A window on Harry Clarke

Illustration by Zoa Studio dedicated to Harry Clarke's Faust
Illustration by Zoa Studio dedicated to Harry Clarke’s Faust

Happy Birthday, Harry Clarke!

Harry Clarke portraitMany of you may not know this name, but he was an Irish illustrator. His work influenced the Liberty and Art Deco movement and he was a prominent figure in the Irish Arts and Crafts Movement.

Harry Clarke’s style is particular. The drawing recalls that of his contemporaries (second half of the 1800s): Kay Nielsen, Edmund Dulac, Arthur Rackham, Walter Crane, Willy Pogany imbued with Christian, Celtic, pagan and sometimes exotic symbolism, but Clarke has a decadence reminiscent of Gustav Klimt and Aubrey Beardsley (Stand inside your love). As for the latter, the silhouettes of the characters are thin, elongated and have a vampire feel. Frequent is also the use of unusual organic decorations.

Clarke resembled his own characters, with heavy, smooth fringe and his huge dark eyes vaguely hypnotic.

But let me say something about Harry Clarke’s life before we venture into his work.

The life of Harry Clarke

Henry Patrick (Harry) Clarke was born on March 17, 1889, St. Patrick’s Day. His father, Joshua Clarke was a Church decorator who moved to Dublin from Leeds in 1877 and started a Joshua Clarke & Sons decoration business, which later specialised in stained glass. Through his work with his father, Harry discovered many art schools, but in particular Art Nouveau.

Clarke attended model school in Dublin and Belvedere College, which he left in 1905. He was devastated by the death of his mother in 1903, when he was only 14 years old. He was then apprenticed in his father’s studio and attended evening classes at the Metropolitan College of Art and Design. His “Consecration of St. Mel,” Bishop of Longford, won the gold medal for stained glass in the 1910 Board of Education ‘s national competition.

At dublin art school, Clarke met fellow artist and teacher Margaret Crilley. They married on October 31, 1914 (Halloween??) and moved into an apartment at 33 North Frederick Street. They had three children, Michael, David and Ann.

The world of illustration

In 1913 Clarke moved to London to look for work as a book illustrator. He was enlisted by the London publisher Harrap and began with two commissions that have never been completed: The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge (an edition with illustrations by Gustave Doré is recommended) and an illustrated edition by Alexander Pope The Rape of the Lock (an edition with illustrations by Aubrey Beardsley is recommended).

The difficulties with these projects meant that his first printed work was a collection of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales, in 1916. This was followed by illustrations for an edition of Edgar Allan Poes Tales of Mystery and Imagination (Edgar Allan Poe-sie and much more). With this 1923 edition Clarke gained a reputation as a book illustrator during the golden age of book illustration.

This was followed by editions of The Years at the Spring (1920), Charles Perrault’s Fairy Tales and Goethe’s Faust (1925). The last of these is his most famous work, which prefigures the images of psychedelia of the 60s! (Electrolyte Absinthe ) His last book, Selected Poems of Algernon by Charles Swinburne, was published in 1928.

The family business

Harry and his brother Walter took over their father’s studio after his death in 1921. Clarke produced more than 130 stained glass windows that stand out for the finesse of his design, the use of intense colors and an innovative integration of the window as part of the overall design. He was particularly fond of a deep blue. Clarke’s use of heavy lines in the illustrations of his black-and-white books echoes his glass techniques.

Clarke’s stained glass works include many religious windows (above all the Honan Chapel in University College Cork), but also many centuries-old stained glass windows (remember The Eve of St. Agnes by John Keats now at the Hugh Lane Municipal Gallery in Dublin and the Geneva window now at the Wolfsonian Museum, Miami, Florida, USA). Probably among his most viewed works are the stained glass windows he made for Bewley’s Café on Grafton Street in Dublin.

Here you will find the whole list of windows: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stained_glass_windows_by_Harry_Clarke

Both Harry and his brother Walter were plagued by lung problems. Harry was diagnosed with tuberculosis in 1929. He went to a sanatorium in Davos, Switzerland. Fearing to die abroad, he began his return journey to Dublin in 1931, but died on 6 January 1931 in Chur (Switzerland) where he was buried. A plaque was erected. Local law required the family to pay a sum to maintain the tomb after 15 years from burial. This was not explained to the Clarke family and harry Clarke’s remains were unearthed in 1946 and buried in a mass grave.

Illustrations by Harry Clarke

Tales of Mystery and Imagination by Edgar Allan Poe

Tales of mystery and imagination. With an introduction by Neil Gaiman, illustrations by Harry Clarke and short stories by Edgar Allan PoeNot surprisingly, the illustrations for which Harry Clarke became famous are linked to a collection of short stories that include many of the stories for which Edgar Allan Poe is best known, including “The Fall of the House of Usher”, “The Murders in Rue Morgue” and “The Pit and the Pendulum”.

Few illustrators have managed to express the disturbing atmosphere of Poe’s stories, which laid the foundations for the modern narrative strand linked to mystery, horror and even science fiction. The essential and stylized style that Clarke uses to describe Poe refers to decadent authors such as Aubrey Beardsley, but at the same time anticipates the work of artists such as Yoshitaka Amano, James Jean or Moebius.

Clarke is one of Neil Gaiman’s favorite illustrators (Mr Sandman, bring me (a) Dream). It is often mentioned in the blog and tweeter account of the author of Sandman, Coraline, American Gods, etc. In 2009 Gaiman managed to republish an edition of Tales of Mystery and Imagination in which he introduced the work. The Gaiman, Poe and Clarke trilogy is absolutely perfect!


Goethe’s Faust

Goethe’s Faust has been the focus of many reinterpretations and re-editions over the years. But Harry Clarke’s 1926 has a special place. The images represented are in fact both elegant and disturbing at the same time. They call to mind the altered states of consciousness. For this reason, according to many art critics, they were a source of inspiration for the psychedelic imagination of the sixties.

In 2018, just for Harry Clarke’s birthday, Neil Gaiman retweets a post with a comment that summarizes exactly the emotions that arouse the illustrations for Faust. “Harry Clarke’s illustrations for Faust haunt my dreams.”

Harry Clarke’s stained glass windows

We couldn’t help but spend 2 words on the amazing stained glass windows that Harry created. First of all we must start from the fact that Clarke being Irish is Catholic. The interpretation, however, that gives of the processions of saints and angels is a bit eccentric if not disturbing. They look like something out of an Oscar Wilde book.

From a distance, the windows look like standard Victorian stained glass windows. The closer you get, the more extravagance takes over. The elongated figures, with pointed profiles, thin and almost alien hands seem to crystallize in an indefinite time: as pre-Christian as it is futuristic. Fantastic is perhaps the most correct term. Or maybe Irish. The small people made up of gnomes, fairies and goblins meet the Christian mysticism made of angels, saints and ascensions.

Harry Clarke’s sacred stained glass windows conceptually remind me of the triptych of Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Delights where the fantastic meets the Sacred.

The stained glass window of Geneva

Clarke’s images remain stunning, even now; all the more so given the repressive culture in which they were born. The design of several windows that are part of a series commissioned by the Irish government in 1927 as a gift to the League of Nations in Geneva, shows why they would never have been installed. A fairy-looking woman in a purple dress holds her hand, nonchalantly, over the genitals of an androgynous figure who is naked from chest to thigh; a king reminiscent of a Weimar stand-up comedian raises his glass to a naked blonde dancer reminiscent of a spirit from A Midsummer Night’s Dream; in another image in reddish chalices dance spirits reminiscent of the fairies of wormwood and take possession of human beings. “It would have seriously offended our people,” said the first president of the Irish Free State, William T Cosgrave. The project was discontinued.

The Eve of St Agnes

For another commission, based on Keats’ The Eve of St Agnes, Clarke used glass as if it were a canvas or drawing sheet. There is no trace of craftsmanship, but only of artistry. Clarke even manages to give the impression of the reflections of the moon inside the princess’s bedroom.

Harry Clarke is a modern artist. His is a narrative in which the Sacred and the Profane meet. The authors of a recent book place him at the heart of ireland’s nascent Free State: “Ethereal and beautiful and, in its intelligence and contemporaneity, strangely compassionate,” his art reflects an Irish society “much more cosmopolitan, sophisticated, and aesthetically aware than normally recognized.”

Snow, Glass, Apples

Cover of Snow, Glass, Apples by Neil Gaiman
Cover of Snow, Glass, Apples by Neil Gaiman

To finish with a reading tip, Neil Gaiman in 2019 published a booklet entitled Snow, Glass, Apples with illustrations by Colleen Doran. It has not yet been translated into Italian, but I think they will briefly do so. The story takes up the story of Snow White but is altered into a more gothic, dark version, with some erotic nuances.  A not so evil, but rather lustful queen is terrified of her monstrous stepdaughter much more virginal and bloodthirsty. Determined to reject this creature and save his kingdom he will tell us his story in a world where happy ends are not so happy and content.

The book is a hymn to the work of Harry Clarke as reported in the special dedicated to the illustrations at the end of the booklet and the dedication of the author with whom we want to conclude this article that I hope has intrigued you about the artist:

With respect and gratitude, the artist wants to recognize his tribute to


(Irish Artist)




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