Virtuosic

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Part of the ceiling decoration of 86 St Stephen’s Green, Dublin. As mentioned some weeks ago (see Highly Stylised, January 31st last), work on the house began in 1765, the architect responsible considered to be Robert West who also worked as a stuccadore. It therefore used to be thought that he was responsible for the plasterwork here, but diverse craftsmen are now deemed to have had a hand. Whoever created this convocation of swooping eagles certainly deserves recognition and praise since they are an example of virtuosic skill.

That’s Amore

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A white marble statue of Amorino commissioned in Rome from Antonio Canova in 1789 by John La Touche. Scion of Ireland’s wealthiest banking family, La Touche was then on a year-long Grand Tour through Italy, during which he was taken to Canova’s studio by the Irish painter Hugh Douglas Hamilton. There he saw two versions of the same figure, one of which is now in Anglesey Abbey, Cambridgeshire. Not long before leaving Rome and returning home, La Touche requested his own copy which was duly delivered to Dublin in the summer of 1792. It remained in the family’s possession until the last century but both artist and provenance were forgotten until the statue was rediscovered in the back garden of an English house in 1996. It was then bought by the Bank of Ireland, appropriately since John La Touche’s father David had been that institution’s first governor, and presented to the National Gallery of Ireland.
The Irish Aesthete wishes a happy Valentine’s Day to all readers.

Highly Stylised

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The point in rococo decoration where representation blurs into abstraction: a detail of the staircase decoration at 86 St Stephen’s Green, Dublin. The house was begun in 1765 for Richard Chapel Whaley possibly to designs by Robert West, best known today as a stuccadore although he was also a master builder and merchant. The plasterwork in No.56 was formerly attributed to West but is now believed to have been executed by diverse unidentified craftsmen.

An Incomplete Project

Dublin print

A view from Carlisle (now O’Connell) Bridge looking south. This was one of twelve topographical images of the city executed in watercolour and pencil by Samuel Brocas and then engraved by his brother Henry between 1818 and 1829. The caption reads ‘Published July 1st, 1820, by J. Le Petit, Printseller,  20 Capel Street, and Bell and Wright, Duke Street, Bloomsbury, London.’ The print was to be part of an intended Book of Views of Ireland which never materialised, probably due to lack of sufficient support but it gives us a wonderful idea of how Dublin looked two centuries ago, and how successful had been the work of the Wide Street Commissioners. Imagine a similar view taken today, and how little of the coherence of design and intelligence of layout visible here still remains.

 

A Forgotten Craftsman

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The crisp carving of a pair of capitals on the eastern side of the porch of University Church, Dublin. The building was commissioned in 1855-56 by John Henry Newman from John Hungerford Pollen – like Newman a convert to Roman Catholicism – and occupies the former gardens of its neighbour, 87 St Stephen’s Green. The little porch was an afterthought and added a few years later, most likely as a means of giving the churcsh some presence on the square. Its most distinctive feature are the capitals, carved with the emblems of the Evangelists (those of SS. John and Luke seen above) which are then linked by an abacus decorated by winged angels. Who was the sculptor responsible for this work? Like a medieval craftsman, his name seems not to have been recorded…

Celestial Heights

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A cherub hovers on the edge of an oval frame, one hand clutching a ribbon from which in turn is suspended a basket of fruit and flowers. Part of a ceiling now in one of the rooms on south-east range of Dublin Castle it was originally created for Mespil House situated on what were then the outskirts of the city in the early 1750s. The ceiling is attributed to the stuccadore Bartholomew Cramillion, best-remembered for his work in the chapel of Dublin’s Rotunda Hospital. When Mespil House was demolished in 1951, the ceiling and two others were rescued and subsequently installed in Dublin Castle. As the further detail below demonstrates, this is one of the most glorious examples of rococo plasterwork found in the country. The Irish Aesthete wishes all readers a Happy New Year and hopes you will reach such celestial heights in 2015.

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Misjudging a Book by its Cover

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.’

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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.

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