Mayer Stained Glass in Ireland: Craft or Commerce?

Among Irish stained glass aficionados nothing divides opinion like the windows of Mayer of Munich.

From about the 1860s to the 1940s Mayer was the foremost supplier of stained glass to Irish churches, both Catholic and Protestant. The first two images above, for example, are of a Nativity scene in St Eugene’s Catholic Cathedral in Derry. Catholics were probably spurred on to order Mayer windows when Pope Leo XIII named the company a Pontifical Institute of Christian Art in 1892. However, there is no doubt that the windows appealed enormously to the priests and vicars in charge of ordering them and that Mayer was adept in providing the kind of art that was widely attractive  to parishioners. So – Mayer stained glass was ubiquitous, but it was also controversial and derided. Let’s look at why this was, and whether it was deserved.

During the stained glass renaissance in nineteenth century Britain, the ideal became to replicate the style of stained glass from the High Gothic period of the 12th to 15th centuries – lots of small pieces of coloured glass leaded together, with saintly images set inside elaborate canopies. The example above is from York Minster and the windows below, clearly based on that model, are from the Pugin-designed St Aidan’s Cathedral in Enniscorthy.

Mayer moved away from this kind of glass towards what became known as the Pictorial Style. As a concession to the Gothic, they kept the canopies for the most part (it was a long time before stained glass studios dispensed with canopies) but they used larger sheets of glass (necessitating fewer cames of lead) and they took their artistic inspiration not from medieval windows but from Renaissance paintings.   The purists huffed and puffed, but the people flocked to this new style of glass.

From the beginning this was a business, not an artists’ studio. The purpose was to make money and therefore a factory model was employed, with workers engaged in repetitive production of their own specialities – the apprentices did nothing but canopies, the painters might spend years decorating robes with brocade or embroidery motifs, only the most talented got to do faces. Designers produced sketches that were infinitely adaptable, with slight tweaking. In the large window above, in Baltinglass, Co Wicklow, the central image is of the Assumption of Mary into heaven. An almost identical design can be seen in the Catholic Church in Bantry, Co Cork, below (and indeed all over the place).

The results were appealing – highly competent windows full of beautiful images. 

High Renaissance figures swathed in copious draperies which amplify their forms and define their movements. Here the painter was freer to incorporate the sharp drapery folds which were inherited from the German Renaissance painting tradition. Colours are vibrant and rich, and the window glows with a deep resonance because the amount of white glass was kept to a minimum. . . It was easy for a congregation to relate to the pictorialism and to recognise the narratives, so that the windows were regarded not only as aesthetic objects but as an effective catalyst to meditation and piety. Pictorialism spoke more directly to the. . . public than did the more correct visual medievalism of the stricter British ecclesiologists. 

shirley ann brown*

Above is the Annunciation window in Charleville, Co Cork – one of my personal favourite windows by any studio. Although the firm was German and the windows made in Munich, they had offices in London, and an agent in Dublin (in fact, Joshua Clarke, Harry’s father, started out as their Irish agent). They became adept at fulfilling the request of Irish clergy for specific iconography – that is, Irish saints, and panels illustrating stories from Irish hagiographies.

St Patrick, above, is shown with his shamrock, paschal fire and snake, although the towers in the backdrop could be from a castle on the Rhine rather than resembling an Irish round tower. At their most basic, Irish saints were simply chosen from a pattern-book of saintly images and supplied with a name-caption. They all looked the same – St Aidan in one window is identical to St Columba in another, balding, bearded, dressed in a monk’s habit or a bishop’s splendid robes and mitre, but often with an attribute to distinguish them one from the other. St Patrick always has his shamrock, St Brigid her flame or her church, St Joseph carries lilies. Nicola Gordon Bowe, in the Introduction to the Gazetteer of Irish Stained Glass reported on Edward Martyn’s outrage at the lack of discernment among clergy and architects who seemed not to be able to distinguish between the work of an artist and the trade salesman with an oily tongue and an ever-ready kiln.

But you get what you pay for, and if you wanted something other than the pattern-book, Mayer could rise to the occasion, with splendid depictions of the mythology associated with Irish saints, all done in the same Italianate style and full of movement and vitality. One of my favourites is the story of St Dympna from Armagh Cathedral. (See Harry Clarke’s version of St Dympna in this post  – the story is the same but the images are vastly different.)

David Lawrence, the mastermind behind the website Gloine.ie, is a defender of Mayer, saying about the prejudice to which Mayer was subjected, Feelings against German glass were whipped up into a nationalistic frenzy at the time of the setting up, in 1903, of the Irish Arts-and-Crafts stained-glass studio An Túr Gloine and continued as that studio flourished in the early decades of the twentieth century. This prejudice has been well documented and was partly based on the factory model of glass production, since the new ethos of Arts and Crafts prioritised the artist’s vision and craft and abhorred mass production. However, Lawrence insists that, at their best, Mayer produced outstanding stained glass to equal any studio.

The year 1894 marked the start of a particularly successful new era at Mayer — this was the year that they were joined by the English artist William Francis Dixon (1848-1928). He had trained at the London studio, Clayton & Bell and then set up his own studio, Dixon & Vesey, before moving to Germany to work at Mayer. Dixon‘s arrangement with Mayer was a happy one. His skilful designing and drawing in a romantic manner influenced by the late Pre-Raphaelites and Mayer‘s attention to detail, masterly glass-painting and faultless craftsmanship formed an ideal marriage. Mayer-Dixon windows are in a romantic style, with a sweetness of drawing, softness of painting and beautiful, tapestry-like details. The heads are especially sensitively drawn. It is readily apparent that Dixon was able to dictate his own choice of colours to Mayer. 


 David Lawrence,
Stained Glass Windows, Six Roman Catholic Churches, County Offaly November 2010

One of Dixon’s windows is this fine war memorial in St Canice’s Church of Ireland Cathedral in Kilkenny. However, in the end, it can be argued that Mayer became a victim of their own success. Despite occasional triumphs of design and execution, too many of their windows lacked originality and freshness, starting to look hackneyed and same-y. Public taste for sentimentalised depictions (however gorgeous and expertly painted) gave way, under the influence of European art movements, to a search for a more authentic and modern form of religious expression. Irish artists responded by developing a vibrant, often experimental, stained glass industry dominated by small studios producing artist-led work. 

I will leave you with The Raising of Lazarus from Baltinglass Catholic Church for two reasons – firstly because it is perfectly illustrates the Mayer pictorial style at its best. I have provided three details close up, so you can see how competently the artist has rendered the subject matter.

The sentimentality critics complained of is in full flight in the image below – but also, look at the size of the eyes. Creating over-sized eyes to enhance and beautify a face didn’t start with Harry Clarke!

But secondly I use The Raising of Lazarus tongue in cheek as a nod to the fact that in fact Mayer is still around – and they have finally caught up with the century they live in. Take a look at this story in the New York Times to see how Mayer of Munich is embracing the twenty-first century.

*The Influence of German Religious Stained Glass in Canada 1880-1941 by Shirley Ann Brown, RACAR: revue d’art canadienne / Canadian Art Review, Vol. 21, No. 1/2, Représentation et identités culturelles / Representation and Cultural Identity (1994), pp. 21-31 (11 pages)

The Gazetteer of Irish Stained Glass

It’s finally here, and it’s stunning!

The Gazetteer of Irish Stained Glass was first published in 1988 and has been out of print almost since then. It was the work of Nicola Gordon Bowe, David Caron and Michael Wynne. It documented all the known windows of Harry Clarke and the artists of An Túr Gloine and was snapped up by anyone interested in looking at stained glass.

Click through to see sample pages!

Of the three editors, David Caron, who was a newly-minted PhD at the time, lecturing at the National College of Art, is the only surviving member. He has forged a long-time collaboration with the photographer Jozef Vrtiel, a specialist in the difficult art of capturing stained glass, and together they determined that it was time for an updated edition. Not only updated, but expanded – their vision was for a book that would include all the best stained glass designed and/or made by Irish artists, or by artists working in Ireland. Harry Clarke is here, of course – that’s his St Louis and St Martin window, below, in Castletownshend. But there is so much more to Irish stained glass than Harry Clarke, even though he’s the one that most people know (or think they know).

Note I said ‘artists’ – this is not a book that records all Irish stained glass, such as the mass-produced windows that came from the large studios. The criteria for inclusion were “Artistic merit, individual voice and excellence in the craft.” There were nine artists included in the first book – there are over 90 artists represented in this one!

Some artists love to tell stories in their windows – this window is about the trials and tribulations of Oliver Plunkett and is by Kevin Kelly of the Abbey Stained Glass Studio

To do this, besides drawing on his own considerable store of knowledge (and indeed doing the vast majority of the work in this book), David assembled a team of fellow enthusiasts and experts each of whom concentrated on the work of a single artist or studio. For example, Réiltín Murphy has long been compiling the work of her parents, Johhny Murphy and Roisín Dowd Murphy, who together with Dessie Devitt, founded and ran the Murphy-Devitt Studios. You can take a look at my posts, Murphy Devitt in Cork, to see how brilliantly they pioneered a whole new approach to stained glass in mid-century Ireland. The image below is one of their windows from Newbridge College Chapel.

Another contributor is Ruth Sheehy, whose wonderful new book on Richard King occupies pride of place on my desk. I’ve learned so much from it, and bring this new appreciation now to my sightings of a Richard King – always a big thrill. The panel below is a detail from one of his enormous windows (The Sacred Heart) in St Peter and Paul’s Church in Athlone.

My own part revolved around my project to record all of George Walsh’s windows in Ireland. This has been a joyful journey for me, and I have written about George and his windows for the Irish Arts Review and for my own blog. There are over 100 of George’s windows in the Gazetteer, including the scheme he executed for the Holy Family Church in Belfast.

This is a book you will want to have with you in your car. And you know what? There is a lot more wonderful stained glass out there to discover – I’ve been amazed at what I have found in little country towns and in 1960s modernist churches. I have no doubt a third edition will have to be produced eventually as more of us tune in to the treasures under our noses. Look at the picture below, for example – you would swear it was a Harry Clarke! It was certainly made in his studio by a highly talented artist and bears a lot of his characteristic flourishes, just not his signature.

The best part of working on this book? The collegiality of everyone involved – we all helped each other out with queries and photographs. I feel like I have made new friends, even though I have yet to meet many of them. You can buy the book now in all good bookshops (buy local!) or order from the publisher.

Harry Clarke’s Terenure Masterpiece

A controversial word, masterpiece, and in this case I am using it to denote that this a Harry Clarke masterpieces rather than the masterpiece. There are several contenders for that title, although the Geneva Window may take the crown. In any ranking of Harry’s windows, however, these two side-by side windows, in St Joseph’s Church in Terenure in Dublin*, must be close to the top. 

The left window, The Annunciation, was finished in 1922 and the right window, The Virgin in Glory, in 1923. What is perhaps extraordinary is that these windows were completed at a time when Ireland, and Dublin in particular, was in turmoil and the country was riven by civil war. Life in the artistic world was precarious, with the National Gallery and the School of Art closed and the destruction of many of Dublin’s finest buildings. Harry was in the midst of moving house and re-organising and staffing the studio, while also very busy with illustration commissions. But stained glass was still his main business and he was pleased to receive the order for the two-light window from Fr Healy, for whom he had previously completed the enormous three-light Crucifixion window over the main altar. Having been completed several months apart, each window in this set has a different mood and character. Let’s look at the Annunciation first. Before it was installed, Harry entered it in the art competition that was part of the Aonach Tailteann, or Tailteann Games – a Festival of all-things-Irish with a strong Celtic Revival influence. The window won the Gold Medal for stained glass. 

Gabriel hovers above Mary, held in suspense by long scarlet wings. Depicted as female, she wears a complex headdress and long multi-layered garment tied at the waist with a broad blue sash. Her feet are suspended over a scene of a hill town. The Holy Spirit in its dove form is to her right, shedding silver rays down on Mary.

Mary is depicted as young, with huge innocent eyes and a gentle expression. Her colour has traditionally been blue and Harry uses a deep royal blue for her gown. Across her shoulders is a large shawl. Nicole Gordon Bowe in Harry Clarke: The Life and Work describes the window in terms which could be applied to this shawl “. . . a subtle work with shimmering pale colours, gossamer lines and finely laid on tones. . .” Harry’s typical ‘floral ornamentation’ (known to his assistants as F Os or even as Fried Onions) occupy much of the rest of the lower half of the window, an endlessly various and imaginative garden of blooms.

The composition is balanced and harmonious. The scarlet wings are mirrored by green fronds cascading from the right border. Mary’s outstretched hand provides a counterpoint to Gabriel’s, while both have large and complex haloes. The eye is drawn to two pairs of dainty slippers. The angel’s predominant red hues are laced and leavened with blues, while Mary’s blues are warmed by the reds and pinks of the shawl. Despite the inclusion of the floral elements and highly-figured details on the garments, the impression is of a serene and uncluttered scene.

The right hand window exudes a different energy – forceful, complex, and peopled with the kind of supporting cast that Harry delighted in. The emphasis on Marian iconography, very much part of the popular emphasis of Catholicism pre-Vatican II, supported this kind of depiction of Mary, triumphant and queenly, holding sceptre and orb, with the moon and snake under her feet (a mixed metaphor inspired by the Woman clothed in the sun with the moon under her feet from Revelations 12, and the Genesis verse in which God tells the serpent that the woman shall ‘crush thy head’). God is shown above her, hands raised in the sign of blessing, and both have fiery aureoles. Mary carries a scroll with the invocation in Latin, Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of the womb.

While these are the two main figures, much of the interest in this window comes from the host of other women characters whose stories are illustrated in the side panels and the predella. Unusually for a Catholic window of the time, these are women from the Old Testament, not the Bridgets and Itas and Dympnas which populate so many of Harry’s saintly stained glass. I will start at the top and go through the stories as our eyes descend.

The border is patterned in deep blue, punctuated by tiny scenes from the life of Mary. God is surrounded by four female saints although the effect is of ghostly, insubstantial figures. The flowing clothing of the lower two provide a triangular link to Mary’s crown, an effective technique that divides the space and provides a frame for the first two Old Testament women, Ruth and Deborah. They are both rendered in green glass above and blue below, and both images protrude beyond the border, a technique Harry used to give depth. Ruth is known for her goodness and kindness, and Deborah for her wisdom and gift of prophecy, symbolised by the owl on her hand.

To the left of Mary’s Crown is Rachel and to the right, Rebecca. Rachel, beloved of Isaac, mother of Joseph, was watching her sheep when Isaac first sees her. Hers is a complicated story, full of trickery and disappointment. ‘Rebecca at the Well’ is a familiar motif of Renaissance painting – Rebecca comes to draw water at the well and gives it to a weary traveller and his camels, little knowing that by doing this she fulfils a prophecy and becomes the wife of Isaac (different Isaac) and mother of Jacob from whom descends the nation of Israel. 

Next (above and below) are scenes from two stories. To the left is the story of Esther. King Xerxes, having banished his wife for disobedience, identifies her as his favourite (lower down the panel) from the harem and (higher image) makes her his queen. She goes on to become a saviour of her people. To the right is the story of Judith, the courageous widow who inveigles her way into Holofernes tent, lies with him, and cuts off his head when he sinks into an inebriated sleep. In the higher images she is pictured in scarlet robes, with her hand tangled in Holofernes bright red hair. In the lower, she and her maid escape carrying the head of Holofernes in a basket. The maid has a comical, grimacing expression – understandable given her burden. 

Finally, in the predella, we have Adam and Eve cowering in fear and shame in the Garden of Eden, while the golden apples hang from a purple tree. Gordon Bowe, whose knowledge of art history was prodigious, sees this as an homage to Paul Klee, whose Two Men Meeting, Each Presuming the Other to be of Higher Rank, the source she posits for this depiction, can be seen here.

By any standards these two windows belong to the highest order of artistic endeavour. They are also, especially The Blessed Virgin in Glory, an insight into Harry Clarke’s unique imagination, with its selection of tiny figures whose stories are worked out in intricate detail despite the constraints of space, and many of whom are far from the gentle virgins idealised by Catholic clergy of the day. Thomas Bodkin, the eminent art critic and later Director of the National Gallery referred to them as a multitude of little foreshadowing figures and says, They are drawn with such amazing delicacy of detail that they demand inspection at the closest quarter; and yet when seen from a distance they sink into a background swirl of lovely hues enhancing the majestic figure of their queen (Quoted in Gordon Bowe’s The Life and Work of Harry Clarke).

*If and when you can, go visit St Joseph’s in Terenure. Take with you the Marvellous book Harry Clarke and His Legacy by Patricia Curtin-Kelly. It’s a well-researched and very readable account of all the windows in this church by Harry Clarke and by those who carried on his legacy, Richard King and William Dowling and I highly recommend it. 

Brendan, Judas, Harry Clarke – and Matthew Arnold

St Brendan was a favourite subject for Harry Clarke. Four of his windows depict the saint: a prizewinning student piece from 1911; his Honan Chapel commission of 1916; the Ballinrobe windows from 1924-25 (pictured above); and the windows designed for the Rathfarnham Jesuit Retreat in 1928 and subsequently relocated to Tullamore (pictured below).

The Tullamore Brendan (above) is recognisably based on that from Ballinrobe, but in this window a youthful Brendan, as described by Paul Donnelly, ‘engages the viewer directly with a penetrating look’  

Harry researched his subjects extensively and ensured that anyone working on his windows did too. Paul Donnelly, in his fascinating essay Legacy and Identity: Harry Clarke, William Dowling and the Harry Clarke Studios (in Harry Clarke and Artistic Visions of the New Irish State) tells how he sent his apprentice, William Dowling, off to the National Library to read all that was available on his subject when he was working on the Rathfarnham window (above and below).

Nicola Gordon Bowe, in the Life and Work of Harry Clarke, felt that Harry was influenced by Matthew Arnold’s poem, St Brandon, when he set about designing his student piece, now in the Crawford Art Gallery. Based on the Medieval best-seller (there are over 100 versions still extant and many translations) Navigatio Sancti Brendani Abbatis, Arnold’s poem tells of an incident on the voyage in which the Saint meets with Judas, tied to an iceberg in the ocean. There are several slightly different accounts of this part of the voyage, but Arnold’s poem is compelling, and beautifully told.

From the Ballinrobe window, a detail showing what Brendan was seeking – the Land of Promise

Both in his poetry and criticism, Arnold explored issues of morality versus religion, and themes of alienation and redemption. Clarke was constrained to work on religious subjects since most of his stained glass commissions came from churches, but revelled in the chance to introduce details from mythology and ancient hagiographies (such as O’Hanlons Lives of the Irish Saints which he consulted exhaustively) and to use those details as a springboard for his own imagination.

Also from the Ballinrobe window, the bottom panel shows Brendan praying  at the bow of the boat and an angel appearing

We can see the progression of his art, and his growing interest in the macabre, in the two depictions of Judas. Both are emotive and powerful, but in the first, from 1911, Judas is shown as a fully human, tortured man. In the Honan window, from 1916, he has turned into a monster with scales, feathers, fur and claws. One constant is that Brendan’s companions look on in shock and horror in both pieces, while the saint remains unmoved, gazing thoughtfully and perhaps compassionately on the scene.

From the Honan window, according to Gordon Bowe: ‘The upper panel which perhaps represents Brendan’s vision of Paradise, is spanned by a golden hemisphere and depicts the saint at sea in his coracle, preaching to his companions as they approach the skull-ridden coastline of America in their search for the Islands of the Blessed’

Harry went on to design two more Brendan windows, but chose different details for them. In fact, he wrote to Monsignor D’Alton at Ballinrobe, ‘The meeting with Judas I have done too often to do again with enthusiasm.’  Arnold’s poem was first published in 1860. He died in 1888 and Harry was born in 1889, so their lives did not overlap. But Harry was very well read and Arnold, at the turn of the century, was still considered one of the major poets of the Victorian era. I think you will find that the poem and the windows are a successful collaboration between two iconic figures of art and literature. I give the poem now in its entirety, illustrated by Harry Clarke. [The first image is from a panel in Tullamore, originally part of the St Brendan window but separated from it when the windows were relocated. The second and third image are from the 1911 student piece; the next three from the Honan Chapel 1916 window.]

Saint Brandan sails the northern main;

The brotherhood of saints are glad.

He greets them once, he sails again;

So late!—such storms!—The Saint is mad!

He heard, across the howling seas,

Chime convent-bells on wintry nights;

He saw, on spray-swept Hebrides,

Twinkle the monastery-lights;

But north, still north, Saint Brandan steer’d—

And now no bells, no convents more!

The hurtling Polar lights are near’d,

The sea without a human shore.

At last—(it was the Christmas night;

Stars shone after a day of storm)—

He sees float past an iceberg white,

And on it—Christ!—a living form.

That furtive mien, that scowling eye,

Of hair that red and tufted fell—

It is—Oh, where shall Brandan fly?—

The traitor Judas, out of hell!

Palsied with terror, Brandan sate;

The moon was bright, the iceberg near.

He hears a voice sigh humbly: ‘Wait!

By high permission I am here.

‘One moment wait, thou holy man

On earth my crime, my death, they knew;

My name is under all men’s ban—

Ah, tell them of my respite too!

‘Tell them, one blessed Christmas-night—

(It was the first after I came,

Breathing self-murder, frenzy, spite,

To rue my guilt in endless flame)—

‘I felt, as I in torment lay

‘Mid the souls plagued by heavenly power,

An angel touch my arm, and say:

Go hence, and cool thyself an hour!

”Ah, whence this mercy, Lord?’ I said.

The Leper recollect, said he,

Who ask’d the passers-by for aid,

In Joppa, and thy charity.

‘Then I remember’d how I went,

In Joppa, through the public street,

One morn when the sirocco spent

Its storms of dust with burning heat;

‘And in the street a leper sate,

Shivering with fever, naked, old;

Sand raked his sores from heel to pate,

The hot wind fever’d him five-fold.

‘He gazed upon me as I pass’d

And murmur’d: Help me, or I die!—

To the poor wretch my cloak I cast,

Saw him look eased, and hurried by.

‘Oh, Brandan, think what grace divine,

What blessing must full goodness shower,

When fragment of it small, like mine,

Hath such inestimable power!

‘Well-fed, well-clothed, well-friended, I

Did that chance act of good, that one!

Then went my way to kill and lie—

Forgot my good as soon as done.

‘That germ of kindness, in the womb

Of mercy caught, did not expire;

Outlives my guilt, outlives my doom,

And friends me in the pit of fire.

‘Once every year, when carols wake,

On earth, the Christmas-night’s repose,

Arising from the sinner’s lake,

I journey to these healing snows.

‘I stanch with ice my burning breast,

With silence balm my whirling brain.

Oh, Brandan! to this hour of rest

That Joppan leper’s ease was pain.’—

Tears started to Saint Brandan’s eyes;

He bow’d his head, he breathed a prayer—

Then look’d, and lo, the frosty skies!

The iceberg, and no Judas there! 

 

Evie Hone and the Modernisation of Irish Stained Glass

This is an Evie Hone window from Blackrock in Dublin – Bridget, Mary and Jesus, and Patrick. Evie Hone is one of our greatest stained glass artists and helped to move the practice of stained glass into a more modern direction. To appreciate this, it is helpful to know a little of her background.

Our Lady of the Rosary, completed in 1948 for the Catholic Church in Greystones, Co Wicklow. While the figure is not cubist, the influence of that style is discernible

She was born in 1894 Dublin, a member of the extended Hone clan of painters and artists. A childhood accident left her disabled and in pain but also set the course for her life’s work by providing the consolation of sketching. She studied in Britain, Ireland and Paris, where she came under the influence of the Cubists, and also met her great friend and fellow-modernist, Mainie Jellett.

The Good Shepherd, also from Greystones

The two women applied to exhibit at the Royal Hibernian Academy but it was dominated by male traditionalists who refused to allow cubist paintings to be shown. They responded by exhibiting elsewhere and by starting a new organisation (the Irish Exhibition of Living Art, or IELA) for those interested in modern art. At first critics ridiculed this new style of painting but young artists were enthusiastic and gradually she and Mainie “introduced modern art to Ireland.”*

Evie Hone stained glass on display in the new, and very popular Stained Glass Room in the National Gallery

Evie was deeply spiritual, at one point joining a community of Anglican nuns and eventually converting to Catholicism. Moving away from painting to stained glass she trained under Wilhelmina Geddes and eventually joined An Túr Gloine in 1935. Her stained glass work was never strictly cubist, although the influence was traceable, but it was thoroughly modern.

This is her Bridget window for Loughrea Catherdral, completed while she was a member of An Túr Gloine and at the beginning of her development as a stained glass artist. It is noticeably a more conservative and less modern treatment  – contrast it, for example with Bridget from the Blackrock Church

Nicola Gordon Bowe, in her entry on Evie Hone in The Encyclopedia of Ireland (edited by Brian Lalor) says of her work for An Túr Gloine, she was designing and painting mostly figurative windows using a powerfully innovative vocabulary of deep smouldering colour and loose expressionist brushwork.

Two small windows from Cloughjordan Church (Co Tipperary) depict Mary and Joseph. These windows were among her last, and are beautiful in their restrained style and subdued palette

From 1944 she worked in her own studio at Marley Grange in Rathfarnham. Gordon Bowe, again: In ten densely packed years she introduced a new, loosely painted, resonantly coloured, and sombrely religious treatment. We are fortunate that a short documentary recorded this period on her life and work. It also functions as a primer on stained glass!

View the documentary here

About the same time, in 1952, her friend and fellow-artist, Hilda van Stockum painted her in her studio, capturing her complete absorption in her work. This image comes from Marie Bourke’s paper* and is a copy of a photograph from a National Gallery Catalogue. The original painting is in the National Gallery.

What is most striking about her work, in contrast to her colleagues at An Túr Gloine, is how painterly it is. Using a restrained palette, with occasional bursts of bright colour, she creates quiet and reverential portraits of her sacred subjects. Modernity is obvious, but she herself claimed that the major influence on her work was medieval Irish carvings. If this was true, it was certainly mediated through an expressionist sensibility.

Bridget – detail from the Blackrock window

Evie Hone died in 1955. She has left an impressive legacy of paintings and stained glass windows. I have only used photographs that I have taken myself of windows that I have visited, but there are many more waiting to be explored.

* The quote, and also the photograph of the painting of Evie Hone in her Studio are from Evie Hone in Her Studio: Hilda Van Stockum’s Portrait, by Marie Bourke, in Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review, Vol. 86, No. 342 (Summer, 1997), pp. 165-174.  The paper is available on JSTOR

Nicola Gordon Bowe, 1948 – 2018

Harry Clarke’s The Coronation of the Virgin, from his Terenure windows. Nicole Gordon Bowe revealed him to the world.

The Irish art world sustained a terrible loss earlier this year with the death of Nicola Gordon Bowe, or Nikki, as she was universally known to her friends. In a very small way, I feel immensely grateful to have been counted among those friends. Although we only met once, we carried on a happy correspondence and were to have seen each other again this summer. But there are probably a thousand people like me, who have lovely memories of this wonderful woman, because Nikki had that rare gift of making each individual feel seen and heard and encouraged.

Nikki at the day-long symposium on the Honan Chapel, in Cork. Obviously in pain, she nevertheless gave a brilliant summary of Harry Clarke’s famous windows

Reading comments on various obit pages, from a generation of students, colleagues and friends, clear themes emerge of formidable scholarship, wide-ranging erudition, and passion for her subject. She was, as Alistair Rowan who spoke at her memorial service emphasised, the world expert on the Irish Arts and Crafts movement and on Irish stained glass.

In her book, The Life and Work of Harry Clarke, Nikki traced Clarke’s influences and training. He often used himself as a model – in this instance for the crucified Christ in the Terenure windows

But the other theme was that of friendship, of a wonderful sense of humour and a ready smile, of her encouragement to junior researchers, her collaboration, nationally and internationally with other scholars in her field, and the boundless generosity with which she shared her knowledge.

St Brendan, Nikki pointed out (as true for this window in Tullamore as for the Honan windows she was discussing) does not look like the kind of muscular saint that could navigate the Atlantic. ‘Effete’ was the word she used.

Nikki’s book on Harry Clarke has been my bible for all the posts I have written about this genius of Irish stained glass. Last year her second magnum opus was published, on the life and work of Wilhelmina Geddes. I haven’t read it yet – a future pleasure – but it was widely considered the finest Irish art book of the year, perhaps the finest book of the year.

Jesus Falls for the Third Time: one of the medallions that form the Stations of the Cross in Lough Derg. Nikki’s research indicated that these were mostly executed by his apprentices during a period of illness, although  they were designed by him.

She also wrote for the Irish Arts Review, the Dublin Review of Books and contributed essays to edited collections – the busy life of an established and disciplined scholar. At the time of her death she was working on what was to be a definitive study of the Irish Arts and Crafts Movement.

St Fechin, from the Ballinrobe windows: Harry Clarke loved to populate his scenes with a host of figures – now who is that small one with the glasses?

Nicola Gordon Bowe, more than any other person, was responsible for rescuing Irish Arts and Crafts from obscurity and establishing the reputation as artists of its major practitioners, none more so than Harry Clarke. She was impatient of those who dismissed stained glass as mere craft and who failed to see how the medium of glass both compounded the difficulty and enhanced the impact of the work of Harry Clarke and others. In the newly refurbished and finally open National Gallery of Ireland there is now a Stained Glass Room full of breathtaking pieces – it is no stretch to say that we can thank Nikki for that.

The Song of the Mad Prince, an exquisite small panel in the new National Gallery Stained Glass Room

I have chosen to illustrate this post with photographs of Harry Clarke windows and details, as a tribute to Nikki. She was his great and ardent champion and now the world knows what a true legacy of masterpieces we have been left by him. Nikki’s legacy is also secure – her works will be consulted for generations to come, and her memory kept warm by all who were privileged to know her.

From the Eve of St Agnes, in the Dublin City (Hugh Lane) Gallery

For obituaries, see here and here and here. Rest in peace, Nikki.

The Annunciation Angel from the Terenure Annunciation window