Murphy Devitt in Cork, Part 2

In Murphy Devitt in Cork Part 1 I introduced you to the main players in the Studio – Johnny Murphy, Róisín Dowd-Murphy and Des Devitt. Together they set about doing something entirely new and different in stained glass in Ireland, bringing with them their art training, their modern aesthetic sensibilities, and their deep knowledge of and commitment to their craft.

Both photographs above are from the Church of St Michael, Blackrock, Cork. The windows comprise large areas of breakouts with small images placed in the top half. A close up of the pictures chosen for this window reveal Noah’s Ark and Christ Calming the Waters (Contrast this with our final photograph in this post, which is in Caheragh)

Although the Studio was dissolved as a business in 1985, the three continued to work together in a loose arrangement, often under the heading of Des Devitt and Associates. This creative partnership went on for over 50 years: it was so finely attuned that Johnny could describe his vision over the phone and Des knew how to actualise it.

Johnny, Réiltín and Róisín – Réiltín was already a fixture in the Studio at this age

Everyone was pulled into the slipstream – Réiltín Murphy had to stand on a box to reach the drawing table when she started out first. Anthony Devitt* was just a kid when Des warned him not to fall off the scaffolding or his mother would kill him. They all loved it, as did the endless stream of students from the National College of Art, where Johnny was now teaching, who came to help in the summer or to learn how to paint on glass or assemble windows. Other artists came to help when the pressure of work got too much – Terry Corcoran, Rosaline Murphy (not related) Celia Harriss, Paul Britton, Ann Fitzgibbon, Michael Biggs, Michael Timlin to name some.

The only different window at Blackrock is this one, and it’s pure Roisín. There was a fire in the church and this window was rescued and re-installed in a side room once all the new windows were installed by Murphy Devitt Studios. We don’t know what the original ones were like, apart from this one

Johnny was the main designer, hugely respected by Róisín, Des and everyone in his orbit. His was the overall vision for a whole scheme for a church or for a one-off window. Róisín was happiest left to paint, either from Johnny’s designs or from her own – she was a painter at heart and exhibited into her 70s.

This window is a whole family project. It dates from 1974: Róisín painted the figure, Johnny did the little scene of Gougane Barra and Réiltín did the lettering. It’s in a convent chapel in Crosshaven, now closed and inaccessible 

Des had a couple of years of art college under his belt too but his genius lay in management and in translating Johnny’s designs (or sometimes just thoughts) into finished windows. He pitched for business, kept the budget under control, delivered work on time and ran the Studio in a completely non-hierarchical way that would be the envy of many a modern management guru. All of them read voraciously, educated themselves in progressive art theories and in how the spiritual could be expressed in glass. Perhaps this isn’t so difficult when the subject is the Passion, or the Life of Christ, or a particular saint like Francis. But many churches requested non-figurative windows, whether for budgetary reason or out of preference. Here the challenge became creating a space that suggested the transcendent, without the aid of obvious imagery.

In the same chapel are many windows that are either entirely non-figurative or with small hints of symbolism. This one looks like the lilies often carried by St Joseph

These mostly or entirely non-figurative windows became one of the hallmarks of Murphy Devitt Studios, instantly recognisable, and capable all by themselves of creating an atmosphere of drama or tranquility. An oval becomes the window to the soul, a series of them leads the eye upwards, thus capturing the notion of the elevation of thoughts and prayers. A sunburst denotes the glory of creation, light falling from heaven.

Ballyhooly Church has all non-figurative windows. This photograph is courtesy C Cashman and R Gem

Some have small elements within them that are complete pictures, mostly Christian symbols, sometimes mere hints. There were favourites – I’ve seen similar ones crop up here and there, although their context leads to fresh treatments. Some churches are a mixture of figurative and non-figurative. Although it’s not in my remit for these posts, if you are near Dun Laoghaire visit St Michael’s church and marvel that expanses of ‘coloured glass’ can create such a calm and devotional atmosphere.

Caheragh Church has a mixture of figurative, non-figurative and non-figurative-with-symbols. This window is one of the latter

Anyone who visits Irish churches knows that what we want in them are our own saints – Patrick and Brigid certainly, but after that they must be local. So along with every other stained glass artist who ever worked in Ireland, Johnny had to study the hagiographies of our obscure legendary saints and satisfy a demanding congregation familiar with the stories.

St Kieran of Cape Clear is one of our treasured West Cork saints

At Caheragh (north of Skibbereen) and Rath (just outside Baltimore) in West Cork two small rural churches demonstrate how well he succeeded. The windows in each are quite different, although both were completed in 1963. In Caheragh the figures are situated in the lovely wavy-lined breakouts that we saw Murphy Devitt use to such effect in Mayfield, in tones of red and yellow.

And here is St Facthna of Rosscarbery

In Rath we see the introduction of a new breakout design, the square or rectangle with grey shadow around the edge, seeming like a solid glass brick. It’s another Murphy Devitt innovation, used to great effect in many of their windows. They used it again the following year in Blackrock (see above).

The Sacrament of Confession gets the Murphy Devitt treatment in Rath

A stained glass technique that was introduced to Ireland in the 60s was that of Dal de Verre. Blocks of coloured glass were faceted to increase their reflectivity (this was done by knocking spalls of glass from the edges and surface of the blocks) and then cemented together with resin, and sometimes concrete. Dal de Verre enabled actual walls of glass to take the place of masonry and to create dramatic expanses of colour as an integral part of construction, rather than as windows.

Chunks of coloured glass, faceted for additional refraction, float in a bed of resin. This is a detail from the Lowertown window below

Murphy Devitt were early adopters and we have one of their examples in Cork, at Lowertown, just outside Schull. It’s a dove of peace/Holy Spirit creating a glowing corner in the baptistry.

I still have two churches to tell you about, in Rochestown and in Mallow. They deserve their own post, and that will conclude this series. See you next week.

From Caheragh, across a two-light window, an image of Christ calming the storm. Traditionally, Christ is shown in one boat with the 12 apostles. However, Rembrandt famously included himself in his depiction of this scene, so I am tempted to think that Johnny is in there somewhere, since there are thirteen apostles in the boats

*This post benefitted greatly from information generously shared by Anthony Devitt.

Murphy Devitt in Cork, Part 1

A couple of years ago I visited the Catholic church in Caheragh, just north of Skibbereen, specifically to look for an image of Thaddeus McCarthy about whom I was researching at the time (see my post Thaddeus McCarthy, the Bishop Who Never Was). As I stepped into the church it was immediately obvious that the stained glass was not the usual traditional images based on renaissance paintings that I had been seeing in most of the churches I had been in. No, what greeted me (above is the Thaddeus window) was something entirely new and different – modernist, colourful, idiosyncratic, painterly, beautifully designed and expertly executed windows, each one identified as the work of Murphy Devitt of Dublin and installed in 1963. I fell in love.

The stained glass windows in the rest of this post (except for one) are all from the Church of Our Lady Crowned, in Mayfield, Cork. This one represents the Risen Christ

There are Murphy Devitt windows in ten Cork churches, and why not? Johnny Murphy, after all, was a Cork boy, brought up in the city and starting his art education at the Crawford School of Art in the 1940s when the life-drawing classes still revolved around the Canova casts. He was a standout student, winning a scholarship to the National College of Art in Dublin. There he met a fellow student, the beautiful Róisín Dowd, whose parents had fled the Belfast blitz to settle in Dublin. Together and separately, they travelled to Paris and Rome, doing what art students do – visiting galleries and studios, studying centuries of European painting, absorbing and responding to those influences (think Botticelli for Róisín, Klimt for Johnny), finding their artistic voices and refining their own styles.

The Presentation in the Temple (detail)

Returning home, they had to wait for several years to marry. Their daughter Réiltín suspects that Grandfather Dowd insisted on Johnny having gainful employment and that may have been why he joined the Harry Clarke Studios in 1952 and began to seriously study the craft of glass painting. Harry Clarke died in 1931 but his studios carried on making stained glass until the 1970s. There was plenty of work for anyone in the ecclesiastical provisioning business as new churches were going up all over the country to serve the burgeoning, and pious, population.

Dessie Devitt, Paddy McLoughlin, Mickey Watson and Johnny Murphy in their busy studio in the 60s

One of the glaziers Johnny worked with at the Harry Clarke Studios was John Devitt, universally known as Des or Dessie. Becoming fast and lifelong friends, they decided to strike out on their own, taking some of the men from the HC Studios with them. It was the late 50s and they couldn’t have picked a better time. Working from a mews in Monkstown and later a custom-built studio in Blackrock, they started to tender successfully for new commissions. This also allowed Johnny and Róisín, who now joined them as well when she could escape motherly duties, to develop their own unique approach to designing and painting stained glass, very different from what had become a somewhat hidebound atmosphere at the Harry Clarke Studios. For an example of what I mean by that, and to illustrate the contrast with MD, take a look at my post Time Warp, featuring a set of Harry Clarke Studio windows from the late 1950s. Below is a detail from one of them – far, indeed from the genius of Harry Clarke himself.

Detail from a Harry Clarke Studio window in Drimoleague. Although this window is interesting for lots of other reasons, the quality of the glasswork and the artistry of the painting had declined over the decades since Harry’s death. 

What Johnny always called their ‘first big break’ came with the Church of Our Lady Crowned, in Mayfield, Cork, completed in 1962. According to The National Inventory of Architectural Heritage:

Our Lady Crowned Roman Catholic Church was built to the design of J.R. Boyd Barrett’s firm and when completed in 1962 comprised the final of five new churches constructed to the north side of Cork city and named after the five Glorious Mysteries of the Rosary. The design and construction of the roof is of technical importance while the extensive stained glass windows, from the workshops of Murphy & Devitt in Dublin, are of particular artistic merit.

Too often, stained glass windows are one-off commemorative objects, mounted in an available opening. But when you see a whole scheme of windows in one church, designed to fit and complement the architecture throughout the building, the effect can be breathtaking. And so it is with Our Lady Crowned. The church is wedged-shaped, with enormous glass panels occupying at least half the space. Scenes from the Life of Christ range around the walls, from the Annunciation to the Crucifixion and Epiphany, with the huge area over the main door taken up with a choir of angels heralding the crowning of Mary on one side and Christ on the other.   

The day we visited the church was full of children preparing for their Confirmation

When I told Réiltín Murphy*, Johnny and Róisín’s daughter, that Our Lady Crowned was my favourite of the Cork MD churches, she responded that it was her parents’ favourite too. It’s not hard to see why – it’s a triumph of imagination, artistic vision, craftsmanship and above all collaboration. As I get more familiar with MD windows the distinction between a Johnny Murphy window and a Róisín Dowd Murphy window is sometimes quite clear: Johnny’s style is more angular, with loose dark brushstrokes, strongly marked facial features, heads tilted at an angle, while Róisín’s figures are more curvy and flowing, with greater attention to fabric and to musical instruments. Réiltín characterises the difference thus: Róisín’s figures, I always think, are too busy to pose for their photo while Johnny’s are usually quietly aware of just who they are and what they symbolise.

Nativity, Presentation and Jesus in the Temple windows

In Mayfield, all those elements are present: at first glance it’s impossible to tell where Johnny leaves off and Róisín begins. But we do have evidence, in the form of an original cartoon, that links Róisín directly to the Assumption window and once you see that, you see her hand in other places too – the heavenly choir, for example, has many of her hallmarks.

Róisín’s cartoon for the second angel from the bottom on the right, and the finished window

I am tempted to see Johnny in the passion images – the sombre figure of the suffering Jesus (below) exudes a quiet power alongside the mocking soldiers.

But many of the windows defy easy analysis. Look at the Nativity window (below), for example, and see if you can figure out whose hand is where. Complicating all this in Murphy Devitt windows is that when times got busy they took in extra artists to help with the workload.

In this window note how the ‘break-outs’ (the areas of coloured glass) are used to separate two long panels, which are then unified at the top. The composition, which manages to include all the major figures in two tall narrow panels, is impressive, as is the integration of those panels with the break-outs.

As with most of their commissions, Johnny was the one who sketched out the overall design and decided on the ratio of figurative panels to ‘break ups’, those areas of coloured glass that allow the eye to rest between scenes, to register the passage of time between events. Non-figurative schemes became important elements in the Murphy Devitt style – more about  them later, but for the moment note the highly original way in which the expanse of coloured glass are treated. Nobody else was doing anything like this at the time – it was a unique and beautiful Murphy Devitt innovation.

In this window, the Finding of Jesus in the Temple, the separating device is the break-out panel and the unifying device is the floor

Not for Murphy Devitt the regular quarry glass with its dependable lozenge shapes, or static grids of straight lines. Johnny loved the wobbly, the wavy and and the irregular. Réiltín says, He was interested in music: the fugue, he said, whereby the same melody/image is played in different keys – his abstracts are often flipped, turned, twisted to be similar but not identical. He loved glass as a painting medium. He loved its kinetic effect in its flaws, its trees moving outside, its changing light/colours from passing clouds, its seeming to be alive.

A window where the break-outs serve as background, with the two main figures occupying panels and the cross stretching across the space

It’s a lot easier to cut regular shapes and fit them together, of course, but you don’t need an expert for that. This is where Dessie Devitt came into his own as a master glazier. Choosing the glass to match the colour scheme, assembling it all harmoniously, cutting and leading the thousands of pieces that went into a scheme like this – none of it would have been possible without Dessie Devitt and the men who worked alongside him.

The heavenly choir, above  one side of the main door, with Our Lady Crowned on the right. Below is a detail from the other side

By all accounts it was a charmed workplace, a happy environment where everyone worked hard but where laughter and The Chat abounded. Des in particular was gifted with the ability to recognise the absurd and could hardly leave the studio without coming back with an entertaining story.

About the same time as Mayfield, Murphy Devitt won the commission to design a set of windows based on the Canticle of St Francis for another Cork church, this one attached to a Cappuchin Friary. We’ll take a look at that one and some others next week. For the moment, the Mayfield church will serve as an introduction to Johnny, Róisín and Des, their modern aesthetic and their collaborative approach.

*Many thank to Réiltín Murphy for much of the background information, for answering all my questions and for additional photographs, including the people pictures and Róisín’s cartoon.