnston’s theory is expounded fully in his book In Search of Swift . . .
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