Irish artist Richard J. King (1907-1975) whose works encompassed subjects both secular and ecclesiastical is best known for designing stained-glass windows and for his management of the Dublin studio of world-renowned stained glass artist, Harry Clarke (1889-1931).
King was born in the west of Ireland, in Castlebar, County Mayo. A lifelong friend once described him, saying “Richard showed great skill with his hands. His home was full of toys and gadgets of various kinds which displayed his precocious ingenuity and talent for improvisation.” In Dublin, where he moved with his family in 1926, he enrolled at the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art where his skill brought him to the attention of Harry Clarke. King entered Clarke’s firm in 1928. Upon Clarke’s death in 1931, King became the studio’s chief designer. He became manager of the firm in 1935 and remained until 1940, when he left to found his own studio.
Since medieval times, stained glass has been used in churches to illustrate bible narratives. King’s designs are powerful because of his skill in illustrating the ideals and emotions of such narratives. His devotion to his Catholic faith and to his native country are the two themes most apparent in his art. His friend and colleague, William J. Dowling, noted King’s “urge to depict subjects from Celtic mythology. His first works in black and white illustration, published in The Capuchin Annual, were of subjects chosen from the ancient stories of our race.”
The three King windows (one two-light, and one single-light window) in the James Jeffrey Roche Room in the Boston College’s Bapst Library were commissioned by Boston College Librarian Rev. Terence L. Connolly SJ in about 1950 and were the gift of the group “Friends of the Library.” The installation of the windows was celebrated at Boston College with an exhibition of King’s work in 1952. At that time, King provided a commentary on the windows, including this summary of their themes:
“I thought it would be a good idea if the windows could be utilised to give visual expression to the fundamental ideas of Ireland’s temperament, as expressed in her Literature from the earliest time. Firstly I thought of the pre-historic period when the first stirrings of the wonder of existence made itself vocal in Ireland’s mythological tales…Secondly the tenacity with which Ireland has held to the Faith which Patrick brought has always seemed to me to be phenomenal (considering the means adopted to kill it down the centuries) and with roots that went down deeper than even Patrick’s time, and always I sensed the parallel between the Christian and pre-Christian ideologies. These considerations (coupled with the fact that it was Patrick who preserved our early and pagan tales by ordering that they all be written down) decided for me the form of the windows as they are.”
An interesting typewritten note within the papers of the Burns Library’s King Collection – perhaps written by a library staff member, but unsigned – asserts that at the time of the installation of the windows, Fr. Connolly changed the position of the panels in the two-light window, thus ruining the design since “the long robes of Lugh now, instead of carrying out the line of the design, cut it in half, and created opposition.” The King Collection also includes sketches by King of the proposed designs in which the placement of the two panels is indeed the reverse of the way they were installed. Whether the artist changed the plan prior to their installation, or whether Fr. Connolly in fact made the switch has not been discovered. It is well worth visiting the Bapst Library to view the King windows – especially on a bright afternoon when the sun hits them most directly. The windows are located on the main floor, in a room to the left as one enters the Kresge Room.
In addition to his work designing stained glass, numerous King illustrations were featured in the periodicals The Capuchin Annual and The Father Mathew Record during the 1940s and 50s. Between 1933 and 1949 King also designed twelve postage stamps for Ireland. Within the King Collection is a first-day-of-issue cover of four airmail stamps, sent by King to Boston College librarian Rev. Terence L. Connolly SJ in 1949. Examples of some of the other stamps which King designed, and proofs of some of their artwork, are included in the collection. In 1945 Victor Waddington Publications issued a set of twenty-six original Christmas cards, designed by King. Examples of many of the cards (and later reproductions of them) and copies of a selection of his periodical illustrations are also included in the collection.
Additionally, there are reproductions of other King works including series of Stations of the Cross, Catholic saints, and the Sacred Mysteries – all rendered in various aesthetic styles and artistic media. Paintings by King are represented in the Burns Library’s King holdings as well, by an oil portrait of Boston Pilot editor James Jeffrey Roche (1847-1908), and a watercolor of Roche’s birthplace, Mountmellick, Offalay, Ireland. To view the Richard J. King Collection, please contact the Burns Library Reading Room at firstname.lastname@example.org or 617-552-4861.
- Shelley Barber, Library/Archives Assistant, Burns Library