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Happy St Patrick's Day! Did you know that the day that Irishness is celebrated around the world also happens to be the birth date of Harry Clarke?
Most Irish people, or indeed, most people who have visited Ireland, will have come across Harry Clarke's work, whether they seek it out or not. He was hugely prolific and his beautiful stained glass pieces can be seen in various churches and museums throughout the country, with perhaps his best known and most seen work housed in Bewley's on Grafton Street. But he wasn't just a skilled stained glass artist. He also had an interest and an enormous talent in print art too, and it was with this talent that he actually first found fame. He was a key illustrator in the Golden Age of Illustration, and his style is often compared with that of Kay Nielson and Edmund Dulac. He illustrated various books and stories including Fairy Tales by Hans Christian Andersen (1916), Tales of Mystery and Imagination by Edgar Allan Poe (1919) and Fairy Tales of Charles Perrault (1922). We have prints of five of his illustrations from Charles Perrault's fairy tales in stock, and they are simply gorgeous.
Perrault was a seventeenth century author and one of the first people to write down a lot of the stories that we now refer to as fairy tales. Although some of the stories and characters are instantly familiar and recognisable to us, such as Cinderella (or Cinderilla as she was known by Perrault) and Little Red Riding Hood, the plots often differ, sometimes drastically. Morals are outlined at the end of each one, but there is certainly no guarantee of the "happily ever after" so often portrayed in our fairy tales today. For instance, we are used to Little Red Riding Hood outwitting the wicked wolf, or being saved by a local huntsman. Alas, not so in Perrault's version; it ends with: "Upon saying these words, the wicked wolf threw himself on Little Red Riding Hood and gobbled her up".
'The Fairy' is another story with a somewhat unhappy ending, but this time it is not the heroine that meets a grizzly end, but the wretched, conceited sister. So it doesn't seem so bad for us readers! The story is about a widow with two daughters, one is spoilt but loved unconditionally, the other is beautiful and kindly but treated like a servant by her mother and sister. When she meets an old lady (really a fairy in disguise) at the well when fetching water, and is rewarded for her courtesy and kindness with the gift of flowers and jewels every time she opens her mouth, her sister wants the same reward. However, because this daughter is rude to the old lady, she gets punished with snakes and toads every time she speaks. The good daughter is blamed and sent away in disgrace, but fortunately she meets a handsome prince who proposes to her and she does in fact live happily ever after. Her sister? Well, "she made herself so odious that her own mother turn'd her out of doors, and the unhappy wretch having wandered about a good while without finding any body to take her in, went to a corner of a wood and died".
'The Ridiculous Wishes' is probably the most witty of Perrault's Fairy Tales. The story is familiar because every child (and lots of adults) has excitedly discussed what they would do if they could wish for anything in the world. Or imagine if you had THREE wishes! This was granted to the woodcutter in this story who decided with his wife not to rush into any decision over what to wish for, but to think about it first. While he is looking into the fire and thinking, he absentmindedly wishes they had some pudding for dinner. And so his first wish comes true. When his wife is enraged at his stupidity, he angrily wishes the pudding was dangling off the end of her nose. And so his second wish comes true. He has to use his last wish to remove the pudding from his wife's face. And so they are no better off than they were before. (Why, oh, why didn't he just wish for an endless supply of wishes?!)
'Riquet with the Tuft' slightly resembles the better-known story 'Beauty and the Beast', and is also about love, and love's power to transform. An extremely ugly prince (in fact "so hideously ugly, that it was long disputed, whether he had human form") is given a gift by a fairy of being able to confer wit upon the one he loves. He meets a beautiful but unintelligent princess and falls in love with her. This love gives her the intelligence she has always wanted and, by coincidence, the same fairy had given her the gift of being able to confer beauty onto whom she loves. And so Riquet is transformed into a handsome prince and they marry. Ah, the power of love!
'Little Thumb' is a satisfying story of a plucky boy, the youngest of seven, overcoming all the odds and saving his family from tragedy. It starts rather like 'Hansel and Gretel', in that his parents can't afford to feed him and his brothers anymore so they abandon them in the woods, twice. Tragic! The first time Little Thumb leaves a trail of little pebbles behind them so they find their way home again, but the second time, he leaves a breadcrumb trail which is eaten by the birds. They end up in an ogre's house, who decides to eat them while they are sleeping. Clever Little Thumb had anticipated this and had placed the bonnets of the ogre's seven daughters on his and his brothers heads. The ogre falls for the trick and eats his seven daughters instead! When he realises what he has done, he puts on his seven-league boots and chases after the boys. Again, Little Thumb outwits him, sends his brothers home and steals the ogre's boots. With these, he makes a fortune and goes home to his brothers and parents and they live ...happily ever after.
If you haven't seen Harry Clarke's master depiction of John Keat's The Eve of St. Agnes in the Hugh Lane Gallery, go see it now! You'll also get to see a "scandalous" section of his infamous Geneva Window which was just unveiled in the same gallery last week. The panel, which depicts a scene from Liam O'Flaherty's controversial novel Mr Gilhooley, had developed a hairline crack so had to be excluded and recreated for the Geneva Window, which is now housed in Miami, Florida. The window was originally designed in 1926 as a gift from the new Irish Free State to the League of Nations in Geneva and was asked for by the Department of Industry and Commerce. However, it was ultimately rejected; it was deemed too controversial to be sent to Geneva, partly because of the disgraced authors represented (Joyce and O'Flaherty) and also partly because of this particular panel, which depicts a scantily clad woman.
It's nice to know a panel, albeit one excluded from the finished window, is now on display here in Ireland. Harry Clarke's work as a whole is a beautiful reminder of our country's complex artistic, literary and political history.