The discovery of these finely worked designs for Clarke's unique frieze of cabinet-sized stained glass panels illustrating Synge's allusively erudite, satirical love poem in praise of 'Queens' (circa 1903), is momentous for the artist's oeuvre and for the Irish Arts and Crafts movement. Never before documented, and in remarkably good condition in their original Clarke-inscribed mounts, these exquisitely drawn, monochromatic depictions of an unlikely assembly of legendary iconic women of the past provide a fascinating insight into the artist's working methods early in his career, and show how closely integrated were his conceptions of stained glass and book illustration at this stage. They are only comparable with Clarke's coloured studies for his Geneva window, barely completed before his death in 1931.
In March 1917, Clarke wrote to Thomas Bodkin, subsequent Director of the National Gallery of Ireland, how much he was enjoying himself on these drawings, which he embarked on as soon as he completed his last of eleven windows for the Celtic Revivalist Honan Chapel in what is now University College, Cork that same month. With the success of this first major commission assured, and the publication of his de luxe edition of Hans Anderson's Fairy Tales (1916) acclaimed, he wanted to acknowledge the encouragement of his early patron, Waldron, by illustrating a poem by an Anglo-Irish writer whom they both admired, and which had been recently published in a posthumous Cuala Press edition of Synge's 'Poems and Translations' (1909) by W.B. Yeats' sister, Elizabeth.
By July, Clarke had ordered a special consignment from England of the small sheets of antique flashed glass he needed to translate his designs, using more or less exactly the same scale (11 7/8 x 7 1/8 in.) into magically glowing miniatures; three on blue panels, three on ruby, and one on gold pink. For these and for the plain glass prologue and epilogue panels depicting the picturesque poetic swain showing the procession of 'rare and royal names' dreamed up for his own 'Queen/of all are living, or have been', he also needed three different strengths of silver stain to be specially made up so that they would fire in tones of yellow and gold. The first round of painting began in early August, the second two weeks later.
Depicted here in intricate pencil lines and delicate shades of lemon and contrasting black, as they recline in the fantastical sunny glades of Waldron's clifftop garden, the lovers hold the scroll which would be signed, inscribed, dedicated, and dated by Clarke, September 1917, when he had completed the panels. These were then installed, along with other stained glass panels Clarke had already made for Waldron's house, Marino, as a frieze in the small panes of the library window which overlooked the sea in Killiney Bay. As Bodkin would write, 'Mr Waldron's panels have no exact precedent in the history of stained glass'.
These Symbolist preparatory studies are not rough drawings for the panels they anticipate which, unusually, are unleaded except for their surrounding frames, but cartoons serving as minutely detailed guidelines for their finished stained glass counterparts. They reveal Clarke's carefully worked out compositions with all their sensitively drawn ornamentation and vivid characterisation, and show how he subtly adapted his original hairline graphic designs on paper when painting, etching and staining them onto the less predictable medium of glass. This is particularly notable in the first and last panels, painted onto kelp-coated clear glass, where the colour key is adhered to, even if it turns out considerably darker, and there are also costume modifications. The second design, drawn in pale banana and pineapple tones with only a touch of foreground blue flowers, its modish characters (Queens Etain, Helen, Maeve, Fand and Deirde) poised against a slate-coloured curtain and wooded heath, differs the most substantially from its almost entirely deep ultramarine, black and burnished gold stained glass counterpart. Similarly, in the fourth design, straw, lemon and pink tones, an ornate slate backdrop and a buxom, querulous Queen of Connaught are replaced by a beautiful slender Queen, and a plain backdrop set amongst deep velvet blues and ambers. The blues used in the sixth and eighth studies are more pronounced but much less strongly than in their glass panels, which display Clarke's virtuoso aciding technique, resulting in his being able to achieve at least six tones of blue. The flesh tones and dramatic facial expressions of queens taken from Renaissance Italian painting and Gustav Klimt are also not suggested in the sketches, while exotic costumes and their baroque accessories are more legible on paper than on glass, where they can be 'inky'. These fanciful confections are treated in softer, warmer, more decorative but much less striking colours in the designs for the two ruby panels, portraying Lucrezia Borgia, Leonardo's Mona Lisa, Klimt's Judith and Gheehaerts' Gloriana, and in the deep gold-pink panel illustrating queens described by Villon and Ronsard.
In the first three designs, Clarke squeezed the relevant lines from the poem into tiny scrolls at the base of each; he then abandoned this device and wrote the lines onto the surrounding mounts. For the panels, he painted the lines onto small pieces of glass suspended beneath each illustration.
The stained glass panels depicting 'Queens' were sold through Christie's, 21 May 1997, lot 65 for £331,500, a world record price for the artist.