Harry Clarke: ‘Eve of St. Agnes’ [1924]

“The Eve of St. Agnes,” by Harry Clarke!

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 Detail: ‘Eve of St. Agnes [1924] H/t declan_maria

Harry Clarke, the son of an ecclesiastical supplier, was born in Dublin in 1889. He was educated at Belvedere College and then worked at his father’s studio. Clarke quickly established a reputation for himself both nationally and internationally as an artist of unique talent both in the media of stained glass artist and illustration. His love of the fantastic and narrative combined with his remarkable technical range and exquisite use of colour produced works of great genius that continue to amaze. He died in Zurich from TB in 1931 a the age of only forty-one.

St. Agnes Roundel
St. Agnes Roundel.

“The Eve of St. Agnes” by Harry Clarke. 1924. Truly, stunningly magnificent.

Masterpiece 5 - The Eve of St. Agnes, Harry Clarke

Harry Clarke Photo Masterpiece 5 © Dublin City Gallery, The Hugh Lane Gallery

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. 

In 1923, Clarke was commissioned by the Jacob Biscuits family to produce a window depicting Keats’ poem “The Eve of St Agnes.” The window was intended for their home on Dublin’s Ailesbury Road, (now, St. Michael’s School). Clarke responded with a work of consummate skill, encompassing every technique known to the stained glass artist. For this, he was paid the princely sum of £160. The poem and Clarke’s stained glass is based upon the myth that a young girl would see a vision of her future lover if she performed certain rites on the eve of St Agnes Day (St Agnes is the patron saint of virgins) They told her how, upon St Agnes’ Eve:
Young virgins might have visions of delight, And soft adornments from their lovers receive, Upon the honeyed middle of the night.

The fourteen vivid and luminous scenes show how Porphyro, forbidden to pursue the hand of Madeleine by her father, creeps into the castle during the St Agnes’ Eve carousing and is led by Old Angela to Madeleine’s bedchamber. Madeleine, following ancient custom, has retired there fasting and unclothed to dream of her future lord.

Her dreams are fulfilled when Porphyro wakes her, and the two steal away into the gathering storm, past fluttering tapestry and the drunken porter. Clarke cleverly disguises the leading in the architectural and decorative features around the scenes.

“The Eve of St. Agnes” – John Keats

 At length burst in the argent revelry,
With plume, tiara, and all rich array,
Numerous as shadows haunting fairily
The brain, new stuff d, in youth, with triumphs gay
Of old romance. These let us wish away,
And turn, sole-thoughted, to one Lady there,
Whose heart had brooded, all that wintry day,
On love, and wing´d St. Agnes´ saintly care,
As she had heard old dames full many times declare.
“The Eve of St. Agnes”
John Keats

The dazzling colour is achieved using double-layered glass, repeatedly acid-etched to produce diverse tones, with minute detail scratched into the paint layers using a needle. Thus, the window is the result of painstaking work of the utmost complexity, and an extraordinary achievement.

Clarke absorbed several influences including Symbolism, Art Nouveau, Secessionist art, Celtic Revival but also German Expressionist films such as Nosferatu and the Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

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