The Eve of St. Agnes, 1924
Harry Clarke was born in Dublin on 17 March 1889. His father, Joshua Clarke, was a stained glass maker and church decorator. As a young boy, Harry Clarke worked in his father’s stained glass studio which was at the back of their house at 33 North Frederick Street. Working for his father instilled in Harry the importance of good craftsmanship. Harry Clarke went to school at Belvedere College, a short distance from their house, but left in 1905, shortly after the death of his beloved mother Brigid. He continued to work as an apprentice in his father’s studio while he was a student at the Metropolitan School of Art in Dublin. He was a talented and hard-working student and won scholarships which enabled him to study full-time at the art college. The scholarships also meant he could travel to France and England to see the magnificent stained glass windows in the medieval churches there. He entered competitions at the South Kensington School of Art and Design in London and won gold medals for the stained glass designs he submitted. Following his studies, Harry Clarke worked as a book illustrator for the London publisher Harrap and was highly praised for his drawings for Edgar Allan Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination and for Goethe’s Faust. Harry Clarke loved reading and going to the theatre and much of his art is inspired by great plays, fairy tales and legends. He especially loved stories that were fantastical, strange and wonderful. Between 1915 and 1917 Harry Clarke made eleven stained glass windows for the Honan Chapel at University College, Cork and from then on he received many important commissions for his stained glass work. He worked constantly, often late into the night. Around 1929 he became very ill and was diagnosed with tuberculosis (TB), a disease of the lungs. He went to Switzerland for treatment and rest. However, two years later, on 6 January 1931, on the way home from Switzerland to Ireland, Harry Clarke died from his disease at the young age of forty-one. – Biography courtesy of the Hugh Lane Gallery, Dublin
In April 1923 a Mr. Harold L. Jacob asked Harry Clarke to design a stained glass window for the landing of his father’s house in Ailesbury Road in Dublin. Harold Jacob was the owner of the famous Jacob’s biscuit factory. Stained glass was usually associated with religious art in churches so it was an exciting commission to make a window for someone’s house. Harold Jacob suggested that ‘night and morning’ or ‘summer and winter’ might be good subjects for the window. While these were nice ideas, Harry Clarke was an artist full of imagination and he loved a challenge. He suggested instead some ideas inspired by fairy tales, plays and poems. These ideas included the story of Bluebeard, Sleeping Beauty, The Playboy of the Western World by J.M. Synge and the poem The Eve of St Agnes by John Keats. Mr Jacob very much liked the idea of The Eve of St Agnes and three days later a delighted Harry Clarke wrote again saying: ‘I shall set to work on The Eve of St Agnes and submit my first coloured draft for discussion’. Harry Clarke made a number of beautiful preparatory studies for the window in pencil, watercolour and gouache, a type of watercolour, and these are now in the Crawford Art Gallery in Cork. One year later, on 1 April 1924, Harry Clarke completed The Eve of St Agnes. Mr Jacob paid Harry Clarke £160 7s 6d (160 pounds, 7 shillings and 6 pence) for the window. When The Eve of St Agnes was exhibited at the Royal Dublin Society (RDS) in Dublin in 1924 it won the Tailteann gold medal for Arts and Crafts. In 1978 the window was bought by the Hugh Lane Gallery, where it is on view today.
The poem The Eve of St Agnes was written by the English Romantic poet John Keats in January 1819. There are forty-two verses, or stanzas. The poem was inspired by an ancient tradition where young maidens would fast and go to bed early on 20 January, the eve of the feast day of St. Agnes, and hope to dream of their future husbands. In John Keats’s poem Madeline had been forbidden by her father, Lord Maurice, to marry Porphyro. Despite this, on a cold and wintry night Porphyro secretly enters the castle and, with the help of Madeline’s nurse Old Angela, goes to find Madeline, who is asleep in her bedchamber. As it is the Eve of St Agnes, Madeline has gone to sleep hoping to dream of her future love. When Porphyro’s music wakes her, she is unsure whether she is dreaming or awake. Porphyro reassures her that it is not a dream and they flee from the castle and away across the moors.
As well as revealing his superb skill as a stained glass artist, The Eve of St Agnes stained glass window is a magnificent example of Harry Clarke’s storytelling ability.
He created nineteen preparatory drawings in pencil, watercolour and gouache for the panels, which are now on exhibit at the Crawford Municipal art gallery in Cork.
Clarke chose to tell the story in fourteen panels; each of the them accompanied by a quotation from John Keats’s poem. At the top of these panels are two semi-circles, called lunettes. Running horizontally along the bottom of the panels is a frieze showing characters from the poem. Throughout the window there are borders full of wonderful decoration and ornamentation.
John Keats’s poem is full of beautiful descriptions and Harry Clarke was inspired by these when choosing which parts of the poem to illustrate. The poem is full of colour, especially purple, blue and red, and this is why you see so much of these colours in Harry Clarke’s stained glass window.
Excerpts from the essay by Jessica O’Donnell
Long form articles:
Lucy Costigan (author), Michael Cullen (author)
Published by Merrion Press (2019)
Costigan, Lucy; Cullen, Michael
Published by The History Press Ireland, Dublin (2010)