Bees and Butterflies: Two Drawings by Harry Clarke

Bees and Butterflies: Two Drawings by Harry Clarke

In March 1996, the Rakow Library of The Corning Museum of Glass acquired two important drawings by the early 20th-century Irish stained glass artist Harry Clarke1 (1889–1931).

One of these drawings, created in 1914, is a detailed design for Clarke's "St. Gobnet" window in the Honan Chapel, Cork City (Fig. 1). The other, produced in 1924, is a colored sketch for one of the lunettes (Fig. 2) over his "Eve of St. Agnes" window (Fig. 3), commissioned for a private home in Dublin. These drawings significantly add to our understanding of two of Clarke's most famous stained glass window projects.

Figure 1. Design for "St. Gobnet" window in Honan Chapel, Cork City, Ireland. Pencil, pen and inks, and watercolor on board. Harry Clarke, 191 4. H. 54.6 cm, W. 11.5 cm. Collection of the Rakow Library, The Corning Museum of Glass.The "St. Gobnet" drawing is one of five designs for windows depicting saints that Clarke produced in his bid for the Honan Chapel commission. Because the success of this bid, in effect, launched his career, it is useful to note the events that preceded it.

Harry Clarke's artistic talent had been evident from a very early age. His classmates at Belvedere College, a Jesuit school that he attended from the second to ninth grades, later remembered him as "a reserved and rather sensitive boy, a little aloof from the rough and tumble of school life, but well-liked by his companions and conspicuous among them for his skills in drawing."2

Harry had to leave school at the age of 14, when his mother died. He helped out in his father's church decoration business, which, among its services, provided stained glass windows to clients. For the next several years, Harry worked in his father's business by day and attended classes at the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art at night.

In 1910, Harry was awarded the Metropolitan School's Scholarship in Stained Glass, which allowed him to attend day classes full-time and tuition-free. He also became eligible to participate in the various exhibitions and competitions that were open only to full-time students.

The following year, Harry won the gold medal in stained glass in the Board of Education National Competition, a major art contest for art students throughout the United Kingdom. He was the first Irish student to receive this coveted prize. He repeated his success in 1912 and 1913, thereby distinguishing himself as the only student ever to win the gold medal in three consecutive years.

The Belvederian, the magazine of Harry's old school, reported his artistic achievements with pride. Consequently, he was brought to the attention of Belvedere College alumni, an influential old boys' network that included many of the wealthiest and most powerful men of Dublin. One of these men, Laurence Ambrose Waldron, took a special interest in Harry and became his first and most important supporter.

Waldron introduced Harry to Sir Jolm O'Connell, another Belvedere alumnus, who was also trustee of the will of lsabella Honan. Miss Honan, the last member of the prominent Honan family of Cork City, had died in August 1913, leaving a bequest to build a chapel on the grounds of University College, Cork.

The Honan Chapel project was intended to be a showcase for the Irish Arts and Crafts movement, which was characterized by a strong nationalistic tone.3 The exterior of the chapel, especially the main entrance, made reference to Hiberno-Romanesque churches such as Cormac's Chapel, Cashel. Of equal importance was the program of stained glass windows depicting 15 Irish saints, along with Christ , Mary, and Saints Joseph and John .

At the start of the project, The Tower of Glass Studio, Harry's father's primary competitor, had been given the commission for these windows and had designed three of them. On Waldron's recommendation, however, Sir John met with Harry in October 1914 and invited him to submit five window designs for Honan Chapel. He was given only five weeks to complete them. His detailed design, which included the Rakow Library's "St. Gobnet ' drawing, won him a commission for 11 windows.

The Honan Chapel project occupied Harry for the next two years. His windows, which received high praise from critics, firmly established the 25-year-old artist's reputation.

St. Gobnet, who lived during the Middle Ages, was born in County Clare.4 She fled to the Aran Islands, off the western coast of Ireland, to escape family problems, and she built a church there. Soon afterward, she was informed in a vision that this was not to be the "place of her resurrection," but rather another place, which she would know when she saw nine deer grazing. Ultimately, she found the grazing deer and established a nunnery in Ballyvourney, County Cork.

Tradition tells of Gobnet's powers against illness, including the curing of a sick nun and the warding off of a plague. Another tale is about her revenge on a thief who had been stealing local cattle. Gobnet was a skilled beekeeper; indeed, she is the patron saint of beekeeping. It is said that she sent her bees after the thief, and that the bees turned into soldiers before they attacked the villain. All of these stories are represented in Clarke's window design.

There is evidence to suggest that the subject of St. Gobnet particularly captured Harry's imagination. In August 1909, he had taken a break from working in his father's studios by spending the month on Inisheer, the smallest of the Aran Islands. There, he had spent his days sketching and painting with an art school classmate, Austin Molloy. Harry immediately felt a strong attachment to the landscape and people of Inisheer. He returned there each August for the next five years, bringing along one or more sketching companions. Harry and his wife even spent their honeymoon on the island in 1915. Harry certainly would have seen the famous ruins of Gobnet's first church on Inisheer, and these may have attracted him to the subject of this saint.

Support for such speculation is found in Thinking Out Gobnet, a 1917 oil painting by Harry's close friend Sean Keating. Keating was one of the artists who had accompanied Harry on his 1914 Inisheer holiday. In his painting, Keating depicted Harry dressed in traditional Aran Island costume, apparently deep in thought while seated amid what appear to be the remains of a church.

Design for "St. Gobnet" window in Honan Chapel, Cork City, Ireland (detail)

The beekeeping theme may also have had a strong attraction for Harry. In his career as an illustrator, which progressed parallel to his work in stained glass, the simultaneity of good and evil was a prevalent theme. This preoccupation may have been influenced by his Jesuit education, by the contemporaneous Symbolist movement in the arts, or even by his own intense experience of the peaks and valleys of life. In any case, bees, producers of both sweet honey and painful stings, likely would have been an appealing subject for Harry.

One other aspect of bee behavior also appears to have had special meaning for the artist. In the margin of his "St. Gobnet" design, he wrote, "BACKGROUND HEXAGON OF HONEYCOMB PATTERN." Another notation reads, " ST. GOBNAT [sic] THE PATRONESS OF THE BEES." Harry cleverly chose to show how the wax wall that contains each cell of a honeycomb is, in a sense, analogous to the leading that surrounds the individual pieces of stained glass in a window. Because Harry was also an illustrator, working with line as a primary expressive element, he took a particular interest in the design potential of leading as line in his windows.

Many changes in Harry's design can be seen in the actual "St. Gobnet" window in Honan Chapel. Perhaps the most striking is the overall color scheme change to a predominance of deep red and blue. The design shows five bees, rendered fairly naturalistically, hovering around the saint's head, with three more bees below illustrating the story of the bees and the robber. In the final window, all of the bees are stylized, and only two of them remain near Gobnet's head.

In all of his Honan Chapel designs, Harry attempted to convey the quality of stained glass, using watercolor and inks on opaque paper. Although the "St. Gobnet" drawing was completed under extreme time pressure, it shows every detail of surface decoration and every lead line, and layers of transparent colored inks suggest the translucency of glass. In later designs, Harry typically used tracing paper and dabbed on his colors much more loosely.

Figure 2

The second of the Rakow Library's drawings by Harry Clarke falls into the latter category. This sketch was primarily intended to guide Harry's assistant, Kathleen Quigley, in producing a pair of lunettes for the "Eve of St. Agnes" window. Harold Jacob had commissioned the window for the landing of his father's house in Dublin, selecting the subject from a list drawn up by Harry. Although Harry faithfully illustrated John Keats's poem in 22 elaborate panels, he allowed his imagination freer rein in the lunettes.

The lunette design presents two butterflies with several marine flora and fauna, for both decorative and mood-setting effect. Smaller versions of some of these marine forms are included in the "frames" around the illustrative panels below. The large seaweed-like fronds, which structure the design, conceal the leading in the actual window. The drawing includes Harry's notation, "LEFT TOP," as well as instructions to "interchange all colours and ornament other than main lines" in the right lunette. Sections of the drawing are marked with the letters "R," "B," and "Y" (for red, blue, and yellow) to clarify how colors should be "interchanged" in the other lunette. The finished right lunette shows that Quigley followed Harry's instructions for color closely but took more liberties with the ornament.

Marine creatures were a favorite motif for Harry. In two series of handkerchief designs, commissioned by Sefton Fabrics (1918- 1920), he included stylized jellyfish, sea urchins, and anemones as key elements. He also featured such forms in numerous book illustrations, especially those for Edgar Allan Poe's Tales of Mystery and Imagination (1919).5 Again, his Inisheer island experiences proved to be formative, strengthening his emotional attachment to the ocean as well as impressing images in his mind while he was sketching.

The juxtaposition of butterflies with marine life in the "St. Agnes" lunettes is very much in the spirit of the Symbolist movement, which emphasized suggestion, mystery, and dream. The mood evoked by the lunettes perfectly suits Keats's poem, in a manner similar to the overture of a musical work.

Tradition said that, if a young lady fasted and was silent before going to sleep on the eve of St. Agnes 's feast day, January 21, she would dream of her lover. In Keats's poem, however, the lover actually comes to the young lady' s bedroom, and they escape into the winter night. Harry's intricate "St. Agnes" illustrations resulted in a dazzling window that is considered to be one of his masterpieces.

Interestingly researching this drawing has raised a question about the current installation of the "St. Agnes" window in The Hugh Lane Municipal Gallery of Modem Art in Dublin. The lunette that matches the Rakow Library's drawing is at the right in this installation; this would seem to be incorrect, judging from the artist's labeling of the drawing. In addition, a photograph of the window as it was originally installed in the house of Harold Jacob's father shows the lunette matching the drawing to be positioned on the left.

The two Clarke drawings in the Rakow Library's collection provide a record of the artist's mind and hand at work, which is typically what makes preliminary renderings of major art works so valuable and interesting. Because aspects of both Clarke drawings appear to derive from Harry's experiences on his beloved island of lnisheer, studying the drawing allows us to connect with the artist on an even more intimate level and to enrich our knowledge of his personal iconography.


Patricia J. Rogers
This article was published in the Journal of Glass Studies, Vol. 39 (1997), 206–211.


1. Considerable information on Harry Clarke is contained in three major works by Nicola Gordon Bowe: Harry Clarke (a monograph and catalog published to coincide with the exhibition "Harry Clarke" at The Douglas Hyde Gallery, Trinity College, Dublin, November 12–December 8, 1979), Dublin: the gallery, 1979; Harry Clarke: His Graphic Work, Mountrath, Ireland: Dolman Press, and Los Angeles: H. Keith Burns, 1983; and The Life and Work of Harry Clarke, Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 1989. Each of these works includes an extensive bibliography for further study.
2. Thomas J. Ryan, obituary, The Belvederian, January 193 1, pp. 47–51; quoted in Bowe, The Life and Work of Harry Clarke [note 1], p. 11.
3. An excellent source of information on the Honan Chapel is Rev. Sir John R. O'Connell , The Collegiate Chapel Cork: Some Notes on the Building and on the Ideals Which Inspired It (2nd ed., Cork: Cork University Press, 1932).
4. "Gobnet of Ballyvourney," in Daphne D. C. Pochin Mould, The Irish Saints: Short Biographies of the Principal Irish Saints from the Time of St. Patrick lo That of St. Laurence O'Toole, Dublin: Clonmore and Reynolds Ltd., and London: Bums and Oates Ltd., 1962, pp. 192–195.
5. Tales of Mystery and imagination by Edgar Allan Poe,illustrated by Harry Clarke, first published October 1919 by George G. Harrap & Co. Ltd., London.

Further reading: Virginia Teehan and Elizabeth Wincott Heckett, eds., The Honan Chapel: A Golden Vision. Cork, Ireland: Cork University Press, 2004.

Published on April 2, 2013