…The Irish Georgian Society is due to move into its new headquarters on Dublin’s South William Street. This building, the City Assembly House, is of great historical significance: it includes the oldest purpose-built exhibition gallery in Ireland and Britain. Dulwich Art Gallery was only constructed in 1817 whereas work began on the City Assembly House in 1766. Yet until recently its importance was almost unknown and certainly uncelebrated. Even today, hundreds of pedestrians pass by without knowing anything of the structure, or its elegant interiors. This will change once the IGS is installed.
The origins of the City Assembly House lie with a short-lived organisation called the Society of Artists in Ireland. An idealistic venture, its purpose was to increase awareness of and appreciation for the visual arts and for its indigenous practitioners, many of whom believed they had to move to London to receive sufficient notice. So in February 1765, the Society organised an exhibition of paintings, drawings and sculpture, held in Napper’s Great Room on George’s Lane, on the north side of the Liffey. There were 88 exhibits, including work by the likes of John Butts (who would die that same year) and Robert Hunter (fl.1748-1780).
The debut exhibition was such a success that a month later the decision was reached to build a permanent home for the Society. The site chosen for the new premises was taken on a long lease from Maurice Coppinger, whose name is commemorated by Coppinger Row which runs down the 110 feet side elevation of the City Assembly House; its three-bay frontage of 44 feet on South William Street rises three storeys over basement with a weathered rusticated ground floor below mellow brick. On the other side of Coppinger Row stands the well-known Powerscourt House, built a decade after the City Assembly House as a town residence for the third Viscount Powerscourt and now a shopping mall.
The driving forces behind the Society of Artists’ endeavour were carver Richard Cranfield and sculptor Simon Vierpyl, both of whom combined creativity with entrepreneurship, since they also worked as speculative property developers. But within a short time Vierpyl had ceded his interest in the scheme to Cranfield who was thereafter the building’s sole owner. As so often is the case, we do not know who was responsible for the design of the City Assembly House, although one possibility is that Oliver Grace (dates likewise unknown) was involved in some way, since in the Society’s 1768 show he submitted a drawing of ‘An elevation, proposed as a front to the Exhibition Room.’ It is also speculated that Grace worked on both the designs for St John’s Cathedral in Cashel, County Tipperary and Lyons, County Kildare, the house built at the very end of the 18th century for Nicholas Lawless, first Lord Cloncurry.
Naturally the principal space in the City Assembly House is its exhibition gallery, a top-lit octagon 40 feet wide and 33 feet high. This shape of room had been popular for spaces used to display works of art ever since Bernardo Buontalenti designed the Tribuna in Florence’s Uffizi Palace in the late 1580s. It was also used on several occasions in buildings by the 18th century Scottish architect Robert Adam, not least the original London premises of auctioneer James Christie on Pall Mall, begun the same year as the City Assembly House. An octagon not only permits more hanging space but also makes viewing of diverse works easier since they are divided between a greater number of walls than would be the case in a cube.
Initially the Society of Artists enjoyed considerable success: having shown just 88 works of art in its first exhibition, by 1780 that number had risen to 214, with every painter and sculptor of note during this period featured. But then the organisation dissolved into rancour and internal feuding, which is so often the case in Ireland. So the building’s owner, Richard Cranfield, had to find alternative uses for the property and following his death in 1809, the leasehold was sold on to Dublin Corporation which used the City Assembly House’s gallery as its meeting chamber until moving into City Hall (formerly the Royal Exchange) on Dame Street in the 1850s. Thereafter the building on South William Street served a variety of purposes, most recently as Dublin’s Civic Museum until that was closed a decade ago.
Now the Irish Georgian Society, which has a long tradition of working to ensure the future of Ireland’s architectural heritage, has assumed responsibility for the City Assembly House and for ensuring the building as a vibrant future fully reflecting the dynamism of its original developers. At the moment the building is encased in scaffolding and undergoing extensive restoration, during which all kinds of discoveries about its original form are being made; some especially charming decorative features lost for decades are coming to light and will be given due attention. Both the exhibition gallery and the rooms in front, the two linked by a staircase winding towards a glazed oval dome, will once more become known by and accessible to the public. This will ensure that the City Assembly House’s importance in the history of 18th century Dublin will be duly celebrated and the building become a destination for all tourists interested in learning more about the city’s most enterprising era. The IGS’s aspiration is that the City Assembly House’s doors open during spring 2013. The Irish Aesthete hopes everyone will enjoy similarly momentous events in the year ahead.
If you would like to know more about the City Assembly House or the Irish Georgian Society and its work, please visit the organisation’s website: http://www.igs.ie