True innovators in any field are few and far between. Too much of what we call innovation has consisted of adding on to something that has previously been done. In my mind, true innovation is to take something old and make it brand new, or even better — start from nothing and make something original.
The Irish illustrator and stained glass artist Harry Clarke most definitely fits into anyone's definition of innovator. His illustrations, while spectacular pen and ink renderings, would not have been sufficient to secure him a seat among the geniuses of the twentieth century. But what he accomplished with stained glass had never been seen before him, and it is doubtful that many have approached him since his death for his use of colour and complexity of composition.
Clarke was born in Dublin, Ireland in 1889, the son of a stained glass craftsman. As most children of skilled craftsmen did in those days, he followed in his father's footsteps under the assumption that he would one day take over the business. When he started his apprenticeship at fourteen it became clear the young Harry had the family affinity for the trade, but he also had something else – true talent and artistic skill.
Not a stupid man, his father realized that Harry's skill should be nurtured instead of crushed under the boring routine of apprenticeship. Once he had mastered the basic skills needed for working with stained glass he went to The Dublin School of Art to refine his talents. In 1910 he was awarded the gold medal for stained glass work in the Board of Education National competition.
Upon leaving school he immediately began working in his father's studio and began filling commissions of his own. Unfortunately Clarke's life and work were curtailed by his chronic ill health. When he was born his mother was suffering from tuberculosis and it wasn't long before he too was struck with the illness. Working with the noxious chemicals involved with the creation of stained glass couldn't have been good for him, and, combined with his lifestyle of spending long hours in the studio, most likely led to his early demise from the disease in 1931 at the age of forty-two.
In an effort to cast light on this enigmatic and mysterious man and the demons that haunted him, film director John J. Doherty created the documentary Harry Clarke - Darkness In Light which not only traces the life of Harry but recounts the trajectory of his career.