In the 1920s Ireland was in a situation of considerable change. A new state was being born, which was struggling to establish itself as a modern, progressive country, proud of its distinctive tradition, but very much part of the international world.
The Irish Free State was formed in 1922 as a result of the Anglo-Irish Treaty and a violent and divisive civil war had followed. The Irish Government, along with the business community, struggling to identify and protect their identity within this new framework, turned for assistance to the artistic community in defining the new image for Ireland. It’s against this background that the firm John Jameson & Son, under the leadership of Andrew Jameson, partnered with the rising star of Irish illustration and design, Harry Clarke, to produce booklets illustrating the history of the firm to an international audience. When I first came across copies of these booklets in the Irish Distillers Archive I was taken aback at the modernity of the illustrations, produced almost a 100 years ago.
Harry Clarke Ireland’s Strangest Genius’ was, in 1924, at the peak of his career. Born in Dublin he was a leading figure in the Arts and Crafts movement and had made his name as a stained-glass artist and book illustrator. In 1916 he had illustrated an edition of Hans Christian Anderson’s Fairy Tales, followed later illustrations for an edition of Edgar Allan Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination. This 1923 edition made his reputation as a book illustrator, during the golden age of gift-book illustration in the first quarter of the twentieth century. His use of deep rich colours, his delicate depiction of beautiful elongated figures with their finely carved features and deeply expressive eyes, had established a signature style that pre-dated a lot of the psychedelic illustrations of the 1960s. His work, however, was divisive and not to everyone’s tastes. Regarding his Poe illustrations in 1919, a critic wrote, Never before have these marvelous tales been visually interpreted with such flesh-creeping, brain haunting, illusions of horror, terror and the unspeakable.
He was not the conventional or safest choice for Jameson to engage with to illustrate their booklets, titled The History of a Great House’ and Elixir of Life’, they are imaginative accounts of the company’s foundation and expansion, and were designed as part of an international marketing campaign by the Company. The lavish illustrations are in Clarke’s trademark style, elongated figures set against fantastical backdrops.
Commissioning Clarke was an incredibly innovative move, placing the Company’s advertising squarely in the modernist era and setting the bar for subsequent artistic collaborations. Dr Angela Griffin, Assistant Professor at Trinity College Dublin writes about the booklets in a new essay on Clarke, in which she delves into the use of advertising by firms in the early days of the State to define self-identity. She notes The History of a Great House testified to Jameson’s willingness to sponsor high-quality design for its commercial purposes. She also comments on the new technology employed by Clarke in terms of printing, it seems the booklets were cutting edge both in terms of content and production method. Both the newly formed Irish State and the firm John Jameson & Son were pushing boundaries and establishing themselves within the modern world with artistic collaborations of the very highest quality. In the last number of years, we have carried on the tradition by unveiling a limited-edition Jameson bottle featuring design and artworks by contemporary artists. Like Clarke, the artists involved were free to use their imagination and talent to create their version of our labels, a true collaboration.
Copies The History of a Great House’ and Elixir of Life’ are on display at our Brand Home in Bow Street and have also been exhibited in the Crawford Art Gallery, Cork.
Carl Quinn, Archivist, Irish Distillers