This book comes after more than twenty years since the great seminal work on Clarke appeared and with huge advances in computer technology and photographic reproduction, at which the authors are both highly adept, this publication by The History Press Ireland is long overdue. It will be greeted with acclaim by the many avid admirers of Clarke's work and will extend his fame much, much more.
The most exacting examination of this latest work is to compare it with the previous one by a brilliant authority on Clarke, Nicola Gordon Bowe. I have read and loved "the Life and Times of Harry Clarke" by Ms. Gordon Bowe. Indeed I have attended lectures given by her and have been enthralled by her mastery of every detail of Clarke's work.
When Gordon Bowe published in 1989 - it was the centenary of Clarke's birth in Dublin's North Frederick Street, but his fame had declined for many years since the famous Harry Clarke Studios had closed in 1973.
The Studios had opened nearly a hundred years earlier under Harry's father, Joshua Clarke who had come from Leeds to a more thriving church decorating climate in Ireland. Nicola brilliantly revived interest in the artist and has been the definitive authority on him since she completed a Trinity College Dublin thesis on Harry Clarke in the seventies.
Needless to say the authors have drawn hugely on her, although there is also a lot of source material sited, but they sought to present a different format, and concentrate more on making a greater visual impact with lavish colour and the use of the very latest computerised and photographic techniques and in this they have been most successful.
Nicola Gordon Bowe takes us month by month and year by year through Harry's life, an enormous feat of research in itself, taking in and analysing each window and book illustration as it occurred in his life and showing some very fine reproductions as well. Having acknowledged that Lucy Costigan, who did all of the text, and who has a long series of publications already to her credit, opted for a briefer outline in the early pages on the biographical details that are essential for those who have not read the earlier work. In this she has been very thorough and nothing is spared to give the reader a full sense of the times that Harry grew up in, in late Victorian and Edwardian Dublin. Indeed the impact of the great war, the 1916 Rising, the war of independence and civil war as well. The mid twenties were his best years as his health then went into decline but he kept going, running a very large studio as well as designing and executing the great legacy that remains all over Ireland, England, Wales, Scotland, and of course in the USA and Australia to this day. The famous and controversial "Geneva" window is now in the Wolfsonian museum in Florida and that is a very interesting story in itself, which Lucy covers in detail in the book.
Both authors, Lucy and Nicola, also acknowledge the help of the Abbey Stained Glass Studios in Kilmainham, Dublin, in giving greater insight into the technicalities of this ancient craft. Here Michael Cullen's photography has been superb and Lucy's experience in technical writing has matched the pictures. Clarke brought the art of plating, aciding, staining of streaky and multi-flashed glass to new levels, as well as the use of a then modern type of slab glass that gave his works such brilliant colour and that elusive jewelled effect in sunlight.
Lucy, using the Gazetteer of Irish stained glass which she also updated, goes country by country and county by county, church by church, through Ireland and Britain, including great institutions and private collections as well, to capture 160 windows in total and gives exhaustive descriptions and analyses of method and style of the artist in each case. The styles employed by Harry from his earliest work are Celtic, symbolist, art nouveau, art deco and those of the great Gustav Klimt. All of these and more could be found in each window such was the detail Harry included in all the space at his artistic disposal. In book illustration Aubrey Beardsley was a dominant influence in which a sensual decadence and macabre were very evident. Also a narrative gleaned from correspondence and extracts from Harry's diary are used very effectively.
Michael Cullen's method of approaching each site was to first photograph, for example, the church he was covering in its natural setting - always very beautiful and showing the architectural background that always influenced Harry in the type and style of window he designed. Then an interior picture of the church was taken if possible, showing the full effect of all the windows in full daylight - often magnificent. Then each window with its tracery lights was taken in full. Then the windows were photographed panel by panel, followed by highlight after highlight in a tour de force of camera work. Rose widows are superbly covered in their symmetry and glorious circular detail. It's all quite breathtaking and makes "Strangest genius" one of the most spectacularly visual and colourful books I have seen produced for many years .I expect it to win awards for its excellence and it should be a best seller.
In the overall design and layout of the book great credit for this achievement should go to Katie, head of design at the History Press, England. In many ways it is unfair to compare the two books, as I set out to at the outset, as Lucy and Michael have such advantages due to the lapse of time between the publications. Technological advances and even Internet as a resource for a huge scope of research, and which was only being conceived in 1989 are very significant. Yet both books are complimentary to one another.
This latest book will add to the cause of putting Harry Clarke among the greatest visual artists in the field of glass and book illustration where he rightly belongs, building on Nicola Gordon Bowe's earlier achievements in that regard.