Harry Clarke’s Supporting Cast

Honan St Ita

For any student of Harry Clarke stained glass there are delights to be discovered far beyond the main depiction. A host of subordinate or secondary figures reveal themselves to close examination, sometimes only after repeated viewings.

Brendan the Navigator

Brendan of Kerry – AKA Brendan the Navigator. Note the borders with their exotic birds

The tall windows I describe in this post  typically have three parts – the main section containing a large image of the saint, and an upper and lower section (sometimes called a predella) each of which may contain a separate image/story. In addition, the border around the outside of a Clarke window is always highly decorated in endless imaginative patterns.

Honan Mary Mother of Sorrow
The Mary Mother of Sorrows window was executed slightly later than the other windows and shows some stylistic changes. But it illustrates well the three parts to the window and the use of all available space for supporting and secondary characters to tell the story

Clarke was obsessed with detail: there are few white spaces or plain glass in his work. Every inch is filled with richly figured and never-repeated decoration or with additional figures that fill out the story and the symbolism of the central character. These figures tend to fall into a group we can call saintly and a group we can call macabre. Whichever they are, they reflect his vivid imagination and his gift for portraiture.

Honan Chapel

The Honan Chapel is the Catholic church at University College, Cork. It is a masterpiece of Celtic-Revival Hiberno-Romanesque design and a wonderful place to visit

Designing windows for the Honan Chapel at University College, Cork, was Harry Clarke’s first major commission and launched his career. The windows, finished and installed between 1916 and 1917 contain all the hallmarks of the intricate style he made uniquely his own. I will use four of his Honan windows to look at the cast of supporting characters he employed in his quest to incorporate as much as possible of the saint’s story.

Gobnait

St Gobnait is, famously, depicted in profile, allowing her red hair to take centre stage. She is the patron saint of beekeepers and her bees surround her. Above the main image she is shown spreading her arm (note the honeycomb design of her robe) and extending her staff to prevent a plague descending on her people. She is attended by two maidens and to the right you can see the faces of three men who have not been spared the plague. (There’s another little detail you might spot in this picture!)

Gobnait Plague Victims

To quote Nicola Gordon Bowe, in her magisterial The Life and Work of Harry Clarke:

Harry here shows the delight he took in depicting deformity, disease and the macabre. This fascination with the poles of the beautiful and of the ugly and grotesque is a propensity he shared with many medieval artists.

Gobnait Robbers

On either side of St Gobnait another fearful scene unfolds. According to legend, robbers attempted to break into St Gobnait’s abbey but she set her bees upon them and here they are fleeing in terror.

Gobnait and handmaiden

At the very bottom of the panel she is depicted directing the bees and attended by a novice, while on the left a fourth robber runs in panic.

Honan Brendan border detail

St Brendan the Navigator, with his red beard, gazes serenely out, holding an oar. By his shoulder, his tiny curragh sails westward into the setting sun. In this window pay special attention to the border. Because he was a voyager, discovering the Americas, Clarke decorate it with exotic birds. He intersperses these with tiny roundels of other Irish saints.

Honan Brendan and Judas

Judas suffering on his rock – a medieval vision of misery. Note also the roundels: on the left is St Brigid and on the right is “the poor monk with the iron in his head.” Amazing that Clarke managed to get all that information on to the border of the roundel

In one episode on his seven year journey, Brendan encountered Judas, suffering eternal torture because of his betrayal of Jesus. The bottom panel depicts the scene of the wasted and agonised Judas, while the monks look on in horror. Only Brendan is able to look stoically forward.

Honan St Ita Detail

Detail from the St Ita window

St Ita (the first photograph in this post) was the daughter of a chieftain but renounced all worldly things to live a life of poverty and to teach. Once again, Clarke uses tiny roundels to depict other saints associated with Ita: Brendan, Colman, Finbar and Carthage.

St Ita predella

Below her feet is another tableau, depicting a prayerful scene in which she is attended by two holy women and St Colman and St Brendan. The portraiture of the the two saints is exquisite.

Honan Albert of Cashel

St Albert of Cashel – a little known saint who journeyed to Ratisbon in Germany on a conversion mission

A last window from the Honan Chapel – this time St Albert of Cashel, depicted as a seated bishop. In the top portion he is depicted converting the people of Ratisbon in Germany. Once again the individuals are beautifully drawn and sumptuously dressed. I particularly love the red hair – always a feature of a Harry Clarke window.

Citizens of Ratisbon listening to St Albert preaching

I highly recommend a visit to the Honan Chapel if you’re in Cork. See Robert’s post, Cork Menagerie, for an in-depth look at the mosaics. And take your time – the windows (there are several more than the ones I’ve used in this post) reward patient and detailed study. For more on Harry Clarke’s stained glass, see my post The Gift of Harry Clarke, which will walk you through an analysis of his style and his influences.

Honan St Albert converting Germans

The Gift of Harry Clarke

The Gift

This post was inspired by a gift from my oldest and dearest friend – three books on stained glass passed on to me because he is moving from his home of the last 65 years, a home in which I spent much happy time. A loyal reader of our blog, he knows of my  enthusiasm for stained glass, an obsession I shared with his late wife, the wonderful Vera, whom I still carry in my heart.

The Kendal Coghill Window, Church of St Barrahane, Castletownshend, Co Cork

The Kendal Coghill Window, Church of St Barrahane, Castletownshend, Co Cork

One of the books is the exhaustive and erudite study of Harry Clarke by Nicola Gordon Bowe. The other two are more general, although each of them devotes a section to the work of Harry Clarke. My initial intention was to look at Harry Clarke as a illustrator, with special reference to his portraiture, using a variety of windows as examples. I may still do that in the future. However, I’ve decided that for now, just one window perfectly illuminates what I want to say about Harry Clarke this time. It’s a window we have both used before in posts (Robert in his Martinmas piece, and I in a couple of places) – the Kendal Coghill window from St Barrahane’s in Castletownshend. Through this window I hope to show you the unique genius of Harry Clare, but also how he drew from life and from great art to create his stained glass panels. (For more on Harry Clarke’s life, see my previous post, The Nativity – by Harry Clarke.)

Kendal Coghill, drawn by his niece, Edith Somerville

Kendal Coghill, drawn by his niece, Edith Somerville

Who was Kendal Coghill? He was born and bred in Castletownshend, Edith Somerville’s uncle and a distinguished soldier, rising to the rank of Colonel. He served in India, where he took a kindly and active interest in the young Irish soldiers in his regiment. One of his melancholy duties was writing to their mothers to advise of their deaths. He was also “excitable and flamboyant”, writes Gifford Lewis in her excellent book, Somerville and Ross: The World of the Irish R.M.. As one of the leaders of the amateur spiritualist movement in Castletownshend he introduced Edith and her brother Cameron to automatic writing. By all accounts he was generous and warm hearted and it was his compassion that the window was to emphasise. The two subjects were chosen carefully – Saint King Louis IX of France, and St Martin of Tours. Coghill could trace his ancestry to King Louis, famed for his beneficence, and St Martin was the patron saint of soldiers.

Contrasting styles

Contrasting styles

The first thing that strikes you upon entering St Barrahane’s is the contrast between this window and the others (by Powells of London) on the south side. Alongside the conventional Powells the Clarke blazes with colour and with detail. Every square inch is individually worked, there are no repeated patterns or conventional scrolls. Examine the borders, for example, filled with abstract and colourful motifs, never recurring.

St Louis detail: each motif in the border is uniquely designed and coloured. The robe intrudes in front of the border, lending a £D effect.

St Louis detail: each motif in the border is uniquely designed and coloured. The robe intrudes in front of the border, lending a 3D effect

chokiHarry’s habit of placing figures at different heights adds visual interest to the side-by-side panels and may have been influenced by Japanese pillar prints, which were also a major factor in the design aesthetic of Frank Lloyd Wright. A church window is by its very nature long and narrow and the design challenge this poses had first been explored by Japanese artists whose woodblock prints were hung vertically on walls, or fixed to house posts. Contrast the static, forward-facing, identically scaled figures in the Powell window with the dynamic composition of the Clarke panels. The St Martin figure, in particular contains two figures and manages to tell a whole story, like this example of a pillar print.

The choice of the window and the management of the commission rested with Edith Somerville. Harry Clarke stayed with her in Drishane while executing the final placement and she liked him very much. Beside the Kendall Coghill window which is the subject of this post there are two other Clarke windows in St Barrahane’s. But St Barrahane’s, as Gifford Lewis explains, is not…”typically Protestant. High Church, Anglo-Catholic influence is in restrained evidence besides the astounding blaze of Clarke’s windows. Jem Barlow, the medium, claimed that at a service one Sunday in St Barrahane’s the spirit figure of Aunt Sidney appeared, caught sight of the Clarke windows, started, then exclaimed “Romish!” and dissolved.”

Above St Louis,

Above St Louis, “a parade of the poor and diseased”

Saint Louis occupies the left panel. He is depicted with an alms purse in his left hand and a crucifix instead of a sceptre in his right hand. Look carefully – above him are the poor and sick that were the objects of his constant charity. Here’s what Nicola Gordon Bowe has to say about this section of the window:

Dimly visible…is a small procession of the heads and shoulders of the poor and diseased who used to feed at his table. These again show Harry’s unique ability to depict the gruesome, macabre and palsied in an exquisite manner…The seven men depicted, old, bereft, angry or leprous, are painted on shades of sea-greens and blues, mauves and grey-greens, in fine detail with strong lines and a few brilliant touches, like the grotesque green man’s profiled head capped in fiery ruby, the leper helmeted in clear turquoise with silver carbuncles, and the aged cripple on the right in ruby and gold chequers.

Poor men

This section, it seems was likely influenced by a painting that Harry was familiar with from visits to the National Gallery in London – Pieter Bruegel’s Adoration of the Kings

Detail from Pieter Bruegel's Adoration of the Kings

Detail from Pieter Bruegel’s Adoration of the Kings

The ship in which he sailed to the crusades is depicted above King Louis.

Ship

Saint Martin, in the right panel, is depicted in the act of cutting his cloak in two, to give half to a beggar. Martin’s face is archetypal Clarke – the beard, the aquiline nose, and the large eyes filled with compassion for the beggar.

St Martin of Tours

St Martin of Tours

The helmet is worth a closer look. First of all, it is beautifully and finely decorated in the niello style, and second, it is topped with a tiny figure, sphinx-like, with long wings. Nicola Gordon Bowe points to the influence of Burne-Jones here, to the helmet worn by Perseus in The Doom Fulfilled.

Burne Jones' The Doom Fulfilled

Burne Jones’ The Doom Fulfilled

Clarke also found his inspiration in life drawing. He used himself for a model occasionally, but also ordinary people from the streets of Dublin. The beggar may have been based on one familiar to him. His face is dignified despite his wretched condition and his patches are rendered in as exquisite detail as is the Saint’s armour.

Beggar

The beggar may have been based on a familiar Dublin figure

The beggar's hand

The beggar’s hand

Finally, at the very top of the window two haloed figures look down. Harry Clarke had a thing for red hair and this is a perfect example of how he used that preference to good effect. Once again, although the figures are similar in size, there is no repetition – these are no ‘standard’ angels – each has his own wonderful garments and stance.

Red haired angels

Stained glass artists typically sketch their designs on paper first and these images are referred to as cartoons. Harry Clarke’s cartoons for the Coghill windows must still exist. Nicola Gordon Bowe describes them as drawn “loosely in thick charcoal, the design boldly expressed with detailing and shading minimal, but still conveying a good idea of how every part of the window would look.” The finished window, she says, “reveals a new freedom of treatment, the painting on the glass reflecting the free drawing of the cartoons.” This is an artist and craftsman working at the height of his powers – an interesting subject for the question that Robert poses in his post this week.

Saint Martin, armour detail

Saint Martin, armour detail