THE HARRY CLARKE WINDOW IN KILCULLEN
by Sean Landers
Kilcullen has in its possession the only window in County Kildare by renowned stained-glass artist, Harry Clarke. This year marks the 75th anniversary of his death and An Post has chosen a detail of the Carnalway window to commemorate that event. It is probably also the first time that Kilcullen has featured on a postage stamp.
With the exception of the tower, the church of St. Patrick’s at Carnalway is late 19th century and built in a style of architecture that was then called Hiberno-Romanesque, a revival of a style which came to prominence in Ireland in the twelfth century. The interior was inspired by Cormac’s Chapel on the Rock of Cashel. The architect was James Franklin Fuller, diocesan architect, who was also responsible for the restoration of Harristown House after the fire when it was badly damaged. He also did some of the restoration work on St. Brigid’s Cathedral, Kildare.
The small window depicting St. Hubert was commissioned by George A. Birmingham, the nom-de-plume of Canon Hannay, a popular novelist. It is a memorial to Percy and Lady Annette La Touche of Harristown.
It is rather fitting that St Hubert was chosen as the subject of the window as he is the patron saint of hunting and Percy La Touche was much taken with that “sport” which has been rather cynically described as the unspeakable in pursuit of the uneatable. I am not sure that his wife shared his enthusiasm for this past-time.
He was the eldest son and heir apparent of Bertrand, Duke of Aquitaine. He was much given to hunting and as a youth withdrew to the Forest of Ardennes to devote himself to this passion. One Good Friday morning, according to the legend, he went off in pursuit of a magnificent stag while his neighbours chose to go to church to pray. The stag suddenly stopped, challenged the hunter and he noticed that there was a crucifix between its antlers. He heard a voice saying: “Hubert, unless thou turnest to the Lord, and leadest a holy life, thou shall quickly go down into hell.” Hubert dismounted, lay prostrate in front of the stag and asked: “Lord, what woulds’t Thou have me do?” The voice replied: “Go and seek Lambert and he will instruct you.” The latter was a local bishop. He devoted the rest of his life to doing the Lord’s work. Presumably he also lost his craze for blood sports. A similar story is told about another saint, St. Eustace. For this reason, the crest of the FitzEustace family shows a crucifix set between antlers. It is also the crest of Newbridge College. The German painter, Albert Durer, chose this incident as the subject of a number of his paintings and engravings. St. Hubert is also the patron saint of archers, forest workers, furriers and trappers, as well as hunting as a profession. He is also the patron saint of mathematicians, machinists, precision instrument makers and smelters along with those stricken with hydrophobia (rabies) and dogs. There is also a breed of bloodhound named after him. As far as I know, images of the saint do not occur in medieval Irish art.
There is no doubt that he was the leading Irish stained-glass artist of the last century and his work is to be found in churches all over the country and in England, Scotland, the United States and Australia. There are even examples of his stained-glass in Bewley’s cafe in Grafton Street. He also acquired a reputation as a gifted book illustrator. In 1887, Harry’s father, Joshua Clark, had married Bridget MacGonigal, added an “e” to his surname, converted to Catholicism and moved from Leeds to Dublin where he lived at 22 North Frederick Street. This is where Harry was born on St. Patrick’s Day, 1889. It was a period of phenomenal church building. Joshua decided to expand his church interior decorating business to include the design and production of stained-glass windows. In 1892, he opened a glass studio in rooms at his family residence. This building was unfortunately destroyed during the Easter Rising. Some, if not all, of the windows behind the main altar in the Catholic church in Kilcullen come from this studio. Harry was fascinated by the work and spent a lot of his free time in the studio. By the age of 14 he had mastered all the techniques. He attended Marlborough Street school and later Belvedere College. In 1905, he began a five-year apprenticeship with his father’s firm. He attended night classes at the Metropolitan School of Art but in 1910 was awarded a scholarship. The following year he won the first of three gold medals for his stained-glass in the South Kensington National Competition. His first major commission was for eleven of the eighteen windows in the Honan Chapel in University College Cork; Sarah Purser was to make the remaining windows.
In an interesting entry on the artist, William O’Mahony of the Royal Hibernian Academy quotes John Ruskin, one of the founders of the Arts and Crafts movement in Britain, who wrote in 1898: “Windows should be serene, intense, and brilliant like flaming jewellery. That we are always trying to get colours bright, when their chief real virtues are to be deep, mysterious, and subdued.” These principles are very evident in the Honan windows. Many experts, including Clarke himself, consider these windows to be his major artistic achievement. In 1927, he was commissioned by the Irish Free State government to produce a window for the International Labour Headquarters of the League of Nations in Switzerland. The work, known as the Geneva Window, consists of 13 panels and was inspired by scenes from famous works of Irish literature. It was never installed. The prudish Irish government found the work offensive. It was never sent to Geneva. The work implied that the Irish were given to “sex, drunkenness and sin”. This was not the image of Ireland that the Free State government wished to present to the world. It was sold back to the Clarke family and in 1988 it was acquired by the Wolfsonian Foundation in Miami. Harry suffered from ill-health for most of his life and probably long exposure to the acids used in the studio in the production of stained-glass, did little to help. Like his mother and brother, he suffered from tuberculosis. He was sent to a sanatorium in Switzerland. He died there on January 6th 1931. He was on his way back to Dublin. He was only 42 yet in his brief lifetime he and his studio produced an estimated 130 stained-glass windows. We are very fortunate that we have one of them in Carnalway.
THE CARNALWAY WINDOW
The window is quite small (6″ 0′ x 1″ 9′) and was displayed at the 6th Arts and Crafts Society exhibition at the Metropolitan School of Art in Dublin on September 30th 1921 and erected in the church three months later. In his review of the exhibition, Thomas Bodkin of the National Gallery, describes it as Harry’s most important stained-glass exhibit. A cartoon for the window has survived and was on display as part of an exhibition of the artist’s work held in the Douglas Hyde Gallery, Trinity College, Dublin, in 1979 when Nicola Gordon Bowe’s monograph on the artist was also published. Her definitive study (“The Life and Works of Harry Clarke”) was published in 1994 and in this important work she deals in some detail with the Carnalway window. She concludes that the cartoon must have been done very soon after the commission was given. She remarks: “This is the first extant cartoon done in this unusual technique, where the background is blacked in, the fine detail is in pencil, and soft colours are washed in.”
The window is dominated by the figure of the saint. He can be clearly identified by his attributes: the hunter’s bow with a quiver of arrows and an impressive Irish wolfhound. His head is set against the background of a large halo. To the medieval mind, these visual clues would have resulted in instant recognition. This, however, is not a work of the 15th century but of the modern world. In a very real sense, the window has to be “read” . This image of the saint is rich in significant detail and symbol. He is clearly embarking on a hunting expedition.The floral motifs suggest a forest setting. Gordon Bowe is particularly fascinated with what she calls “this exquisite androgynous young man’s splendid finery”. She adds, “Butterflies, exotic birds and an angel attend him. Hubert’s pale face is framed by long black wisps of hair. a green silk scarf outside a tight white pleated balaclava and pendulous silver ear-rings beneath a crimson fur-trimmed chapeau with a white ostrich plume. A moth is framed against the acided pink of the plain nimbus with its chevroned border.”
It is the panel below the figure of the saint that attracts particular attention.It is inspired by a Durer engraving of St. Eustace “receiving a vision of the Crucifixion”. It is in sharp contrast with the upper part of the window with its flamboyant colours and exotic imagery. It is about eighteen inches square and shows the saint “in a moonlit forest beside a brook, kneeling before a stag bearing an incandescent crucifix between its antlers. His hound, half asleep beside him, one ear cocked in the watery moonlit glade, alludes to the fact that Hubert is traditionally prayed to for protection against hydrophobia. ” Gordon Bowe calculates that the panel worked on two pieces of sapphire glass was fired and acided at least a dozen times and “is wrought into a microscopic delicacy of detail.”
In 1927, Harry Clarke was commissioned to make a triple-light window for St Brigid’s Church in Castleknock, in Dublin. Once again, he returned to the subject of St. Hubert who is flanked by St. George and St. Luke. The quality of the photograph of the Castleknock window on the church web-site makes comparison with the Carnalway window difficult but they are both quite similar in design. Incidentally, the Dublin window cost 270 pounds.