Strangest Genius - Reviews

Some time ago I was given a huge hard-backed copy of Edgar Allan Poe's "Tales of Mystery and Imagination" with each story illustrated by beautifully intricate black and white drawings. Both enchanting and grotesque - like Poe's stories themselves - the pictures (or plates) were credited to Harry Clarke, the "acclaimed Art Nouveau designer".

I had never heard of Clarke before, so I began to research a bit more into his life and work and discovered that as well as being an illustrator he was primarily acknowledged as Ireland's greatest stained glass artist. In an article in The Irish Statesman in 1929, Irish Nationalist and mystic writer George "AE" Russell wrote of Clarke: "Harry Clarke is one of the strangest geniuses of his time ... He might have incarnated from the dark side of the moon." "Strangest Genius" contains the entire stained glass collection of Harry Clarke, never before photographed and published in one complete volume. By Lucy Costigan and Michael Cullen, this book is published in hard-back by The History Press, Ireland, 2010 and was shortlisted for the Best Published Irish Book of the Year.

Born in Dublin in 1889, from an early age Clarke showed promise as an artist and a craftsman. His father Joshua was originally from Leeds, and moved to Dublin in 1887 where he set up a successful church decorating business. One of four children, the young Harry grew up with the stained glass studio at the back of his home. His mother Brigid died in 1903 at the age of 43, and this loss made a deep impression on the young 14 year old. In his late teens he studied stained glass at Dublin Metropolitan School of Art, where he won three gold medals for his work. He began to receive commissions for stained glass and was patronised (and befriended) by Nationalist MP "Larky" Waldron. In 1913 he had his first commission for book illustrations (The Fairy Tales of Hans Christian Anderson). Between 1915 and 1918 he created his first major stained glass commission - nine windows for the Honan Chapel in University College Cork. I was very fortunate to visit this Chapel in the summer and see the incredible windows in situ.

In his lifetime he created more than 160 stained glass windows, as well as book illustrations including Perrault's Fairy Tales and Goethe's "Faust". He was troubled all his life with chest complaints he inherited from his mother and was diagnosed with tuberculosis in 1929 - most likely worsened by the chemicals used in stain glass production. He died in 1931, on the journey home from a sanatorium in Davos, Switzerland where he had been trying to recuperate. He was buried in Switzerland, but as he was not a Swiss national his burial plot was reused , and his remains were disinterred and buried in a communal grave - without the knowledge of his family - and his headstone was destroyed.

The book begins with a foreword by Clarke's granddaughter Sunniva Sheridan, and is followed by a concise but informative biography, an insight into his influences, and a brief account of the origins and techniques of stained glass. For a fully in-depth study Nicola Gordon Bowe's excellent "The Life & Work of Harry Clarke" is a comprehensive chronicle of both his stained glass and illustrative work, but in "Strangest Genius" it is the stained glass that is the focus, with its collection of Michael Cullen's amazing photographs and Lucy Costigan's detailed and observant text. The windows and panels are listed alphabetically by the country in which they can be found. Because stained glass is usually a decorative part of a specific building the artwork tends not to change location, although this has happened on occasions. Most of Clarke's work is in Ireland, but he also produced commissions in England, Scotland and Wales, and as far away as Australia.

Since stained glass is a major part of religious artwork, it is not surprising that most of Clarke's commissions were in churches. With the rich depth of colour, especially red and blue (the two colours of devotion) plus a gothic and symbolist style, Clarke's work appears both modern and medieval. Influences of the Celtic Revival movement, and Art Nouveau images of nature and elongated female forms give his sacred pieces both a spiritual and sensual appearance. An excellent example is the Honan Chapel's window depicting St Gobnait, the patron saint of bee keepers. As long tresses of red/gold hair flow from beneath her blue and white head-dress her long slender fingers command bees to stop a sting-covered thief from attacking her church, while honeycomb patterns decorate her embroidered clothing and the rich background. However in amongst the colour and light the darker side of Harry Clarke's work lurks - as horror and torment trespass upon the pure. In "The Last Judgement" in St Patrick's Church, Newport, the depiction of souls bound for hell, shows the more disturbing side of Clarke's imagination as the distorted grasping fingers of the damned reach out in despair. An upside-down green figure is said to be a self-portrait of Clarke, perhaps a resignation of his lost soul, for indeed, in his later illustrations Clarke uses his own face in the depiction of Goethe's Faust - the man who sold his soul to the devil.

But both the book and Clarke's stained glass work are not exclusively ecclesiastical. Among his commissions featured are the nine "Queen's" panels, inspired by John Millington Synge's poem, and the magnificent window depicting Keats's "Eve of St Agnes". Made up of 22 panels - one for each stanza - this window was described in a contemporary article as a "revel in blue", the piece noting that a "study of the details brings out, one by one, the many beauties which go on to make the one beautiful whole". The "decadent and immoral" achievement that is known as the "Geneva Window" is also an example of Clarke's sensuous - and secular - artistry and imagination. Clarke was approached by the Irish Department of Industry and Commerce who asked if he would design a stained glass window on its behalf for the International Labour Court in Geneva, but elements of his design which featured famous characters and quotes from Irish Literature were considered inappropriate and offensive. Despite being acknowledged as a masterpiece, the window was rejected by the Irish Government and never installed in Geneva. Three weeks after he died, the Government sent Clarke's widow Margaret a cheque for £450, saying that instead it would be placed in their buildings at Merrion Square. She bought the window back in 1932 and it was returned to Clarke's studios. It was displayed in Dublin and London, and eventually bought by art collector Mitchel Wolfson in 1988. The "loveliest thing ever made by an Irishman" is now on display in the Wolfsonian, at the University of Florida, Miami.

Whilst "Strangest Genius" is a complete catalogue of Harry Clarke's stained glass art, I feel that an understanding and interpretation of his creativity and craft is incomplete without an insight into his illustrative work. His illustrations range from delightfully magical fairy-tale stories to scenes from hell itself, and demonstrate the two opposite and apparently conflicting sides to his work. To get a flavour, Google Harry Clarke images - you will be astounded at the terrible beauty of the results.

Meanwhile you can view all of the photographs from "Strangest Genius" and some of the text online at Finally, if you would like an excellent overview of Harry Clarke and his career and have access to Sky Arts channel, look out for the documentary "Darkness in Light" which is frequently shown. It is a marvellous account of Clarke's all too brief life and his astounding achievements, and with contributions from experts and enthusiasts, examines the paradoxes of the pure and the profane - the Darkness and the Light of this "Strangest Genius".

"Strangest Genius" is available on Amazon priced £32.00. If you've read some of my other reviews you'll know I'm a bit of a tightwad and a big fan of budget buys, so this was a lot for me to spend on a book (or anything). However, along with my other beautiful books of Harry Clarke and his work, this is my treasure!

Thank you for reading. Review also posted on dooyoo in 2013 under same username. Spanielize

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