Harry Clarke’s Geneva Window and the Irish Free State

By The Wolfsonian–Florida International University

Explore the story of one
of artist Harry Clarke’s finest works, from its commissioning in 1926 by the
Irish Free State as a gift to the League of Nations’ International Labor
Building in Geneva to its permanent home at The Wolfsonian–FIU in Miami Beach. The completed window consists of eight panels celebrating Ireland’s independence
through the lens of contemporary Irish literature and is a masterpiece of 20th-century
decorative arts.

Stained glass window, For the International Labor Building, League of Nations, Geneva (never installed) (comissioned 1926, completed 1930) by Harry Clarke (Irish, 1889-1931)The Wolfsonian–Florida International University

Harry Clarke’s Geneva Window and the Irish Free State

In 1926 the Irish Free State, eager to assert its new status as an independent country, commissioned Dublin artist Harry Clarke to create a large stained glass window as a gift to the League of Nations to be installed in the International Labor Building in Geneva. The finished window consisted of eight panels celebrating Ireland’s independence through the lens of contemporary Irish literature. It is indeed a masterpiece of twentieth-century decorative arts, but it never made its way to Switzerland. What follows is the story of the making of the Geneva window and how it ended up far from Europe, in the collection of The Wolfsonian–FIU in Miami Beach.

The year's at the spring: an anthonlogy of recent poetry (1920) by Harry Clarke (Irish, 1889-1931)The Wolfsonian–Florida International University

Harry Clarke started out working in his father’s church decorating firm, and—after taking night classes at the Metropolitan School of Art in Dublin—launched a career in book illustration and stained glass. Subsequently he earned recognition as Ireland’s greatest stained-glass artist and played a key role in the development of the Celtic Revival style in the early twentieth century.

The Art of Aubrey Beardsley (circa 1918) by Aubrey Vincent Beardsley (British, 1872-1898)The Wolfsonian–Florida International University

Clarke admired the work of English artist Aubrey Beardsley, drawing inspiration from his sinuous and sensual illustrations which conveyed dynamic movement.

Stained glass window, For the International Labor Building, League of Nations, Geneva (never installed) (comissioned 1926, completed 1930) by Harry Clarke (Irish, 1889-1931)The Wolfsonian–Florida International University

A talented graphic artist and book illustrator, Clarke applied pigment to glass with a relaxed hand, producing fluid imagery that was unusual in a medium chiefly known for its formality. He rendered serpentine, elongated forms with nuanced detail, overlaid with rich layers of color, sometimes acid-treated, to achieve a glowing, tonally diverse final work. Further, he used the window leading itself as a compositional element, providing bold delineation to balance delicate details. Over the course of his short life, he completed more than 160 stained-glass windows throughout the United Kingdom, Ireland, and abroad.

For the Irish State commission, Clarke enlisted the poet W. B. Yeats to help him select fifteen authors, many of whom were involved in the Celtic Revival movement. A literary and artistic effort that began in the 1880s, the Celtic Revival sought to forge a modern Irish national identity through the revitalization of the native Gaelic language and ancient folk traditions. The fifteen authors included (whose work is depicted clockwise in the panels) are Patrick (Pádraig) Pearse, Lady Gregory, G. B. Shaw, J. M. Synge, Seumas O’Sullivan, James Stephens, Sean O’Casey, Lennox Robinson, W. B. Yeats, Liam O’Flaherty, George AE Russell, Padraic Colum, George Fitzmaurice, Seumas O’Kelly, and James Joyce.

For each author, Clarke created a vignette illustrating a single work. Many of the authors selected by Clarke and Yeats are still recognized as key figures in Irish literary history; Synge’s Playboy of the Western World, for instance, is considered a quintessentially Irish story, with its tragedy, humor, and eloquence.

Nevertheless, the completed window stirred controversy when Clarke presented it to the Irish government. In one example, officials were disturbed by the way the eponymous playboy’s tight breeches emphasized his “virility.”

Many of the vignettes caused consternation. The diaphanous gown in this scene from Liam O’Flaherty’s Mr. Gilhooly scandalized viewers. Nudity abounds in the panels, as does the implication of sexual encounters.

The presence of alcohol was also a problem—multiple panels, including this image from Sean O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock, pay homage to the role of liquor in Irish literature. O’Casey’s play takes place in Dublin’s tenement housing in the 1920s and tells the story of a ne’er-do-well former seaman who wastes his life drinking to excess rather than working to support his wife and family. A bleak and darkly humorous depiction of Dublin during the Irish Civil War, the play was popular with audiences at the Abbey Theatre—a hub of Celtic Revival theatrical productions—but was not the image of Irish independence that the government hoped to project.

Beyond sex and alcohol, religion was another issue that troubled government critics. The population of the Irish Free State was overwhelmingly Roman Catholic, and the Catholic Church weighed heavily in politics and culture. Clarke’s window, though, told a story of Irish literature that acknowledged a significant Protestant legacy. Yeats, who helped Clarke develop the list of authors and was himself featured in one of the panels, was Protestant, as were others: George Bernard Shaw, Lady Gregory, and J. M. Synge, for example. It is likely President W. T. Cosgrave referred to these Protestant writers when he wrote a letter to Clarke saying: “the inclusion of scenes from certain authors as representative of Irish literature and culture would give grave offense to many of our people.”

James Joyce was one of those “certain authors.” Joyce’s Ulysses, published a decade and a half earlier, had already been banned in most English-speaking countries for its sexually explicit content. Eager to include a work by one of Ireland’s greatest contemporary authors but concerned about the response, Clarke omitted Ulysses in favor of a relatively mild poem by the author, “On Music.” Even so, the inclusion of Joyce likely struck a nerve. Although raised Catholic, Joyce was fiercely anticlerical and seen as morally corrupt by much of Ireland’s social, political, and religious leadership.

Ultimately, the Irish Free State rejected Clarke’s window, paying the artist for his work but refusing to install it at the League of Nations. Though undoubtedly beautiful, the government felt firmly that it did not project the desired image of Irish national identity. The refusal of the window was a crushing blow to Clarke, who considered the work a personal masterpiece. Devastated by the rejection, Clarke died in 1931 shortly after completing the commission.

Unititled (Portrait of Margaret Clarke) (1915 circa) by Harry Clarke (Irish, 1889-1931)The Wolfsonian–Florida International University

His wife, the painter Margaret Clarke, took over the running of his studio and bought the window back at the price the government had paid for it.

Installation view, Art and Design in the Modern Age by Harry Clarke (Irish, 1889-1931)The Wolfsonian–Florida International University

In the 1980s the Clarke sons sold the window to the Fine Arts Society, a London gallery, which in turn sold it to American collector and museum founder Mitchell “Micky” Wolfson, Jr. When The Wolfsonian opened to the public in 1995, Clarke’s Geneva window was in pride of place and has rarely been off view since. This masterpiece of the Irish Arts and Crafts movement, a quintessential portrayal of the Irish literary renaissance, has found a permanent home at The Wolfsonian–FIU in Miami Beach.

The Wayfarer by Patrick (Pádraig) Pearse and The Story Brought by Brigit by Lady Gregory from Harry Clarke's Geneva Window (comissioned 1926, completed 1930) by Harry Clarke (Irish, 1889-1931)The Wolfsonian–Florida International University

Here in detail are the eight panels of the Geneva window, illustrating brief quotations from the work of fifteen early 20th-century Irish writers.

"The Beauty of the world hath made me sad, this beauty that will pass. Sometimes my heart hath shaken with great joy..." Patrick (Pádraig) Pearse, The Wayfarer

"They bruised his brow with their crowns of briars; They mocked him with every ugly thing; He that could shrivel them all with fire; He held his silence, and he a King!" Lady Gregory, The Story Brought by Brigit

St. Joan by George Bernard Shaw from Harry Clake Geneva Window (comissioned 1926, completed 1930) by Harry Clarke (Irish, 1889-1931)The Wolfsonian–Florida International University

"Joan: O God that madest this beautiful earth, when will it be ready to receive Thy saints? How long, O Lord, how long?" George Bernard Shaw, St. Joan

The Demi-Gods by James Stephens and Juno and the Paycock by Sean O'Casey from Harry Clarke Geneva Window (comissioned 1926, completed 1930) by Harry Clarke (Irish, 1889-1931)The Wolfsonian–Florida International University

"The dark curtain of night moved noiselessly, and the three angels stepped nobly in the firelight." James Stephens, The Demi-Gods

"Joxer's song, Joxer's song—give us wan of your shut-eyed wans." Sean O'Casey, Juno and the Paycock

Mr. Gilhooley by Liam O'Flaherty from Harry Clarke Geneva Window (comissioned 1926, completed 1930) by Harry Clarke (Irish, 1889-1931)The Wolfsonian–Florida International University

"She came towards him dancing, moving the folds of the veil, so that they unfolded slowly, as she danced." Liam O'Flaherty, Mr. Gilhooley

"I know the great gift we will give to the Gail will be a memory to pity and sigh over; and I shall be the priestess of tears." George AE Russell, Deirdre

The Weaver's Grave by Seumas O'Kelly from Harry Clarke Geneva Window (comissioned 1926, completed 1930) by Harry Clarke (Irish, 1889-1931)The Wolfsonian–Florida International University

"The widow thought that the world was strange, the sky extraordinary, the man's head against the red sky a wonder, a poem." Seumas O'Kelly, The Weaver's Grave

"There's Music along the river For Love wanders there. Pale flowers on his Mantle, Dark leaves on his hair." James Joyce, "On Music"

A Cradle Song by Padraic Colum from Harry Clarke Geneva Window (comissioned 1926, completed 1930) by Harry Clarke (Irish, 1889-1931)The Wolfsonian–Florida International University

"Mavourneen is going from me and from you. Where Mary will fold him in mantle of blue!" Padraic Colum, A Cradle Song

"It's the pleasure and diversion of the world you'll hear and see in them Magic Glasses." George Fitzmaurice, The Magic Glasses

The Dreamers by Lennox Robinson and The Countess Cathleen by W.B. Yeats from Harry Clarke Geneva Window (comissioned 1926, completed 1930) by Harry Clarke (Irish, 1889-1931)The Wolfsonian–Florida International University

"If I were to die tomorrow all I would ask from the world would be the charity of its silence." Lennox Robinson, The Dreamers

"I have heard a sound of waiting in unnumbered hovels, and I must go down, down, I know not where." W. B. Yeats, The Countess Cathleen

The Playboy of the Western World by John Millington Synge and The Others by Seumas O'Sullivan from Harry Clarke Geneva Window (comissioned 1926, completed 1930) by Harry Clarke (Irish, 1889-1931)The Wolfsonian–Florida International University

"Well the heart's a wonder; and, I'm thinking, there won't be our like in Mayo, for gallant lovers, from this hour, to-day." John Millington Synge, The Playboy of the Western World

"And now they pause in their dancing and look with troubled eyes, Earth straying children, with sudden memory wise." Seumas O'Sullivan, The Others

Credits: Story

The Wolfsonian receives ongoing support from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation; the State of Florida, Department of State, Division of Cultural Affairs and the Florida Council on Arts and Culture; Miami-Dade County Department of Cultural Affairs and the Cultural Affairs Council, the Miami-Dade County Mayor and Board of County Commissioners; and the City of Miami Beach, Cultural Affairs Program, Cultural Arts Council.

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