Who is Harry Clarke?

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Harry Clarke can be considered Ireland’s greatest stained-glass artist.

Harry Clarke (1889 – 1931) can be considered Ireland’s greatest stained-glass artist. His individual style and incredible eye for intricate detail sets his work apart from his contemporaries. Harry Clarke was also an imaginative illustrator and has illustrated many famous fairy tales from Hans Christian Anderson and Edgar Allan Poe.

Harry Clarke’s father, Joshua Clarke, had moved to Ireland from Leeds in 1877 at the age of 18, where he began working with a firm of ecclesiastical suppliers. However, in 1886, after coming to the realisation that he had too much ambition and initiative to work for someone else, he began his own business as church decorator, manufacturer of objects of art, and sanitary contractor. Harry Clarke was born in Dublin on St. Patrick’s Day, 1889. Both Harry and his elder brother inherited their mother’s disposition to bronchial weakness, subsequently leading to tuberculosis in later life. Harry’s mother Bridget, died of consumption in 1903, when he was just fourteen years old. Leaving school after his mother’s death, Harry Clarke worked in his father’s design studio from a young age. He then went on to attend night classes at the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art, now the National College of Art and Design (NCAD), and also to attend the South Kensington School of Design for two months in 1906.

Clarke met Margaret Crilly, an artist and teacher, at the Dublin metropolitan school of art and they were married in 1914. They went on to have three children; Anne, Michael and David.

Harry Clarke suffered from poor health throughout his life. At the height of his career in 1924, his health began to decline. This could possibly have been due to the extreme pressure of work, his father’s death and the responsibility this would bring in regard to the studios. Clarke was diagnosed with tuberculosis in 1929. It can be said that his poor physical condition influenced his work; this can be seen in his very slender figures and dark illustrations for the 1925 edition of Goethe’s Faust. The use of lead and chemicals in his stained glass work possibly continued to worsen his condition. In 1929, his deteriorating health caused him to seek medical care in a sanitorium in Davos, Switzerland. Whilst there, Clarke continued to work on commissions. Upon returning to Dublin in May of 1930, he struggled to catch up with the large backlog of work. In October he was forced to return to Davos, Switzerland in an attempt to regain his health. Showing no improvement and with the desire not to die in a foreign country, Clarke left Davos to travel back to Dublin. Harry Clarke died in his sleep, at Coire, a small Swiss village, on January 6th 1931 at just forty one years of age.

In 1927, Harry Clarke designed a number of decorative windows for the new premises of Bewley’s Oriental Café on Grafton Street, Dublin. The six decorative windows were completed in 1928. The first four windows, featured on the main wall of Bewley’s café, depict the Orders of Architecture; Corinthian, Doric, Ionic and Composite. The columns are adorned with vases full of flowers and are surrounded by colourful marine creatures, exotic birds, butterflies and flowers against a lightly painted clear background, giving the illusion of parchment solution. Black leafy tendrils draping across the windows skilfully disguise the black lead, while the outer borders are decorated with an intricate and delicate floral lacy design. The black lacy borders of the windows are dotted with small beads of colour, which are mimicked in the two decorative windows.

The first window, depicting the Corinthian order of architecture, displays a bronze column, adorned by a vase full of colourful flowers, whilst a large red bird is perched in the central top border. Garlands of white and red tiny flowers entwine the column, which is also surrounded by a range of colourful birds and butterflies.

The second window shows the Doric order of architecture. A white column, wrapped with a string of white and blue buds, is topped with a bowl of flowers and surrounded by birds, tiny dragonflies, butterflies and marine creatures.

The third window displays the Ionic order of architecture. A stone coloured column, entwined by a string of white, amber and gold flowers, supports an Egyptian-style bowl of flowers. In the lower border, a golden bird with open wings can be seen whilst a green and blue bird is depicted at the top right of the column. Purple butterflies can also be seen in the lower left of the window.

The fourth window, depicting the Composite order of architecture, displays a stone-coloured column wrapped in a garland of white, purple and yellow flowers. To the left of the column there are two beautifully illustrated birds with yellow, blue and white feathers.

The two decorative windows, overlooking Swan Lane and located on the left wall of the main café, are made of lightly coated clear glass and decorated with elaborate and delicate depictions of butterflies, exotic birds and foliage.

Learn more about the Harry Clarke windows at Bewley’s Grafton Street (and discover a recent addition Harry Clarke window). Join us for an official tour of Bewley’s Grafton Street every Saturday morning at 9:00 am, 10:00 am and 11:00 am. Learn about the history of Bewley’s, the array of beautiful art displayed throughout the building, the craft bakery on site and much more! The tour includes a heritage bun and a Bewley’s Tea or Coffee of choice. Tickets cost €14 per person and can be booked online on www.bewleys.com/ie/CafeTour

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