Geoffrey Clarke, RA (1924-2014) was one of the most significant British artists to emerge out of the twentieth century. His experimentation with new materials and processes breathed new life into the traditional artistic media in which he worked, which encompassed stained glass, sculpture and printmaking. Clarke was born in Derbyshire and his father was an architect and an etcher with his own press. Having initially trained at Preston School of Art and Manchester School of Art, Clarke served in the Second World War with the RAF. He returned to his studies at Lancaster and Morecambe School of Arts and Crafts before enrolling at the Royal College of Art (hereafter RCA), London in 1948 to study Graphic Arts. Very shortly after joining the RCA Graphic Arts department, Clarke became dissatisfied and transferred to the department of stained glass, where Lawrence Lee (1909-2011) had recently been appointed Head of stained glass. Lee led the RCA stained glass department into a new progressive phase and encouraged students to experiment with contemporary materials and concepts. One of the stained glass panels produced by Clarke in his first year at the RCA gained a silver medal, a distinction rarely bestowed upon an artwork by a first-year student. Clarke soon caught the attention of the Principal of the RCA, Robin Darwin (1910-74), who encouraged Clarke to begin experimenting with making iron sculpture.
Clarke was one of two young RCA graduates chosen to contribute to the pioneering modern glazing project at Coventry Cathedral which was rebuilt to the the designs of Sir Basil Spence (1907-76) between 1957 and 1962,. The new Coventry Cathedral building was furnished by some of the most prominent British artists and designers of the period, including Graham Sutherland (1903-80) and John Piper (1903-92). Clarke worked alongside his former tutor Lawrence Lee and fellow RCA student Keith New (1926-2012), to produce the 25m-high floor-to-ceiling stained glass windows which dominate the Cathedral’s nave. In fact Clarke contributed more artwork than any other artist for Coventry Cathedral. As well as three of the ten semi-abstract nave windows (two of the purple windows representing wisdom, and one of the multi-coloured windows representing middle age), Clarke was given responsibility for a number of sculptures: the 26m-high flèche, or hollow spire, on top of the Cathedral roof, the High Altar Cross and Crown of Thorns. These commissioned works marked the start of a successful career producing monumental public artworks, and the windows at Coventry are amongst the finest examples of modern stained glass in a religious context in the world.
In sculpture, Clarke made a number of important developments by casting in aluminium. In the 1950s he successfully experimented with making models of his sculptures in the then-relatively new material of polystyrene, and direct casting in aluminium. This process was relatively inexpensive in comparison to casting in bronze, and produced sculptures of lighter weight. Public commissions came thick and fast. Clarke’s dual success in both stained glass and sculpture was marked by a series of significant exhibitions and commissions in the 1950s and 60s, including four stained glass windows for the Treasury at Lincoln Cathedral. When Clarke was selected to represent the RCA at the Festival of Britain in 1951, his piece ‘Icarus’ was part iron-relief sculpture part stained glass. The following year in 1952 Clarke ‘s first solo show was held at Gimpel Fils Gallery, London.
This exhibition at a prominent London art gallery prompted the art critic Herbert Read’s (1893-1968) inclusion of Clarke’s work in the ‘geometry of fear’ display in the British Pavilion at the International Venice Biennale in 1952. In this ground-breaking display of post-war British art Clarke’s prints and sculptures were exhibited alongside paintings by Sutherland and sculptures by Eduardo Paolozzi (1924-2005) and Henry Moore (1898-1986). Read wrote that these works demonstrated ‘the iconography of despair, or defiance’, and they were seen to characterise the artistic production of a young generation of post-war sculptors. Clarke also contributed artworks to the British Pavilion at this major annual contemporary art exhibition again in both 1954 and 1960. In 1965, he had a major retrospective at the Redfern Gallery, London and his work was included in British Sculpture in the 1960s exhibition at the Tate Gallery. Clarke’s artwork featured in the exhibition British Sculptors ‘72 curated by Bryan Kneale at the Royal Academy of Arts, and British Sculpture in the Twentieth Century, held at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in 1981.
Examples of Clarke’s sculpture can be seen in many prestigious public and private collections around the world. The Victoria and Albert Museum has a stained glass panel (c.1950) by Clarke in their collection. In recent years Clarke has been the object of increasing public and academic interest. Recent publications have focused on his output in prints and sculpture. Most recently, an exhibition entitled ‘Geoffrey Clarke: Printmaker, A Sculptor’s Prints’ was held at the St. Barnabus Press, Cambridge (18 October – 2 November 2013). In addition, a major solo exhibition on his revolutionary post-war sculpture was held at the Pangolin Gallery, London (13 September – 26 October 2013). The Stained Glass Museum‘s recent acquisition of four stained glass panels, and their subsequent conservation, as documented in this blog, brings Clarke’s output in stained glass to the fore encouraging a reappraisal of his significance in this medium.
Geoffrey Clarke died on 30 October 2014.
Black, Peter. Geoffrey Clarke: Symbols for Man. Sculpture and Graphic Work, 1949-94 (Ipswich : Ipswich Borough Council Museums and Galleries in association with Lund Humphries, 1994).
Clarke, Geoffrey and Cornock, Stroud. A Sculptor’s Manual (Studio Vista; London, 1968; Reinhold Book Corporation New York 1968).
Clarke, Geoffrey and Cornock, Stroud. Sculptor’s Manual (1968).
Clarke, Geoffrey; Feher, Francis; and Feher, Ida. The Technique of Enamelling (Batsford, 1977).
Geoffrey Clarke 1950 (London: Fine Art Society, 2006).
Geoffrey Clarke, RA : sculpture and works on paper, 1950 – 1994. (Yorkshire Sculpture Park.Wakefield, 1994).
Geoffrey Clarke: Sculpture constructions and works on paper 1949-2000 (The Fine Art Society, London, 2000).
Geoffrey Clarke : sculpture, constructions and works on paper 1949 – 2000 (London: Fine Art Society, 2000).
Harrod, Tanya. The Crafts in Britain in the 20th Century (Yale Up, 1999).
Hyman, James (Ed.). Henry Moore and the Geometry of Fear: Robert Adams, Kenneth Armitage, Reg Butler, Lynn Chadwick, Geoffrey Clarke, Bernard Meddons, Henry Moore, Eduardo Paolozzi and William Turnbull (London, 2002-2003).
Legrove, Judith. ‘A Renaissance in Glass’, Journal of the Decorative Arts Society 1850 to the Present 32 (2008), 126-49.
Legrove, Judith. Geoffrey Clarke: A Decade of Change (London: Pangolin, 2013).
Legrove, Judith. Geoffrey Clarke: Printmaker: A Sculptor’s Prints (Bristol: Sansom, 2012).
Poole, E.B. The Nave Windows of Coventry Cathedral (Friends of Coventry Cathedral, 1992).
Spence, Basil. Phoenix at Coventry (London 1962).
The Arts & Windows in Coventry Cathedral (Coventry Cathedral Council, n.d.)
Windows of Coventry: The ten stained glass windows for the nave of Coventry Cathedral (Royal College of Art, June 1956).