Just over ten years ago I called into the Catholic church in Aberystwyth to have a look at the east window in the church that I had spotted from the outside some time previously. Although I have become quite adept at identifying common biblical scenes in windows from the outside of churches (when visiting churches that turn out to be locked), they just look grey, and although I suspected that this would be an image of a female saint, I was unprepared for the lovely colour in the window.
Wondering who the window was by, I later looked at my photographs in more detail and spotted what I thought could be a signature, and with the help of the NADFAS guide to marks and monograms in stained glass I realised that this was a window by the Irish artist Richard King. It transpired that I had come across another work by the artist not long previously, just down the coast at Aberaeron, which had a similar signature that I had previously been unable to decipher.
A new book by Ruth Sheehy details the life and career of Richard King, published as a volume in the ‘Reimagining Ireland’ series. Her study ably demonstrates the importance and impressive versatility of the artist’s work across various media and as a designer, and although many of the images are rather small, they convey the work of an artist of considerable power and vision. These windows in Ceredigion are evidence of that and his only known works in Wales, although they were completely unknown and unpublished when I came across them – or at least I have not found any reference to their existence, let along the identity of their artist, before. In Stained Glass from Welsh Churches I could only guess the date of the Aberystwyth window, which Sheehy dates to 1955. She tells us that the link with the artist was through his association with the Carmelites, who were established in Aberystwyth, and King’s Our Lady of Ireland at Aberaeron was donated to the church by the artist in around 1958.
Ruth Sheehy writes of an artist that was ‘formed’ by Harry Clarke, having been taken on as an apprentice at Clarke’s family firm Joshua Clarke & Sons in 1928 at the age of 20. Clarke encouraged him to study stained glass at evening classes at Dublin Metropolitan School of Art, where he was taught by A.E. Child.
Harry Clarke died in January 1931 aged only 41, leaving Richard King as one of the senior designers at the firm, alongside William Dowling and George Walsh, all of whom were in their early twenties. Tasked with continuing the success of Harry Clarke’s style, under the management of Charles B. Simmonds, it is no surprise that King’s work of the 1930s strongly echoes that of Clarke. This can be seen in the arresting intensity of the figures of St Gregory and St Gertrude in Harry Clarke Stained Glass Studios’ window at Pantasaph, which Sheehy attributes to Richard King (1932). Its effect is noticeably similar to King’s window depicting St Elizabeth of Hungary, made in 1934 for the chapel of the Sacred Heart Convent, Mount Anville, Dublin, and illustrated in Sheehy’s book. She also attributes the design of the second Harry Clarke Stained Glass Studios’ window at Pantasaph to King, which is signed by the firm, but has a more emollient and less Gothic character (1933).
King succeeded Charles Simmonds as the manager of the Harry Clarke Stained Glass Studios in 1935, but left in 1940 to work independently. His early work as a talented designer of stained glass windows, Stations of the Cross in opal glass, stamp designs and illustration, is shown by his art from 1930–40. He continued to design stamps, paint in oils and watercolour and produce illustrations for The Capuchin Annual in the 1940s, before turning again to stained glass in around 1949–50. During 1960–73, he undertook Stations and crucifixes in vitreous and non-vitreous enamels which had an influence of the style of his late stained glass windows of the 60s and early 70s. Hence King’s artistic development and impressive body of work throughout the course of his career, reveals an artist whose work deserves to be appreciated alongside his mentor Harry Clarke, and not just in his shadow.
If I had not been able to identify King’s windows in Aberaeron and Aberystwyth, I have no doubt that King’s biographer would have tracked them down by now after all her work researching the work of the artist. Nonetheless, the works by the artist in Wales, though few in number, are of great importance and deserve to be better known. While the image of Our Lady of Ireland, illustrated in print for the first time, seems safe enough for now in the church at Aberaeron, a former Wesleyan chapel, the window of the Assumption that I found at Church of Our Lady of the Angels and St Winifrede in Aberystwyth faces an uncertain future. The church was declared unsafe and controversially closed in 2012, leaving the window out of sight ever since. The church was recently put up for sale, and was bought by the town council, although it appears that the sale excluded furnishings including the window. It is to be hoped that the diocese safeguard this wonderful example of Irish modernist stained glass, and that it will be seen again in a new setting.