Archive of the Month
Harry Clarke’s Unique Gift to the Archbishop of Dublin
By Bryan Whelan
The RCB Library holds over 60,000 volumes of printed books, many of which have come into its safe custody from members of the Church of Ireland laity, clergy and bishops. The bibliographic records of most of these are now catalogued and accessible to a worldwide audience through the online printed books catalogue available here: www.ireland.anglican.org/about/rcb–library/catalogues/printed–books
Some of these volumes, held in the Library’s special reserve collection, are unique as this month’s Archive of the Month will demonstrate. The featured item is the volume containing a collection of poems titled The Year’s at the Spring and is illustrated by the artist, Harry Clarke.
Harry Clarke (1889–1931) was best known as a stained–glass artist, with his work being displayed in religious and secular places throughout Ireland and, indeed, the world. Many visitors to Dublin will know Clarke from his 1928 work in Bewley’s Oriental Café, with windows depicting the Corinthian, Doric, Ionic, and Composite orders of architecture. Clarke’s art was not limited to the secular and he carried out many commissions for the Christian churches. All of his work for the Church of Ireland is documented and free–to–view on the online catalogue of stained–glass here: www.gloine.ie
It was not surprising that Clarke ended up working with stained–glass, as he had been immersed in it for nearly all his life. His father, Joshua Clarke, had set up a business that produced church decorations and objects of art, and even had a draughtsman and stained–glass worker employed. What tends to be forgotten, albeit due to the stunning work that Clarke did on stained–glass, is that Clarke was also an accomplished book illustrator. We can see many similarities in his style in both art forms, and this is perhaps fitting, as his book illustrations and his work on stained–glass are examples of two–dimensional art focused on the telling of a story. Many of the stylistic touches and use of colour in the illustrations that we will see below have resonances with some of his stained–glass pieces.
Harry Clarke’s work with book illustration began with two commissions: Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Alexander Pope’s The Rape of the Lock. Neither of these publications were actually published (indeed, much of the work that Clarke did for The Rime of the Ancient Mariner was destroyed during the Easter Rising in 1916, and publication was abandoned). Clarke’s first published work was an illustrated edition of Hans Christian Andersen’s Fairy Tales (1916) by a (relatively) new publisher, George G. Harrap.
Clarke and Harrap had a particularly fruitful working relationship. Indeed, for a previously unpublished author, Harrap placed a considerable amount of time and money into the publication of the edition of Andersen’s Fairy Tales, and all of Clarke’s major work on book illustration would be published by Harrap. This was not be surprising, given Clarke’s growing acclaim as an artist, and Harrap’s specialism in high–quality illustrated texts. Other works that Clarke illustrated include Edgar Allan Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination (1919, as well as a reissue in 1923 with full–colour plates and additional halftone illustrations) and Goethe’s Faust (1925).
The Year’s at the Spring was first published in September 1920, and the copy that we are showcasing here is number 50 of a limited run of 250 copies. Indeed, this detail has been personally inscribed by Harry Clarke on the reverse half–title page in pencil. What makes this copy unique is that it was a gift to the Most Revd Dr Gregg (1873–1961), Archbishop of Dublin (1920–1939) with compliments of Harry Clarke, in December 1922. The connection with the archbishop is understandable, as Clarke had been working on numerous stained–glass commissions for the Church of Ireland during this period. These include his work for St Barrahane’s in Castletownsend, County Cork (1918, 1921, and 1926), Holy Trinity in Killiney, County Dublin (1919), St Patrick’s in Carnalway, Harristown, County Kildare (1921), Christ Church in Gorey, County Wicklow (1922), Eneriley and Kilbride Church near Arklow, County Wexford (1924), Sandford Parish Church in Ranelagh, County Dublin (1927), as well as St Brigid’s in Castleknock, also County Dublin (1928).
In her illuminating and informative biography Harry Clarke: The Life and Work (Dublin, 2012), Nicola Gordon Bowe describes Clarke as suffering from difficulty in inspiration in the months leading up to the completion of his commission for The Year’s At The Spring, which was further compounded by the bad health Clarke suffered from for much of his life (he succumbed to tuberculosis in 1931 aged only 41).
The Year’s at the Spring was an attempt to collect and showcase new and modern poetry, with a purposeful lack of regard for discussing ‘grand ideas’ (although we do have many poems that deal specifically with the First World War). Nature and the turning of the seasons feature regularly throughout the collection. While the introduction (by Harold Monro) attempts to place these themes within an overarching narrative of an English sensibility, we have poems from W. B. Yeats, Sarojini Naidu, Hilaire Belloc, E. J. Brady, and P. R. Chalmers, amongst others. What really holds the collection as a cohesive whole is the work of Clarke, even though his work throughout the book is rarely uniform and encompasses many different styles and techniques. We can see examples of Clarke pieces in black and white, some small decorative images, and others more grand and deserving of their own plate. These are incredibly detailed, and are reminiscent of wood block carvings. These black and white images are interspersed with dazzling coloured images that focus on some of the more fantastical images described by the poets and imagined by Clarke.
Some are playful, and perfectly capture the whimsical style of the poem that Clarke is illustrating.
In a paean to spring, Clarke chooses to illustrate an image from Margaret Mackenzie’s ‘To the Coming Spring’ with a beautiful sepia–tinted drawing. We see an incredibly detailed drawing of circular flower heads, encompassed in an egg–shaped frame.
In Walter De La Mare’s ‘Arabia’, Clarke captures the mythical and mystical resonances of a land that the poet never actually visited.
Others are dark and deeply haunting. In painting an image of ‘The Dying Patriot’ by James Elroy Flecker, Clarke chooses to focus on the image of submerged corpses instead of any of the more light and fanciful images in Flecker’s (albeit very dark) poem.
This arresting image is Clarke’s illustration of Lettice D’Oyly Walters’ ‘All is Spirit and Part of Me’, a poem that equates the power of natural forces and animals with the feelings of the narrator.
Some are disturbing. In ‘Overheard on a Saltmarsh’ by Harold Monro, we see a goblin demanding beads from a nymph.
Illustrating ‘The Dead’ by Rupert Brooke, we can see elements of Clarke’s fascination with the sublime, as well as some interesting subtle images of crosses in darkness at the bottom of the image.
James Elroy Flecker’s characteristically bleak ‘November Eves’ is perfectly illustrated by a dark, haunting, and disturbing image from Clarke, full of religious imagery and the prevailing theme of death.
Perhaps of foremost Irish interest are Clarke’s illustrations for the two Yeats poems, ‘The Lake Isle of Inisfree’ and ‘The Fiddler of Dooney’. The first is a black & white image with the quote ‘When we come at the end of time, to Peter sitting in state’. The second image is a more colourful representation of ‘And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow’ from the Lake Isle of Inisfree. This image is actually removed from its place opposite the poem and giving pride of place opposite the title–page.
The Year’s at the Spring is just one example of the many distinctive and unique items to be found in the RCB Library. What makes this item particularly interesting is the multiple stories that it tells: not simply those within each of its poems, but also of the connection between the acclaimed Irish artist responsible for its representation and the Church of Ireland Archbishop of Dublin of his day. Most importantly, we have a beautiful piece of art from one of Ireland’s foremost artists, in a medium with which he is not immediately associated with and which is available to view in the RCB Library.
Librarian and Archivist
For further information please contact:
Dr Susan Hood
Librarian and Archivist