Misjudging a Book by its Cover

IMG_8759

Readers are asked not to become too despondent at the sight of the photograph above: this is a case of appearances being deceptive. Beyond the unprepossessing façade lie some quite marvellous interiors, albeit these are – like the outside – in need of reparative attention. What you see is Glasnevin House, today a small portion of a conventual site belonging to the Holy Faith order but once a free-standing private residence set in renowned gardens.
Now a suburb of the capital, Glasnevin – from the Irish Glas Naíon meaning ‘stream of the infants’ although it is also proposed the name derives from Glas Naedhe meaning ‘stream of O’Naeidhe’ after an ancient chieftain – lies some three miles north of central Dublin on the banks of the river Tolka. The earliest settlement is believed to have been a monastery founded in the early sixth century by St Mobhi but by the early 800s the land had become a farm for Christ Church Cathedral and remained such until the sixteenth century Reformation with the accompanying dissolution of monasteries, after which Glasnevin’s monastery fell into ruin.

IMG_8561
IMG_8554
IMG_8563
The upheavals of the 16th and 17th centuries saw the lands of Glasnevin pass in and out of the control of Christ Church Cathedral until their ownership returned to government. Finally in 1703 a large portion of Glasnevin was bought by the wealthy merchant and politician Sir John Rogerson, whose name is commemorated by the quay on the south bank of the Liffey. Born c.1648 in Holland (whence his father had followed the future Charles II into exile), Rogerson initially lived in London but by 1674 had moved to Dublin where he was listed as a parishioner of St Andrew’s church off Dame Street. The following decade he became an Alderman and in 1693 was elected Lord Mayor of Dublin, acquiring a knighthood in the same year. The reason for his riverside commemoration is that in 1712 Rogerson, by that date also an MP, leased 133 acres along the south banks of the Liffey and there constructed a wall and quay stretching as far as the mouth of the Dodder, making it the largest and most important privately funded development in the embankment of the city. Of more interest to us, some ten years earlier Rogerson was already sufficiently affluent to buy land at Glasnevin where, on the outskirts of a hamlet that had grown up in the vicinity of the old monastery, he built a country retreat called The Glen or Glasnevin House.

IMG_8625
IMG_8620

IMG_8637

At least some of the residence built by Sir John Rogerson likely survives within the walls of the present Glasnevin House but long subsumed into a larger property. It has been proposed on more than one occasion that the architect of this building, commissioned by the wealthy merchant’s son, another John Rogerson (later Lord Chief Justice of Ireland for fourteen years until his death in 1741) was Sir Edward Lovett Pearce. Mention of Pearce has been made here more than once (most recently, see The Untriumphal Arch, December 15th last). In the 2001 edition of the Irish Arts Review, Jeremy Williams argued strongly that Glasnevin House was designed by Pearce who extended a small farmhouse on the site. The farmhouse would have been in the eastern wing (that is, to the right-hand in the first photograph), which was raised by a storey. Unfortunately this portion of the building was reconstructed more than half a century ago. However originally it would have matched the wing to the west. Between these is a recessed three-bay entrance dominated by a monumental pedimented doorframe (it was changed to a window when modifcations were made to the building by the Holy Faith nuns around 1874). On the other side of the building, Williams argued, a similar arrangement prevailed, again presenting the building as being of two-storeys over basement. Side elevations reveal a third mezzanine floor between ground and first, just as can be found at Bellamont Forest, County Cavan, which has long been attributed to Pearce. And like Bellamont, Glasnevin enjoys a lofty entrance hall with coved ceiling (the green painted room above).

IMG_8669
IMG_8705
IMG_8709
When the second John Rogerson died in 1741, since he had no sons his estate was divided between daughters with the elder, Elizabeth – wife of Abraham Creighton, first Lord Erne – inheriting Glasnevin. By 1748 the house was occupied by John Putland, a keen bibliophile who would serve as treasurer of the Dublin Society. How long Putland remained in residence is open to question because a couple of decades later Glasnevin House passed into the hands of banker and politician Hugh Henry Mitchell. At some point during this period the building underwent major structural changes, most likely both extended and redecorated at the same time. A cantilevered mahogany staircase was inserted into the west wing and on the ground floor two large reception rooms created looking southwards across gardens that dropped to the Tolka (Mitchell was a noted horticulturalist). It is the redecoration then undertaken that engages us now since despite severe subsequent modifications to the exterior Glasnevin House’s mid-18th century interiors have survived intact. And the preservation of its sumptuous plasterwork is especially gratifying because this is now attributed to the St Peter’s Stuccodore discussed here a fortnight ago (see Spirituality as Spectacle, December 8th last). The entrance and stair halls, upper landing, a small first-floor room and most notable the two ground floor reception rooms show the hand of a master craftsman at work. To quote from An Insular Rococo (Timothy Mowl and Brian Earnshaw, 1999), ‘thick, swirling slices of rocaille loop and bend in an assertive symmetry of hard, serrated arcs. Sometimes, always in twinned balance, these sprout acanthus leaves to assert an organic life, but here the rocaille outnumbers the acanthus in a ratio of five to one…To take the place of the usual linking acanthus there are flower trails of daisies and roses linking and dangling from the rocaille extremities in florist’s shop profusion…here the plasterwork enriches, it does not overwhelm, it has become heavyweight Rococo, not transitional Baroque.’

IMG_8736
IMG_8724
IMG_8740
Although by the same hand, the decoration of each space is treated differently. This is most apparent in the smaller of the two reception rooms where the ceiling has been compartmentalised ‘with ribs of paterae and guilloche,’ to cite Mowl and Earnshaw again. They continue, ‘A few of the compartments have flower swags but all the stress of the room is on its divisions.’ Here and elsewhere in the house the plasterwork is dated to around 1760 but already by that date it was anachronistic, especially so close to Dublin where fashionable taste already preferred a lighter touch. Thus the decoration of Glasnevin House is a last spirited flourish of the European Baroque spirit, confident even in the face of defeat. The vast cartouche-like panels found on the walls of the stair hall are out of proportion for the space but executed with an irrepressible exuberance that somehow overcomes – or perhaps overwhelms – all spatial handicaps.
There were once many more such houses found in the greater Dublin area – Delville, the home of Dr Patrick and Mrs Delany stood on an adjoining site – but almost all of them have been lost (Delville was demolished in 1951). This makes the preservation of Glasnevin all the more remarkable, and precious. In the early 19th century the property was acquired by the Rev. Charles Lindsay, Anglican Bishop of Kildare whose heirs sold it to the Sisters of the Sacred Heart in 1853. Twelve years later Glasnevin House passed into the ownership of the Holy Faith nuns who have have remained there ever since. The fluctuating needs of the order, which has run novitiates and schools on the site, required additional buildings and as a result severely compromised the original house. Yet somehow the greater part of its interior remains, an unexpected and remarkable example of Irish 18th century craftsmanship. Glasnevin House demonstrates that superficial appearances can be deceptive.

IMG_8689

Awaiting the Saviour

IMG_8764
This little gem of Greek Revival architecture looks as though Scotland should be its natural habitat. In fact the building can be found in central North Dublin on Sean McDermott (formerly Lower Gloucester Street) and was originally built as a Presbyterian church. The architect responsible, Duncan C Ferguson, is thought to have been of Scottish origin, which would explain the choice of style since its date of construction – 1846 – is rather late for Greek Revival. The granite façade features a tetrastyle pedimented portico with four fluted Doric columns below a frieze with Greek lettering. On either side are single-storey wings with tapered square-headed doors (see below). The church does not appear to have served its original purpose for long and by 1900 had been converted into a flour store. Thereafter it underwent further changes of use before being left to dereliction and once the interior was gutted by fire (seemingly in the 1980s) all but the façade was demolished. About ten years ago another structure devoid of architectural interest was erected to the rear. Since then the remains of Ferguson’s work have languished in an area where few instances of good design can be found; somehow it has survived and still awaits a saviour.

IMG_8770

 

For the Present III

IMG_0555

In 1972 Mariga Guinness claimed that Ireland ‘has more follies to the acre than anywhere else in the world.’ The assertion has yet to be verified (has anyone actually traversed every acre of the country in search of follies?) but we certainly have our ample share of these whimsical edifices. Some research on the subject has been published but usually of an academic nature and with no spirit of the playfulness which inspired the typical folly’s construction. For surely the essence of such a building’s character lies in its name, with the implication of common sense being absent and fun gaining the upper hand.
What a treat, therefore, to find a book which celebrates the irrational, glorifies the absurd and encourages the downright nonsensical. Fabulous Follies of Ireland is a collaboration between author William Laffan and illustrator Nesta FitzGerald. It explores fifteen of the country’s follies, some of them like the Casino at Marino (shown above) widely known, others such as McDermott’s Castle at Rockingham, County Roscommon insufficiently appreciated. And it does so with just the right balance of erudition and wit, ensuring readers are as much entertained as informed. The book is published by the Irish Georgian Society, the emblem of which – the Conolly Folly, County Kildare – can be seen below. It costs €7.50, making this a fabulous folly anyone can afford.

IMG_0558

The Untriumphal Arch

IMG_8401
Arch Hall, County Meath, the house shown above, is a tantalising mystery. Who was the architect? When was it built? And for whom? Answers to all these questions, and others, have been proposed and while convincing they cannot be absolutely verified. Today what remains of Arch Hall stands on flat ground in the middle of open fields, and the greater part of the ornamental park with which it was once surrounded has been lost. A painting from 1854 by the Yorkshire-born artist James Walsham Baldock depicts the wife of Arch Hall’s then-owner Samuel Garnett and the couple’s two young sons on horseback with the house visible behind. Evidently at the time it was surrounded by a belt of mature trees but most of these have now gone leaving the building isolated and even more exposed to the elements than would otherwise be the case. At some date obviously it was abandoned and left to fall into ruin but – another question – when?

IMG_8442
IMG_8319
IMG_8326
Arch Hall appears to derive its name from the rustic arch lying some distance to the south of the house and serving as point of access to the original avenue. Placed on an axis and intended to offer an unexpected vista of the property, the arch is composed of a single broad entrance with pinnacle above and flanking buttresses. From this point Arch Hall looks like a very substantial building, but the impression is deceptive because despite rising three storeys over basement the house was only one room deep. Its most striking feature is the nine-bay facade which on either side concludes in cylindrical bows and is centred on a larger, three-bay semi-circular bow. This has a handsome stone pedimented Gibbsian doorcase but the rest of the building was constructed of locally-produced red brick. At some – also unknown – date in the 19th century, the exterior was covered in cement render marked out to imitate cut stone. Presumably at the same time the topmost storey windows were paired in Romanesque style and Italianate sills added, while the end bows were capped with conical roofs presumably in an effort to make the place resemble a French château. Inside the front door was a large hall with curved ends and reception rooms on either side, each measuring some five and a half metres square. These in turn gave access to small circular rooms in the front corners. Despite long exposure, the two end rooms retain traces of their decorative plasterwork, that on the western flank somehow still having a shallow saucer dome with plaster coffering and egg-and-dart moulding. Almost all the rear of the house has been lost, as well as part of the front wall, making Arch Hall’s long-term survival unlikely.

IMG_8368
IMG_8450
IMG_8451

For a number of reasons the design of Arch Hall is usually ascribed to Sir Edward Lovett Pearce. Believed to have been born at some date in the late 1690s in County Meath, Pearce was the son of an English general and an Irish mother (her father was Lord Mayor of Dublin in 1676-77). Most importantly for his son’s future career, General Edward Pearce’s first cousin was Sir John Vanbrugh. The latter appears to have had an influence on the young architect, if only stylistically, but Pearce’s work in Ireland was also shaped by time spent in mainland Europe in 1723-24 during which he studied Palladio’s buildings in the Veneto. Thus while essentially a classicist, he sometimes liked to feature elements of the baroque. Such is the case with Arch Hall if indeed it was designed by Pearce. Another Irish house, alas now also a ruin, with which it has strong similarities is Wardtown Castle, County Donegal. Built for John Folliott, Wardtown is deeper than Arch Hall but, as Maurice Craig noted in 1996, it shares ‘the Vanbrughian feature of cylindrical towers and semi-circular projections.’ In fact the design of the two houses is so alike, the inevitable conclusion is that either they were by the same hand or one was a copy of the other.

IMG_8376
IMG_8379
IMG_8383
So when was Arch Hall built, and for whom? Sir Edward Lovett Pearce died in 1733 so if he were the house’s architect, work on its construction would most likely have begun before that date. At the time, the townland of which it is part, Newtown-Clongill was owned part-owned by the Payne or Pain(e) family: a deed of 1714 records the transfer of 510 acres in the area from John Raphson to William Paine. In 1737 his granddaughter Anne Paine married Benjamin Woodward of Drumbarrow, near Kells, County Meath. Her settlement included the town and lands of Clongill and Newtown-Clongill. Somehow by the early 19th century the property had transferred into the ownership of another local family, the Garnetts who were associated with a number of houses in the county, not least Williamstown and Summerseat. The first of them to live at Arch Hall was John Pain Garnett, second son of Samuel Garnett of Summerseat. John Pain Garnett’s middle name would imply some kind of connection with the previous residents but there appears to be none: the Garnetts tended to marry cousins, or else members of the Rothwell and Wade families. Arch Hall was subsequently inherited by John Pain’s son, another Samuel Garnett who in 1841 married Marianne Tandy: it is she and the couple’s two sons who appear in the 1854 painting by James Walsham Baldock. Burke’s 1871 Genealogical and Heraldic History of the Landed Gentry of Great Britain & Ireland list the family as still in residence, but at some date thereafter they must have left and the place began its slide into dereliction. But when and why was Arch Hall permitted this most untriumphant end? So many unanswered questions…

IMG_8421

Supply and Demand

IMG_6203

Fermoy, County Cork owes its origins to Scottish entrepreneur John Anderson who settled in this part of the country in 1780. The following decade he bought land on the Blackwater river and there developed a town, its growth greatly helped by the presence of a military barracks which Anderson also built. The demand for better quality housing in turn led to the creation of St James’s Place on rising ground on the northern side of Fermoy. Begun in 1808 it was intended to have six residences but within ten years Anderson had suffered a series of financial reverses and so only five houses were built. In the last century these handsome redbrick buildings were allowed to deteriorate and by the start of the 1980s they had all been internally divided with 1 St James’s Place condemned as unfit for human habitation.
Subsequent restoration of this house and three of its neighbours demonstrates the nonsense of such official opprobrium and ensures that today the terrace of four surviving properties are among the finest in Fermoy, or indeed any other town in the region. Number 1 is particularly interesting because the middle bay curls around to meet the most northerly of the three, stepped back to allow more access to the fine doorcase with side and fan lights.

IMG_6206

 

For the Present II

Russborough cover
Russborough, County Wicklow has featured more than once on this site and why not since it is often judged to be the most beautiful country house in Ireland. Dating from the 1740s, Russborough was commissioned by Joseph Leeson, a wealthy brewer who in 1763 became first Earl of Milltown. His architect was German-born Richard Castle and work on the project seems to have proceeded fast because in his 1746 A Tour through Ireland William Chetwood found at Russborough ‘a noble new house, forming into perfection’, adding ‘if we may judge of the picture of the outlines, we shall, when finished, see a complete beauty’. This indeed has proven to be the case. Just as lovely is the newly-published Russborough: A Great Irish House, its Families and Collections. Written by William Laffan and Kevin V Mulligan, the book covers over 300 years of history, travelling far in various directions but always returning to the building that lies at its core. And this is as it should be, the authors noting how the approach to the house is carefully managed ‘so that the main block is completely concealed, the first views taking in a finely articulated cupolaed gateway, the east wing and then its distant counterpart. These low ashlar-fronted blocks – to the east the kitchen wing, to the west the stables – are impressive in their own way, given deep plans with broad fronts, attractively articulated with Ionic pilasters to the centre bays and urns punctuating the parapets, but the void between seems to offer the greater distraction and an inducement to progress further. Once revealed in its entirety, the visual power and complexity of the composition, its symmetry and poise, is simply captivating…The viewer’s instinct is to draw back immediately so as to take in everything as one comes to realise the full extent of the plan. A symmetrical expanse, drawn out on either side beyond the wings to encompass a further complex of buildings on each side, is laid out to achieve a façade that extends from end to end a distance of some seven hundred feet.’ Scholarly and engaging (a too-rare combination) the prose is matched by James Fennell’s splendid and copious photographs, making this the most complete work yet produced on a single Irish house. An essential addition to any library this season.
Russborough: A Great Irish House, its Families and Collections is published by the Alfred Beit Foundation, €50.

Spirituality as Spectacle

IMG_8269
The picture above was painted by the Drogheda, County Louth artist Bernard Tumalti in 1844. It shows the interior as it then was of the town’s principal church, St Peter’s and therefore serves as an invaluable record of how the building looked before it was subjected to a number of changes later in the century. Among the most significant of these was the removal of the box pews in 1865 and the insertion of stained glass in many of the windows, not least that the great east window which dates from the following decade. At some point also the handsome line of hanging brass candelabra shown by Tumalti were also lost, another misfortune. As a result of these and other alterations to the church, its original character is no longer as easily discernible, not least the element of baroque theatricality that was manifestly intended as part of the design and which must have transformed services into performances.
St Peter’s has likely been the site of worship for as long as there has been a settlement in Drogheda. Situated just three miles from the mouth of the river Boyne, this is said to be the place where St Patrick landed in c.432 and a little over 850 years later the Norman knight Hugh de Lacy built a motte and bailey on the existing Viking fort. Not far away St Peter’s was established by de Lacy and given to Welsh Augustinian canons. It subsequently grew – as did Drogheda – to be one of the largest churches in the country and although various changes were made to the structure, St Peter’s survived relatively intact until the town was besieged by Oliver Cromwell in September 1649. Many citizens took refuge inside the church, but to no avail as it was set on fire and, after the occupants had been massacred, subjected to looting. Nevertheless enough of the medieval St Peter’s survived for it to continued in use as a centre of worship for another century.

IMG_8175
IMG_8143
IMG_8122

IMG_8129
According to the Vestry Minute Book, ‘In the Year one thousand seven hundred and Forty Eight, The old Parisk Church of Saint Peters Drogheda being in ruinous Condition and in danger of falling was Order’d to be pulled down which was done accordingly and a New Church begun to be Built in the room of the old one the same Year and Carry’d  on ‘till finish’d by the Several Contributions Subscribed and pay’d by the undernamed Persons, And a Cess [levy] of Three Hundred Pounds only lay’d upon the said Parish.’ The new St Peter’s is believed to have been designed by Hugh Darley, member of a family which across more than two centuries worked as builders, stone cutters and architects. Hugh Darley’s best-known building is Trinity College Dublin’s Dining Hall erected in the early 1760s to replace Richard Castle’s earlier hall which had twice collapsed during construction and was eventually demolished after its vaults fell in while an adjacent kitchen was being built. The entry on St Peter’s in The Buildings of North Leinster by Christine Casey and Alistair Rowan, having described the church as one of the best of its kind from the 18th century notes the handsome Palladian facade. This is of ‘three bays and two storeys of limestone ashlar, horizontally channelled, with a broad eaves pediment broken by the great central tower rising above it through two storeys. The tower is expressed as a giant round-headed entrance, a terse Diocletian window in the first floor and in the belfry stage corner pilasters, a round-headed opening, and above a Gibbsian bracketed oculus. Above all this rises a Gothic steeple added by Francis Johnston in the 1780s.’ The exterior of St Peter’s is austere and devoid of superfluous decoration. This makes the extravagance of its interior all the more surprising.

IMG_8127
IMG_8134
IMG_8160
IMG_8133
The interior of St Peter’s is classical in design, a long hall with galleries along the west, north and south sides carried on octagonal oak piers: these are continued on the upper level as Ionic columns. The surprise comes when one looks east to the chancel, the walls of which are smothered in elaborate plasterwork featuring garlands of fruit and flowers, cornucopiae, clouds and  hovering above it all birds (possibly intended to represent eagles) with their wings spread wide. More late baroque than rococo in spirit, the chancel’s north and south walls are embellished with intricate plasterwork frames surrounding a pair of funerary monuments, one to Alderman Francis Leigh (d.1778), the other to the Rev. John Magee (d.1837). Both were evidently inserted some decades after the decoration had been completed and it remains a matter of conjecture who might have been responsible for this piece of bravura craftsmanship. Stylistic comparisons have been made between the plasterwork of St Peter’s and that in the drawing and dining rooms of Russborough, County Wicklow. Other parts of that house, most notably the saloon, have always been attributed to the Swiss-born Lafranchini brothers, Paolo and Filippo, who from the late 1730s onwards worked extensively in Ireland. However the character of Russborough’s drawing and dining rooms is more robust than that of the saloon, and it was art historian Joseph McDonnell in his 1991 book Irish Eighteenth Century Stuccowork and its European Sources who drew attention to the similarities between the decoration of these spaces and the church in Drogheda. McDonnell came up with the concept of ‘the St Peter’s stuccodore’ and more recently the same individual has also been credited with the plasterwork found in Glasnevin House, County Dublin. Across all these buildings the same vigorous ebullience is on display, suggesting the hand of someone who, like the Lafranchinis, came here from continental Europe.

IMG_8148
IMG_8209
IMG_8154
IMG_8152
The chancel’s plasterwork indicates little concern with the religious and indeed seems more suited to a domestic setting: while it lifts the spirits, they are not necessarily raised above the temporal. A certain effort has been made to remind the congregation that it is present for devotional purposes: in the plasterwork above the east window is a small panel bearing an inscription in Hebrew from Isaiah and translated as ‘Holy, Holy, Holy, is the Lord of Hosts’ and the open volumes that feature on either side are presumably intended to represent the gospels or some other scriptural text. But St Peter’s, in its original incarnation, must have borne more than a passing resemblance to the theatre: this is religion as drama, with the chancel substituting for stage and the main body of the building for auditorium. At least one of the other funerary monuments celebrates this ambiguity, that to the immediate south which celebrates Henry Singleton, Lord Chief Justice of Ireland and Master of the Rolls who died in 1759: his memorial features an oval plaque in which a woman weeps over an urn, putti supporting an inscription and a portrait bust of the man himself sculpted by Thomas Hickey. As though conscious of the possibility for confusion between the sacred and profane, Hugh Darley designed the great east window in the gothic idiom, thereby leading the mind back to matters devotional. And that aspect was further accentuated by the reordering of the church over the course of the second half of the 19th century, notably the removal of the box pews (not unlike theatre boxes) and the insertion of stained glass into many of the windows. The effect was to play down the secular element, even if this was to the detriment of the decoration. St Peter’s remains a wonderful building and unquestionably among the very best churches erected here in the post-Reformation era. But imagine how much better it must have looked when painted by Bernard Tumalti in 1844.

IMG_8230