I recently received a gift of Hans Christian Andersen’s Fairy Tales Illustrated by Harry Clarke, published by Gill & Mac Millan, from a certain thoughtful individual. This beautiful hard back edition contains Andersen’s timeless and much loved tales such as, The Ugly Duckling, The Little Mermaid, and The Princess and the Pea, as well as lesser known tales like The Storks and The Marsh King’s Daughters. Rereading these stories transported me back to my childhood, where I had the good fortune of being introduced to them by my mother as bedtime stories. Through this activity the foundations of my lifelong love affair with stories were set.
As I gradually mastered my ABC’s and developed my literacy, again assisted by my mother, or mam as I call her, these were the tales with which I developed my reading skills. It didn’t matter that I had memorised most of them by heart. With a child’s delight for a good story no matter how many times it is told, I undertook to read these tales myself now that I possessed the ability. Unlike the anodyne but well-meaning text books found in school, such as Ann & Barry, Andersen’s stories conjured up the danger, mystery and magic my young mind craved. Far away from the conventional suburban banality of Ann and Barry’s world, with their “Ann likes cake, Barry likes playing football” style sentences, Andersen’s tales presented me with a world of danger and excitement. My young mind eagerly absorbed tales of cruel princes, homeless orphans, sinister magic, and unexpected consequences.
Tales such as The Ugly Duckling engaged with complex themes such as bullying and social exclusion. Anderson was no stranger to these topics, due to his unconventional physical appearance and humble origins. And here lies the genius in Andersen’s stories. Although written with children in mind, they were not childish or dishonest about the more unpleasant aspects of life. How many writers can claim to have encouraged a five year old to engage with themes like ethics and justice?
I was equally enthralled by the Harry Clarke illustrations found in this edition of Andersen’s tales. I recalled my childhood self being mystified by these images, equally intrigued and intimidated by the exotic depictions of Andersen’s stories. Their sumptuous imagery was surrounded by an aura of foreboding which I still can’t fully account for. Perhaps it was something to do with their sophistication which was in stark contrast with the general standard of illustration found in more contemporary children’s books? Or maybe it was the illicit thrill a child receives from engaging with something intuited to be more intended for adult consumption?
Influenced by practitioners of Art nouveau such as Aubrey Beardsley, Japanese prints, the Ballet Russes, and in his stained glass work by the French Symbolist movement, Clarke melded these styles into his own unique vision. Characters are androgynous and flamboyant, particularly wealthy ones. Cruel faced princes with macabre smiles are dandy peacocks decked out in splendour, which equals and surpasses that of the princesses. Minor details on clothing and background objects are meticulously and ornately illustrated. Clarke’s images are a visual feast meriting many viewings, each one yielding new details unnoticed before.
Reencountering these images piqued my interest in their creator Harry Clarke, who I discovered, much to my delight, was a native of Dublin, Ireland, which happens to be my own place of dwelling. Born in 1889 Clarke, the son of a stained glass maker and church decorator began studying in his late teens at the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art, now known as The National College of Art and Design or NCAD. At the age of 24, having finished his training, he headed for London to find work as an illustrator. On presenting his portfolio to George Harrap, the main man in illustrated children’s literature at time, Clarke immediately received a commission to illustrate Andersen’s Fairy Tales for deluxe and trade editions.
Such a commission was not the norm for aspiring illustrators yet to establish their reputation, and stands as a testament both to Clarke’s skill and Harrap’s good taste and eye for talent. The success of this book sparked a productive relationship between Clarke and Harrap’s publishing house resulting in commissions to illustrate titles such as Poe’s Mystery and Imagination, Charles Perrault’s, The Fairy Tales of Perrault and Goethe’s Faust amongst others.
Clarke also continued to compose images in stained glass, working on the Honan chapel in University College Cork around the same time he was completing the illustrations for Andersen’s tales. The influence of Clarke’s stained glass works on his illustrations and vice versa is immediately apparent upon viewing his work. His coloured illustrations glow with a jewel-like luminosity mimicking the effect of light through coloured glass with startling effect. Likewise his stained glass pieces reveal the complex compositions of a master illustrator.
Unfortunately access to much of Clarke’s work has been denied to us by the vagaries of history. His compositions created to accompany Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, were destroyed during the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin when a fire broke out at the Maunsel and Co Ltd. publishing house on middle Abbey Street. Further to this the London premises of Harrap’s was destroyed in the blitz during World War Two resulting in some of Clarke’s work which was stored there being destroyed. Fortunately Harrap’s American publishing partners, Brentano’s of New York, had acquired some of Clarke’s illustrations, including the originals of the Hans Christian Andersen illustrations, thus preserving them for our continued enjoyment.
Ten of these illustrations may now be found in the National Gallery of Ireland. Due to the fragile nature of drawings on paper these pictures are not on permanent display but can be viewed by appointment in the Gallery’s Prints & Drawings study room. Examples of Clarke’s stained glass work may be found in Dublin’s Hugh lane Gallery. There are also a smattering to be found in their original locations such as Bewley’s café on Grafton Street, the aforementioned Honan chapel in Cork, and The Chapel of the Sacred Heart in Dingle, to name but a few.
Such was Clarke’s skill his commissions can be found in places as far afield as Australia where he completed a three-light window commission entitled ‘The Ascension’ to much critical acclaim. His famous design for a window in the International Labour Court in Geneva, commissioned then rejected on completion by the conservative Irish state due to its sensuousness, is on permanent display in the Wolfsonian at the University of Florida.
I would recommend anyone with an interest in art who finds themselves in the vicinity of any of these locations to check them out and spend some time in the company of a truly great Artist. And if you can’t afford the air fare pick up the book and enjoy its beautiful reproductions of Clarke’s work as well as the wonderful stories of Hans Christian Andersen. The only downside is that after encountering such sophisticated work you will find it hard to shake the feeling that much of contemporary children’s literature leaves a lot to be desired. For further information about the work of Clarke and his life the definitive biography seems to be Nicola Gordon Bowe’s, The Life and Work of Harry Clarke. I have also included links to some of Clarke’s influences as well as resources related to Clarke below.
Aubrey Beardsley images:http://www.wormfood.com/savoy/
Ballet Russes: http://www.ballets-russes.com/history.html