The "Queens" panels were made to commission in 1917 for Clarke's principle patron, Laurence Waldron, who was Governor of Belvedere College, the Jesuit school that Clarke (and James Joyce) attended. Based on a poem by the Irish dramatist J M Synge, in which the writer compares his lover to good and bad Queens of the past - and sweetly concludes that "These are rotten, so you're the Queen/Of all are living, or have been" - Waldron had the panels made for the library of his home overlooking Killiney Bay. But in 1928, they were taken out of Ireland by the owner's family, and hadn't been seen since.
The Queens panels round up an eclectic range of art historical references and borrowed styles. Clarke's visual narrative includes appearances by the Mona Lisa (who is also mentioned in the poem), a reinvented Venus with a Mirror (after Titian) and A Lady in a Fancy Dress (after Gheerhaert), while the panels' aesthetic combines the decadent ornamentation and searing colours of the European Symbolists, Gustave Moreau and Gustav Klimt, and the decorative, foreboding style of Aubrey Beardsley.
The female characters represent an extraordinary view of womanhood. Theatrically attired in brilliant, billowing robes, and festooned with feathers, jewels and drapery, they are beautiful sirens with ugly souls. Their wilful decadence, represented by sneering gazes, randomly exposed breasts and carelessly spilled wine - and stylistically reinforced by a sumptuous use of colour and angular black lines - is in stark contrast with the sickly heroine and her harlequinesque hero portrayed in the final scene.
Clarke's importance in the history of Irish art, however, lies not so much in his images, striking though they are, but in his reworking of the stained glass medium in the service of the mystical and fertile imagination of the Symbolist movement. Development of techniques in stained glass had ground to a halt at the beginning of the 17th century, and it was only with the Gothic revival in Victorian Britain that any interest in it was rekindled. Clarke had already made a name for himself with a series of stained-glass saints at the Honan Chapel in Cork, and it was through that commission that he had discovered the iridescent effects to be achieved by aciding, plating and staining the glass. This enabled him to create at least six layers of colour in each unleaded panel, and to go on to produce the extreme lushness in detail and colour of the Queens panels, his next major piece after the Honan Chapel. Lauded as a major technical achievement of their time, Thomas Bodkin, a prominent dealer, collector and critic, said: "Mr Waldron's panels have no exact precedent in the history of stained glass."
Yet it is precisely Clarke's choice of medium that has equally gone against him. Stained glass traditionally lives in churches and private houses, and once housed is difficult to move. Even now, Christie's is touring life-size transparencies of the Queens panels for fear of damage. Clarke's book illustrations reached a wider audience, particularly two illustrated editions of Poe's Tales of Mystery and Imagination, but failed to bring him much international recognition, since his graphic style imitated his older contemporaries. Clarke was, nonetheless, popular with Irish collectors and patrons who had been swept up in the Symbolist tide.
It's only in the last ten years that Harry Clarke's work has been rescued from near obscurity. The first major document of his work The Life and Work of Harry Clarke by Nicola Gordon Bowe was published in 1989. His Geneva Windows series of 1929, a celebration of the Irish literary revival, was sold in the region of pounds 500,000 to a Bond Street gallery in 1988, and a single drawing of one of the same windows was sold at Christie's for pounds 18,700 in June 1994. But Hugo Swire, the deputy director of Sotheby's, who is also its director in charge of Irish art and has organised Irish sales in New York, Boston, Dublin and Belfast, is still not entirely convinced by Clarke's potential. "Harry Clarke is a difficult market," he says. "We auctioned a series of drawings for the Geneva Windows in our first Irish sale and they were withdrawn after they failed to meet the esti- mated price of pounds 6,000 each."
Bernard Williams, director in charge of Irish pictures at Christie's, takes a rather more optimistic stance, and a kinder view of the Irish Arts and Crafts movement in general. He defines the work as "a rejuvenation of a much older culture. They went back to very complicated forms of decoration that hadn't been seen since Viking times. It was far more obscure." Indeed, it is the revival of their Celtic roots that separates Irish Arts and Crafts practitioners from their British counterparts. While the disciples of William Morris favoured a return to simplicity and workmanship, turning to biblical and medieval sources for inspiration, the Irish looked to a more ornamental style that was more in tune with what was happening in Europe.
Whatever the prevailing opinion, the trade in early 20th-century Irish art looks set to flourish anyway, if activity in the auction houses is anything to go by. Bonham's is holding its first Irish sale in Dublin on 28 May, where paintings by J B Yeats are expected to fetch up to pounds 140,000. Sotheby's is holding its third English sale of Irish art on 22 May, and set a world record last year by selling a J B Yeats for pounds 840,000. Maybe there will be a few surprises, then, when Clarke's camp splendour comes under the hammer this week.
The Irish Sale is at 2.30pm on Wednesday 21 May at Christie's, 8 King Street, London SW1 (0171 839 9060).Reuse content