Nicola Gordon Bowe, The Life and Work of Harry Clarke, Irish Academic Press, Dublin 1989, p.212 and 248;
Nicola Gordon Bowe, Report on The Ascension, October 2004, unpublished.
‘There can be no doubt that Harry Clarke has a genius which manifests itself at its highest in stained glass…I do not feel the full soul of the artist is manifested until he can let light pour through his design…Starry points of colour break through everywhere. But one has to see the colour. It cannot be imagined from any description’. (George Russsell, called AE, The Life and Work of Harry Clarke, 1925)
Clarke’s ‘genius’ is exemplified by the intricate details combined with the ‘starry points’ of colour of the present work, formally commissioned by Lady Dillon of Longworth Hall, Hereford, on February 18th 1929. It was one of his last commissions to be completed and installed before the artist’s untimely death in January 1931. Recorded by the Clarke Studios as Order 1615, The Ascension was commissioned for the new Church of Ireland at Skryne, Tara in Co. Meath and an estimate to ‘design, supply and fit one three light window’ was given on December 6th 1928 as £128.0.0.
Intended as a memorial to her husband Sir John Fox Bt, the window was to be placed above the altar of the new church which had been designed in the Gothic style by Frederick Shaw of Drogheda and built from 1902 – 1904. Sir John himself had played a crucial part in the foundation of the church having donated a ‘picturesque portion of his property and within a short distance of his own stately residence’. Designed to replace the old church of Templekeeran which had become too small, the new church at Skryne, Lismullen Church, was intended to seat a congregation of 250 and Sir John was its first church warden up until his death in November 1925.
Lady Dillon had specifically requested that the new window should have ‘side openings in manner similar to Lord Wicklow’s stained glass window in Kilbride, Arklow, Co. Wicklow and colouring the same’. Clarke’s brother Walter and the Rev. L.A. Hardy of Skryne had initially favoured a design which would focus on Saints Columba and Kieran and other Saints associated with the Parish, similar to composition that the Clarke studios had designed for Sir George Brooke in Castleknock, Co.Dublin. However, Lady Dillon had been impressed by Clarke’s three light Resurrection for the Earl of Wicklow designed in 1924 for the Kilbride Church near Shelton Abbey where the central light focused on Christ at the bottom of a staircase wearing a crown of thorns and dressed in a ruby tunic. Clarke cleverly linked the three main lights with the smaller rose window above by the continuity of ruby pigment, carried up to the Crucifixion in the rose window and to the borders of the side lights, each containing two quatrefoil panels depicting scenes from the life of Christ. Clarke also included a self portrait of himself in the lower right hand light (see Fig 1.).
Similarly, in the present work, Christ maintains his dominant position in the central light, with the bold red flag symbolic of the Ascension behind his head and the triangular Gnostic eye representing the Holy Trinity just above him. True to Lady Dillon’s original commission, each of the Dillon ‘side openings’ also contain two narrative quatrefoil panels akin to Lord Wicklow’s Kilbride windows. The three light formation had been a particular favourite of Clarke’s and importantly, it was an early design for a three light window (see Fig 2) that had secured his first commission at Honan Chapel, Cork for Sir John O’Connell and which subsequently established his reputation in stained glass.
The Wicklow commission at Kilbride had also been important for Clarke’s development as he began to experiment with freer and more abstract patterns first seen in a small and ‘quite unique’ window at Kilbride which incorporated two large slabs of blue glass set within other hues of red, pink and a background of decorative lines painted on green, beige and clear glass. Clarke noted that it was ‘an experiment that has come off and the first time I am near Shelton I shall call in to see it.. In the case of the transept window I have charged only for materials and the man’s time fixing – my own time was not of great consequence and moreover I learnt a little on the experiment’ (Clarke, letter, 1924, quoted in Bowe, op.cit., p.162). The so-called 'experiment' went on to become one of the Clarke studio’s trademark design features and is evident in the present work in the decorative background surrounding Christ and the narrative panels in each of the three lights. The mix of colour and decorative design was tailored to ensure an even source of light throughout the composition whilst simultaneously highlighting specific colours from the smaller quatrefoil panels.
Lady Dillon had originally requested that The Ascension carried the same colour combinations as the Wicklow commission with predominant tones of red and blue. However, in a divergence from the initial commission, the colours of the present work are rather more orange and red; a decision that Clarke would no doubt have made to fit more specifically to Lismullen Church.
It is a testament to Clarke’s tireless hard work that the window was ready to be installed just over a year after the formal commission was submitted; a triumph in light of the fact that little known to the outside world, he had spent much of 1929 at the Victoria Sanatorium at Davos, Switzerland in the hope of recovering from tuberculosis and that in March 1930 when the window was fixed in place, Clarke had a relapse and travelled to Pau, France to recuperate. Clarke later died in early 1931 on his way back to Dublin from Davos a few months before his 42nd birthday.
The Ascension remained in situ until 1964 when it was removed to Trim Church, Co.Meath, after it was decided that Lismullen Church was to be demolished in accordance with the ‘Sparsely Populated Areas Commission’ scheme. The emergence of The Ascension onto the auction market presents a rare opportunity to acquire one of Clarke’s large scale commissions most of which appear in public or religious institutions. The exhibition of the window at Sotheby’s London before the sale aptly mirrors Clarke’s practice of exhibiting each finished commission at his studios on Frederick Street for the public to see before they disappeared from Dublin to far flung locations rarely to return again.
We are grateful to Nicola Gordon Bowe for her assistance with the cataloguing of this lot.
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