Harry Clarke - Biography

Harry Clarke

Henry Patrick (Harry) Clarke, Ireland's most renowned stained-glass artist, was born in Dublin on March 17th, 1889. His father, Joshua, arrived in Dublin from Leeds in 1877 and established a decorating business. The business, Joshua Clarke & Sons, later expanded to include a stained glass division. The young Harry grew up with a studio at the back of his home at 33 North Frederick Street. In 1903 Clarke’s mother, Brigid, died at the age of forty-three, when Harry was fourteen years old. This event greatly affected Harry, as his mother had been his closest confidant. He left Belvedere College and became apprenticed to his father’s studio (Bowe: 1994).

By his late teens Harry was studying stained glass at the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art. In 1911 he won a gold medal from the Board of Education National Competition at South Kensington, London, for his window the Consecration of St. Mel, Bishop of Longford, by St. Patrick (The Irish Times: August 19 1911). This was the first of three consecutive gold medals that Harry won at the National Competitions for his stained glass panels.

At the Dublin Metropolitan school of art Harry met Margaret Crilly, a fellow artist and teacher originally from Newry, Co. Down. To the surprise of many the pair married on October 31st 1914 and moved into a flat at 33 North Frederick Street. They subsequently had three children, Michael, David and Ann.

Harry set about getting commissions in stained glass. Laurence, know as ‘Larky’, Waldron, a Nationalist MP and Governor of Belvedere College, became an influential friend and patron of Harry's from the summer of 1912. In 1913 Harry went to London to secure a publisher for his book illustrations. By Christmas of 1913 Harry had secured his first commission from Harrap & Co., to illustrate the Fairy Tales of Hans Christian Andersen. It was published in 1916.


St. Gobnait window (detail) from the Honan Chapel, Cork
St. Gobnait window (detail) from the Honan Chapel, Cork

Although Harry did some work for his father at the Studios, he began to work on his own commissions for stained glass. Between 1915 and 1918 he created nine windows for the Honan Chapel. These magnificent windows were central to building a solid reputation for Harry’s skilled craftsmanship and originality. Other important commissions followed for windows in churches throughout Ireland and the United Kingdom. Harry also continued to illustrate books for the London publishers, Harrap, including Tales of Mystery and Imagination (1919) and The Year's at the Spring (1920).

When Harry’s father, Joshua, died on September 13th 1921. Harry moved into the Studios at numbers six and seven North Frederick Street. Harry managed the stained glass business of Joshua Clarke & Sons, while his brother, Walter, managed the decorating side of the business. Harry continued to obtain his own commissions and the name of Harry Clarke soon became synonymous with original stained glass work of the highest quality and craftsmanship. Commissions continued to roll in from churches and patrons all over Ireland and England. Harry was particularly delighted to receive a commission for a three-light window for St. Stephen’s cathedral in Brisbane, Australia. The Ascension window was installed in Brisbane in 1923 and received wide acclaim.

Drunken Joxer from O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock.
Drunken Joxer from O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock.

A commission by the Irish government to create a window for the International Labour Court in Geneva saw Harry finally fall foul of the conservative values of the new Irish State. The window depicted scenes from literature by many of Ireland’s finest writers. However Harry’s depiction included sensuous dancers, a drunken Joxer from O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock, and works by disgraced writers, such as Joyce and O’Flaherty.

The window was never exhibited by the State. It was bought back by Harry's widow, Margaret. In 1988 the Geneva window was sold to Mitchell Wolfson. It is now on permanent exhibition at the Wolfsonian at the University of Florida in Miami. The window is now hailed as an artistic masterpiece (The Wolfsonian: Harry Clarke and the Irish Free State).

In 1929 Harry was diagnosed as suffering from tuberculosis. Harry had suffered from poor physical health most of his life and this may have been exacerbated by the use of chemicals and lead in his stained-glass work. Harry was particularly delighted to receive his first American commission in 1929 for nine windows for the Basilica of St. Vincent de Paul in Bayonne, New Jersey. However, Harry became under increased stress to complete commissions around this time and he was forced by his continuing ill health to travel to Switzerland for rest and recuperation.

In early 1930 Harry's representatives established the Harry Clarke Studios on Harry's behalf. Walter became the manager of the decorating business and retained the name of Joshua Clarke & Sons. However, Walter died suddenly in July 1930, and this ended the church and general decorating business. Harry had returned to Dublin in May 1930 and immediately struggled to catch up with a huge backlog of work. His main project was to complete the Geneva window despite his failing health. He finally completed the Geneva window in October 1930 and it was exhibited in the Studios. However, President Cosgrave wrote to Harry asking that the O'Flaherty panel be amended. Harry replied and asked for a meeting with the President to discuss an alternative. This meeting never took place. In October Harry returned to Davos, Switzerland, in an attempt to bolster his seriously deteriorating health. Harry continued to contact home to inquire if the Irish government had made a decision on his window. No decision was ever reached (Bowe: 1994).

In Davos Harry’s health showed no improvement. Fearing he might die in a foreign country, he left Davos in a plan to travel home to Dublin. Having been plagued by poor health for most of his life Harry died in his sleep on January 6th 1931 in Coire, Switzerland, at the age of 41.

Despite being beset by poor health throughout his short life, Harry Clarke still managed to create some of the finest work produced in the medium of stained glass in the twentieth century. Harry created stained glass windows for church and commercial commissions, as well as numerous panels for private patrons. Some of Harry's most celebrated work includes the nine windows he created for the Honan Chapel at Cork University; the Eve of St. Agnes at the Hugh Lane Municipal Gallery of Modern Art in Dublin; the Life of Christ windows at Díseart in Dingle; the set of decorative windows at Bewley's cafe, Dublin; and the Geneva window, now at the Wolfsonian in Miama, Florida. Harry’s book illustrations continue to fascinate and delight readers worldwide as his illustrations are highly sought after.

References and Sources

Bowe, N. Gordon, The Life and Work of Harry Clarke, Irish Academic Press, 1994
____Harry Clarke and the Irish Free State, The Wolfsonian–Florida International University, Miami Beach, Florida, The Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection
____Harry Clarke Papers, MS39202, National Library of Ireland, Dublin
____The Irish Times, Success of Irish Art Students, August 19 1911