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Masterpiece 5: Harry Clarke Masterpiece 5 - The Eve of St. Agnes, Harry Clarke
Photo © Dublin City Gallery, The Hugh Lane

Harry Clarke (Dublin 1889-1931 Zurich)
The Eve of St. Agnes (1924)
Stained Glass
Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane
The Artist

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.

The Painting

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 adorings 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 Madeline by her father, creeps into the castle during the St Agnes' Eve carousing and is led by Old Angela to Madeline's bedchamber. Madeline, 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 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.


Foreword by Mike Murphy Foreword by Mike Murphy

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