Fr Kevin Hegarty
Yesterday (February 1) was the feast day of St Brigid, second only to St Patrick in the elite pantheon of early Irish saints. The illustration that accompanies this article is of her in a stained glass window at St Brendan’s Cathedral in Loughrea. It is one of the many splendid art works in the resplendent cathedral in the diocese of Clonfert.
The creator of the window was Evie Hone, one of the most notable Irish artists of the 20th century. The artistic impulse ran richly in her veins. Several of her Hone ancestors made their mark in the English and Irish art worlds.
Born in 1894, Evie’s childhood was pockmarked by sadness and setbacks. Her mother died two days after birth. When she was eleven she contracted polio which left her lame and with a damaged hand. She did not wallow in self pity. A fellow artist, Mary Swanzy, recalled that ‘she had heaps of courage and never mentioned her disabilities’.
Art and her christian faith shaped and governed her life. Along with her lifelong friend Mainie Jellett, also an eminent artist, she studied painting for several years in London and France. They were influenced by cubism, a new style of painting and sculpture, characterised by an emphasis on formal structure and reduction of natural forms to their geometrical equivalents.
Hone’s profound religious sensibility led her to join an Anglican convent in 1925. A year later she abandoned the cloister. Her interest in religion survived the realisation that she did not have a vocation. She continued her spiritual exploration. It led her in 1937 to convert from Anglicanism to Catholicism. She was received into the Roman Church by the President of Blackrock College, Fr John Charles McQuaid. Later, as Archbishop of Dublin, he was an avid supporter of her work.
By the 1930s she had moved from abstract art to the creation of stained glass windows, mainly in sacred settings. According to stained glass historian, Nicola Gordon Bowe, she synthesised ‘faith and art in stained glass’.
After some training, most notably with Wilhelmina Geddes, an established practitioner, she joined An Túr Gloine, an Irish stained-glass cooperative. When its studio closed in the early 1940s she founded her own facility at Rathfarnham.
Between 1934 and 1955, she received commissions for over 50 churches in England and Ireland. The stained-glass window of St Brigid in Loughrea, completed in 1942, is one of her notable achievements. Her window of the Ascension in Kingscourt Catholic Church has been highly praised. A contemporary art critic, CP Curran, commented: “I do not think there is in Ireland a lovelier window or one of more original design or of more tender colour or that moves one more by its imaginative beauty.” The Irish Jesuits were also generous patrons of her work.
In 1939, the Department of Industry and Commerce chose her to represent Ireland at the New York World Fair. Her submission, a large work of 6.4 metres by 2.4 metres entitled ‘Four Green Fields’, won first prize for stained glass. It depicts the coat of arms for the four Irish provinces expressed in an abstract design. After its return from New York it languished for several years in CIE head office in Dublin. Charles Haughey, who had an artistic eye, rescued it when he was Taoiseach, and had it installed appropriately in the entrance hall of Government Buildings.
In 1949, Hone was commissioned to provide a new window over the altar in Eton College. The original window had been bombed in the early years of the second world war. Her magnificent creation of the Last Supper and the Crucifixion is regarded as her masterpiece. It has featured on an Irish postage stamp.
According to Hone’s entry in the Dictionary of Irish Biography, ‘many believed she was the best practitioner of her craft to appear since the 17th century’. Blessed with a gentle sense of humour and humble about her achievements, she continued to work to the end, despite progressive ill health.
She died suddenly in March 1955 while on her way into St Joseph’s Church in Rathfarnham. A posthumous exhibition of her work in UCD in 1958 attracted over 20,000 visitors.