Clarke at the Crawford: Chaste dreams of future husbands

The Crawford’s display of Harry Clarke’s paintings includes Fiona Shaw’s reading of the Keats poem that inspired them, writes Ellie O’Byrne

Medieval tradition had it that on the night of January 20, a special kind of magic could happen.

Young women in England, Scotland and parts of Ireland believed they could dream of their future husband if they observed certain rituals and prayed to St Agnes, the martyred patron saint of the chaste.

In 1923, Harold Jacob of Jacob’s biscuits commissioned the stained-glass artist Harry Clarke to produce a window based on the 18th century English poet John Keats’ romantic poem ‘The Eve of St Agnes’ for his father’s Dublin home.

Clarke, renowned for his feverish work ethic and possibly already beset by the tuberculosis that would claim his life eight years later, completed the window within a year. Months after it was installed, he sold the astonishingly beautiful watercolour studies on which the window’s panels were based to Cork’s Crawford Art Gallery.

Clarke’s distinctive otherworldly vision is visible in every pencil-stroke beneath the blue-hued watercolour scenes, decorated with tiny wintry sparks of white gouache that add to the sense of fairy-tale as Keats’ heroine, Madeleine, first dreams of, and is then awoken by, her lover Porphyro following her prayers to St Agnes.

The result is magical, and not only because of the subject matter, says exhibition curator Dr Michael Waldron.

The finished stained-glass window is displayed in the Hugh Lane Gallery in Dublin, but the watercolours offer a rare glimpse at Clarke’s process.

“He’s a much-loved artist and people are drawn to him and his sense of style, particularly in his stained glass of course, but also his book illustrations,” Waldron says.

“This series of 18 watercolours are preparatory sketches and the detail in them is extraordinary, in that there are pencil-marks and little notes and figures coming out of the corners.”

It’s those little touches that connect you to the artist and that’s quite moving.

The watercolours have been on display to the public down through the years, but this exhibition, entitled Dreaming In Blue: Harry Clarke Watercolours, aims to unlock the narrative in Clarke’s work: it’s accompanied by an audio recording of celebrated Cork actor Fiona Shaw reading Keats’ 42-stanza poem.

Shaw, whose own portrait is in the Crawford’s collection, was a natural choice to bring ‘The Eve of St Agnes’ alive for gallery visitors, Dr Waldron says: “Fiona Shaw is not only a national treasure, but a local treasure as well. Her voice is wonderfully trained and she really understands how to tell the story.

“We asked her, and she said she’d be delighted. She produced this really wonderful recording which is at once cold and warm: her voice has both the crisp coolness of the night the story is set on and the warmth of the love story.”

In the adjacent second floor screening room, the full-length documentary Harry Clarke: Darkness Into Light, which explores the life and work of a man once described by the writer George Russell as “one of the strangest geniuses of his time”, is on view.

Clarke was a prolific stained-glass artist and book illustrator: his distinctive glass work can be seen in the Honan Chapel in UCC and his highly stylized illustrations of Edgar Allen Poe, Faust and Hans Christian Andersen for UK publishing house Harrap are much beloved.

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DREAMING IN BLUE: Harry Clarke Watercolours opens this Friday 14 December! • Showcasing our collection of 18 watercolour studies for Clarke's Eve of St Agnes window, the exhibition offers visitors a window into the imagination of one of Ireland's 'strangest geniuses.' In a new audio piece specially commissioned for the occasion, John Keats' romantic poem is brought magically to life by internationally acclaimed actor Fiona Shaw. • DREAMING IN BLUE, our first annual exhibition of Harry Clarke watercolours, is curated by Dr Michael Waldron and runs until Valentine's Day (14 February). Free entry and open daily. • #harryclarke #johnkeats #fionashaw #irishart #crawfordartgallery #corkcitycentre #corkcity #cork #ireland #visitcork #purecork #irelandsancienteast #theeveofstagnes #illustration #stainedglass

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Dr Waldron, the gallery’s new assistant curator of collections and special projects, was partly inspired by the National Galleries of Dublin, London and Scotland’s annual January Turner Watercolours exhibition in his idea to reimagine and exhibit the Clarke watercolours, an event which will form a part of the gallery’s annual calendar.

“We really want to reveal things about the collection that are much-loved but not always seen,” he says.

“But we have the responsibility not to show them for too long, because they are watercolours and they will fade, so it is for conservation reasons too.”

On top of this, the exhibition’s timing, running from Christmas to St Valentine’s Day and of course including St Agnes’ Eve itself, adds to the magic and romance of Clarke’s unique vision and Shaw’s reading.

“For me, storytelling is essential,” Dr Waldron, whose PhD was on the connection between English Literature and visual art, says.

“Curating an exhibition like this, there has to be a train of thought and you have to speak to a wide audience.”

“I think people are drawn to Harry Clarke for his complexity. There’s this exquisite, ethereal beauty; he invites you to come back again and again.”

Dreaming In Blue: Harry Clarke Watercolours runs until Feb 14 at the Crawford Art Gallery Cork. For information on upcoming tours with Dr Waldron see

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