An Túr Gloine: Artists and the Collective

Detail of Healy's Figures on a Pavement opus sectile design
Part of the Irish Archives

An Túr Gloine

An Túr Gloine was a pioneering Irish stained glass studio. It was founded in 1903 by portrait painter Sarah Purser, with the help of Irish cultural activist Edward Martyn and English stained glass artist A.E. Child. The Irish name An Túr Gloine (The Tower of Glass) was inspired by ancient Irish mythology from the eleventh-century Book of Invasions. The studio created art imbued with the contemporary spirit of romantic nationalism and Irish cultural revivalism, while also adopting the methods of the British Arts and Crafts movement, championed by John Ruskin, William Morris and Christopher Whall.

An Túr Gloine was a predominantly female enterprise. Wilhelmina Geddes, Catherine O’Brien, Ethel Rhind, Beatrice Elvery and Evie Hone were key players in the studio. They worked alongside artists Michael Healy and Hubert McGoldrick, and glaziers Tommy Kinsella and Charlie Williams. An Túr Gloine’s collective model, together with the skills and creativity of its imaginative members, set the studio apart from rivals in Ireland and abroad. Prestigious commissions in the United States of America, New Zealand, Canada and Singapore advanced the international reputation of the studio, and stained glass emerged as the foremost achievement of the Irish Arts and Crafts movement.

In order to protect our works on paper, this exhibition will feature three specially curated rotations from our collections.

The Celtic Revival

An Túr Gloine was established to provide Irish churches with superior-quality stained glass, created by artists in Ireland. Inspired by the artistic riches of medieval Irish metalwork and illumination, the studio offered a compelling alternative to the repetitive designs produced by large commercial firms in Britain and Europe. By its very name, An Túr Gloine embodied the cultural-nationalist aspirations of the Celtic Revival, which saw a resurgence of interest in ancient Irish heritage, and a move toward asserting national self-reliance and a distinctly Irish cultural identity.

An Túr Gloine also drew inspiration from medieval Europe and the British Arts and Crafts movement. The studio manager, A.E. Child, was a former assistant to Christopher Whall, father of the British stained glass revival. An Túr Gloine embraced Arts and Crafts philosophies by encouraging each individual artist to take responsibility for every stage in the design and creation of a window. This led to a rich variety and individuality in the stained glass produced by the studio, as members had the opportunity to develop their own distinctive style.

We hold each window should be in all its artistic parts the work of one individual artist, the glass chosen and painted by the same mind and hand that made the design and drew the cartoon.

Sarah Purser's speech at the 25th anniversary celebrations of An Túr Gloine, January 1928

A Cooperative Studio

Many supporters of An Túr Gloine – including Edward Martyn, George (AE) Russell and Bishop Healy of Loughrea – were committed to the Irish cooperative movement, founded by Horace Plunkett. The studio functioned from the beginning on a cooperative basis, with a shared workshop, kiln and materials. It was officially incorporated as a Cooperative Society in 1925.

A likely model for An Túr Gloine was Lowndes & Drury, a London workshop founded in 1897. Known from 1906 as The Glass House, Lowndes & Drury employed a team of craftspeople and offered studio facilities to independent artists. By contrast, An Túr Gloine employed both artists and craftspeople to carry out studio commissions. These two Arts and Crafts enterprises offered different approaches to a collective model. Both studios enabled individual artists to overcome the many obstacles to a career in stained glass.

Next time I go to Ireland I must certainly look you up and get cheered by hearing the progress of your fine work.

Horace Plunkett, leader of the Irish Cooperative movement, in a letter to Sarah Purser, 29 May 1930

Creative Rivalries

A number of successful Irish stained glass firms emerged in the late nineteenth century, including Joshua Clarke & Sons in Dublin, and James Watson & Co. in Cork. Established in 1894, the Cork firm participated in international exhibitions and won national awards. However, the division of labour at Watson & Co. gave rise to an underlying uniformity that contrasted with the striking individuality of An Túr Gloine windows.

An Túr Gloine’s chief rival was the artist Harry Clarke (1889–1931), who trained at his father’s studio and under A.E. Child at the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art. Clarke’s exquisite designs for the Honan Chapel established his reputation as an exceptionally talented artist. From 1921 he assumed full responsibility for stained glass design at Joshua Clarke & Sons. After Harry Clarke’s untimely death, Clarke Studios for many years maintained a house style derived from his extraordinary artistic legacy.

Harry Clarke as usual all dots & circles.

Sarah Purser in a letter to Mary Swanzy, describing art at the Dublin Painters Group Exhibition, 21 October 1923

Michael Healy

Michael Healy (1873-1941) was born in a Dublin tenement and began earning a livelihood at fourteen. He enrolled as a part-time student at the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art and in 1899 was sponsored to study life drawing at the Accademia di Belle Arti in Florence. A skilled draughtsman, Healy was the first recruit invited by Sarah Purser to join An Túr Gloine. The academic style of his early stained glass points to the influence of his training in this classical tradition.

Healy sought to express the innate qualities of the stained glass medium, and his technical innovations soon eclipsed the expertise of his instructor A.E. Child. He pioneered a labour-intensive aciding process to achieve shimmering, exquisitely detailed windows in scintillating colours. While the Italian Renaissance was an enduring source of inspiration, Healy’s practice was further enriched in the 1930s by Byzantine and Art Deco art. A devout Catholic, the artist brought a rich narrative quality and religious sensibility to his stained glass. His mature designs typically oscillate between austere stylisation and compassionate realism.

Mr Healy amazed us all by pushing the aciding of glass (a well-known process) to an extreme which makes almost a new departure and so greatly enhances modern art, and which of late Mr. Clarke and his pupils have made so popular.

‘Stained Glass Exhibition in Pembroke Street’, The Irish Statesman, 30 January 1926

Wilhelmina Geddes

Wilhelmina Geddes (1887-1955) was a student at the Belfast School of Art when Sarah Purser bought her striking illustration, Cinderella Dressing the Ugly Sister, at the 1910 Arts and Crafts Society of Ireland exhibition. Purser encouraged Geddes to take up the medium of stained glass and invited her to work at An Túr Gloine. After officially joining in 1912, Geddes’s Ulster connections brought new commissions to the studio. She accompanied Purser and Catherine O' Brien on study trips abroad, and drew profound inspiration from stained glass in the mediaeval cathedrals of France.

Geddes won international acclaim in 1919 for her masterful three-light war memorial window in Ottawa, commissioned by the Duke of Connaught. The rich, deep colours and brooding psychological characterisations are hallmarks of her vigorously expressive style. Suffering from ill-health, Geddes often retreated to Belfast to work on preparatory designs. She eventually moved to London in 1925, embarking on an illustrious independent career while based at The Glass House studios.

She has a gift for the simple rendering of essential action which seems to have come straight out of the Middle Ages.

Stephen Gwynn, ‘The Art of Miss W. M. Geddes’, in The Studio, October 1922