Stained Glass from Welsh Churches

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Richard King

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.

Detail of a window by Richard King, showing his signature.
Richard King’s signature, Aberystwyth

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.

Stained glass window of the Virgin and Child by Richard King
Richard King, Our Lady of Ireland, c. 1958, Aberaeron

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windows in Ceredigion are evidence of that and his only known works in Wales, although they were completely unknown and unpublished when I came across them – or at least I have not found any reference to their existence, let along the identity of their artist, before.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.

Stained glass window by Harry Clarke Studios of St Gregory and St Gertrude
Harry Clarke Studios, St Gregory and St Gertrude, 1932, Church of St David, Pantasaph, designed by Richard King

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.

Ruth Sheehy, The Life and Work of Richard King: Religion, Nationalism and Modernism
Peter Lang, 2020
ISBN:978-1-78707-246-6

New book on Wilhelmina Geddes

Back in 2006 I first met Nicola Gordon Bowe at the first conference of the ‘Imaging the Bible in Wales’ project in Lampeter, when she gave a distinguished lecture on the Irish artist Wilhelmina Geddes. This was at a time when I had only recently begun to look seriously at stained glass, as part of my work on the project recording biblical art in Wales. Apart from the window that Geddes made for the Church of St Peter, Lampeter, I knew nothing of her work. Nicola’s lecture left none of us in any doubt that Geddes was a consummate artist, who, like many others who have worked in glass, had been neglected in the prevailing fashion for painters and sculptors and the usual canon of movements in western art.

Cover of Wilhelmina Geddes: Life and Work by Nicola Gordon BoweThis is underlined in Nicola’s masterly new book on the artist. Rightly known as the expert on that other Irish luminary of stained glass, Harry Clarke, her book presents a detailed survey of Geddes’ career with many illustrations of her work and archival photographs. While her windows and preparatory drawings are most prominent, work in other media demonstrate the extraordinary ability of the artist.

Wilhelmina Geddes is presented as an artist whose medievalism is not outweighed by her modernism, and who found modernism in the stained glass figures at Chartres of the eleventh and twelfth century. Her windows are often monumental, while attentive to detail, and unusual in their composition, as the detail on the cover demonstrates.

Detail of stained glass by Wilhelmina Geddes

Wilhelmina Geddes, Christ Calling Fishermen, 1946, detail from the west window, Church of St Peter, Lampeter

The importance of her window at Lampeter was recognised by my colleague on the ‘Imaging the Bible in Wales’ project, John Morgan-Guy, whose suggestion to invite Nicola Gordon Bowe to our conference was inspired. The window was the most significant of her late works, and the commission is given plenty of attention in chapters ten and eleven, with numerous illustrations.

Wilhelmina Geddes: Life and Work, by Nicola Gordon Bowe, is published by Four Courts Press.

New Reviews

Reviews of Stained Glass in Welsh Churches have recently appeared in two Welsh journals, the county journal Ceredigion and Archaeologia Cambrensis, the journal of the Cambrian Archaeological Association that was first published in the 1840s.

Writing in Ceredigion (vol. 18, no. 2, 2014), Elizabeth New also reviews my little book on the stained glass at Llanfihangel Genau’r Glyn, published in 2013, since the church is in the county, located a few miles north of Aberystwyth. Her review appropriately notes examples from Ceredigion throughout her summary of the chapters and her ‘minor quibbles’ perhaps suggest some of the things that others might have hoped to find in the book, For example, she notes that I did not write much about the ‘extent of the loss of medieval glass, particularly through deliberate destruction’. In fact I think that I noted every reference to destruction of medieval glass in Wales that I came across, all of which were at the time of the Civil War, and none of which were in the sixteenth century. This surprised me and I would be very interested to learn of examples of the destruction of stained glass in Wales by Protestant reformers in the sixteenth century. To write about the extent of the loss of medieval stained glass in a county such as Ceredigion would rely on pure speculation. Elsewhere she notes that I do not comment on the use of the Welsh language in inscriptions, a subject on which I could write an interesting chapter but for which I simply did not have the space in the book or the leisure to research in more detail. It’s not unimportant, but this is a book about visual art. Along with the theme of the memorial window, which she notes recurring throughout the book, such things would be fruitful areas of new research.

I found it curious that she commends the layout as ‘user-friendly’: a term that we used to use in multimedia design in the 1990s, and therefore seems odd to me as a description of the printed page. But I hope that the book is indeed user-friendly.

Julian Orbach captures the essence of what the book tries to do in his review published in Archaeologia Cambrensis (vol 163, 2014). Noting my involvement in the ‘Visual Culture of Wales’ and ‘Imaging the Bible in Wales’ projects, both of which ‘stepped outside art-historical judgement’ and took an inclusive approach, he notes that this ‘even-handedness gives place for glass that has fallen thoroughly from fashion’, both in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. At the same time, some of the less inspired windows that I have illustrated contrast well with the best, and his list of windows by Leonard Walker, Richard Stubington, Karl Parsons, Harry Clarke Studios, Martin Travers and Wilhelmina Geddes more or less sums up the best of the best in my view. Julian Orbach’s own contribution to the study is not inconsiderable, having contributed to volumes of the ‘Buildings of Wales’ series, and those of the series that are most informative on stained glass are those on which he worked. He was also very generous in sharing his notes on stained glass in Wales with me some years ago. He concludes the review by describing the book as ‘the best survey of stained glass published anywhere in Britain’. On all counts, my thanks to him.

Penarth Book Festival

Today marks the beginning of the Penarth Book Festival, and I will be speaking about the book, and about other stained glass in Penarth, on Sunday 19 October at Trinity Methodist Church.

The church has one of the best collections of stained glass at a Methodist Church in Wales, and the Anglican churches of St Augustine and All Saints also have notable collections of glass. At the Church of St Augustine there is glass by Alexander Gibbs made for William Butterfield’s church, and also windows by W.G. Taylor, Robert Newbery and Clayton & Bell. The Church of All Saints has the distinction of being the only church in Wales where stained glass was provided by Harry Clarke, but unfortunately this was lost in 1941. When the church was rebuilt after the war in the 1950s Arthur Walker designed windows for the church, but a change of heart by the Diocesan Advisory Committee in the late 1950s brought the commissioning of more Modernist works by Francis Spear, John Petts and Powell & Sons.

Stained glass window with the Good Samaritan tending to the wounded man.

Probably H.J. Salisbury, The Good Samaritan, 1920s or 30s, Trinity Methodist Church, Penarth

Both of these Anglican churches are among the more serious omissions that I am aware of on the Stained Glass in Wales Catalogue, although the stained glass at Trinity Methodist Church is included. When I was there in 2008 one of the windows was damaged, so I will be interested to see if it has been restored so that I can see the whole scene. The earlier stained glass at the church, and possibly all of it, was made by the studio of H.J. Salisbury, and they also provided the painted reredos of the Last Supper.