A portrait of art dealer and philanthropist Sir Hugh Lane. The picture was painted in September 1904 by Roman-born Antonio Mancini when Lane was visiting the artist’s native city. Tomorrow marks the centenary of the sinking of the RMS Lusitania off the coast of Cork, and Lane was among the 1,198 persons who died on that occasion.
I shall be giving two talks in the coming weeks on Sir Hugh Lane. On Thursday 14th May, I will be speaking at the Library in Douglas, Cork at 7pm (for more information, see http://www.vernonmountpark.ie/latest-news) and on Thursday 21st May I will be speaking at Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane at 6.45 (for more information, see http://www.hughlane.ie/lectures/lectures-past/1320-evening-lecture-the-commercial-world-of-sir-hugh-lane-art-dealer-with-robert-obyrne). The Mancini portrait continues to hang in the gallery founded by Sir Hugh Lane and can be seen there in an exhibition marking the centenary of his death.
Granted a royal charter in December 1600 to trade as as the ‘Governor and Company of Merchants of London trading into the East Indies’, the East India Company was the first such organisation established in Europe. A joint-stock company its task was to develop closer trade links with Asia, which in practice came to mean the Indian subcontinent and Imperial China. Shares in the business were owned by merchants and wealthy landowners, some of whom became even richer as a result of their association with the company. The British government possessed no shares but exercised indirect control thanks to a series of acts passed during the 18th century as the East India Company expanded. Eventually the company came to be responsible for half the world’s trade, with a focus on certain commodities such as cotton, silk, salt and tea. But the need to secure this dominance led the East India Company into warfare both with the indigenous population and with rival businesses from other European states such as France. As a result, it came to maintain a private army and to seek control over parts of the countries in which it operated, most notably India. Only with the 1858 Government of India Act did the British government assume direct control of the subcontinent; the East India Company itself was wound up sixteen years later. Mention has been made of the principal goods in which the company traded, but there were many secondary ones, luxury items like porcelain, spices, lacquerwork and silk for which demand steadily increased. And then there was what came to be called India paper, even though it was made in China.
The taste for Chinese wallpaper developed in the 18th century and led to the emergence of a specific trade in this item. Initially ships returning from Asia brought other luxury goods like screens, porcelain and pictures intended as gifts for royal residences. The exotic appeal of the work led to increasing consumer demand so that items were no longer brought back as gifts but as tradeable commodities. In his invaluable book on Irish wallpaper published last year, David Skinner notes that such goods seldom appear on cargo lists but instead were treated as ‘private trade’ by ships’ captains: paper had the advantage of being easily rolled up and fitted into available space in the hold. Then once in Europe, it could be sold at auction in the East India Company’s London headquarters. Skinner cites a single vessel belonging to the company in 1776 carrying 2,236 pieces of paper, enough to cover the walls of around one hundred rooms. That figure gives an idea of how keen demand had become for this commodity by the third quarter of the 18th century. In turn it led to increased production in China, aimed at the European market but without pictorially concealing its country of origin, unlike Chinese porcelain which often incorporated western decorative motifs. Wall paper, on the other hand, retained its indigenous imagery and featured birds, insects and plants unfamiliar to Europeans. So too were the costumes of human figures, the buildings they occupied and the landscape through which they moved. The paper’s appeal lay precisely in the depiction of difference, combined with evident technical finesse. Hand painted Chinese paper tended to offer varying scenes, almost like a narrative, so that no part of the run around a room’s walls looked the same. This differed from the repeat pattern of its printed western equivalent.
By the 1750s Chinese wall papers were being offered for sale in Dublin. However, when Emily, Countess of Kildare (later first Duchess of Leinster) undertook the decoration of a small drawing room at Carton, County Kildare she sourced her material in London, presumably because it could offer a wider selection. Her husband was often dispatched on such errands when in England, on one occasion writing to her, ‘As to the India paper you want, there are patterns gone to Chester of every kind in London for you to choose out of; so that you will please yourself.’ The problem was that Lady Kildare had trouble finding a sufficient quantity of the same type of paper. Her scheme for the room was elaborate, since the walls were not simply covered with paper; it formed only one part of the decoration. The design of the imported paper, as described by David Skinner, features ‘a landscape with a river winding towards distant mountains, past villas and gardens whose well-to-do inhabitants engage in leisurely rural pastimes, and villages where rustic figures are at work fishing and farming. As always with Chinese papers, the landscape is evocative rather than strictly topographical, yet is still recognisable as that of southern China in the middle of the Qing period.’ All of this is found set within painted paper borders designed to resemble carved jade, and carved and gilded rococo filets. It is a complex, almost overly rich style of decoration that is difficult for our own era to appreciate.
The Chinese Room at Carton is the earliest extant example of this form of decoration in Ireland. Somewhat later is the room shown here, that on the first floor of Westport House, County Mayo, home to successive generations of the Brownes, Earls of Altamont and later Marquesses of Sligo. The core of the house was designed in the early 1730s by Richard Castle but then enlarged in the 1770s and 1780s following designs by Thomas Ivory and James Wyatt. The paper here was most likely installed after completion of the latter’s work on the property. In many ways the paper hung here is similar to that in Carton, again featuring groups of figures depicted moving among villas and gardens in an imaginary landscape. The paper is uninterrupted by other elements but as a result of the low coved ceiling height, it had to be cut down. So there is no sky, which gives the room a slightly claustrophobic character. Although there no information has been found in the Westport papers, David Skinner believes that while the paper is from the late 18th century, it was only put up here in the 19th century, not least because three earlier patterned papers have been found underneath. At the moment, the room is undergoing a gradual programme of restoration by English conservator Mark Sandiford who has undertaken similar commissions in other buildings, including Woburn Abbey, Bedfordshire. To see it at the moment, when this process remains incomplete, is especially fascinating since the techniques involved in the paper’s creation and hanging are more apparent than would otherwise be the case.
The ceiling rose in the dining room of Turbotstown, County Westmeath. There is some debate over who was responsible for the design of this early 19th century neo-classical house, with Francis Johnston the most likely candidate since in purity of style it bears similarities with Townley Hall, County Louth with which he was involved (see Là, tout n’est qu’ordre et beauté, June 10th 2013). Here, as at Townley, the plasterwork remains wonderfully crisp and sharp.
The gate lodge at Ballindoolin, County Kildare. Curiously there does not appear to be any information available on who might have been the architect for this or indeed the main house at the end of the drive. The latter was built around 1822 for the Bor family so presumably the lodge dates from that period since the two buildings display the same neo-classical style (somewhat disturbed here by lattice windows set in the beautifully crisp limestone frames). Note behind the Tuscan columns how the recessed porch has two doors facing each other on the diagonal to left and right. The lodge suggests the hand of Francis Johnston at his most rigorous.
Two years ago, Dublin City Council announced plans for a new so-called Cultural Quarter based around Parnell Square. Here are some extracts from the website http://www.parnellsquare.ie. subsequently set up by the local authority:readers must make of them what they will:
‘A new City Library will be built beside the existing world-class Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane and will offer a range of creative, participative and educational experiences, united by a trinity of themes, Learn, Create and Participate. A civic plaza will connect the new City Library and cultural facilities, creating a new public space that those who live, work and visit Dublin can use, engage with and enjoy in the heart of the city… Conversations identified a desire for a vibrant and modern Square, bustling with quirky, family-friendly spaces full of informal and spontaneous creative activity, with a sense of the inside spilling outside to the public realm being seen as the key to the success of the development. It should be a place which reflects modern Irish identity, along with the heritage of the area. There were many ideas and suggestions for use of cultural space in the new library complex and integrated buildings…
The Quarter will inspire and excite, welcome and include, with a new City library as the hub and anchor building. To make this work requires structures that encourage and mandate unity. This process of building relationships and collaborative models of service will challenge all parties to engage, united by a sense of common purpose to make life better in Dublin. Public service and public spaces will be key drivers of all developments. A dynamic tableau of changing creative presences and experiences will animate the spaces which will be supported by agencies, associations or other service providers either on site or remotely…
The vision for Parnell Square Cultural Quarter is for transformation of the physical fabric of the Square, and for transformation for the people of Dublin through access to ideas, information, and imagination. The objective is to achieve a quality cultural offer coupled with an equality of access and provision that reflects the locality and the city. Opportunities to learn, create and participate will be the overarching themes which will unite the Quarter.’
Parnell Square, the oldest such development in Dublin, is essentially the creation of two men, Bartholemew Mosse and Luke Gardiner. The former, a public-minded doctor, in 1748 leased a four-acre site, described at the time as ‘a piece of waste ground, with a pool in the hollow, and a few cabins on the slopes’. Here he established the world’s first purpose-built lying-in hospital intended to serve the poor of the city and to ensure fewer mothers and babies died during childbirth. Its location lay at the top of Sackville (now O’Connell) Street, begun the following year by Gardiner who in the early 1750s went on to establish Cavendish Row to the immediate east of Dr Mosse’s plot. Further developments to the north and west of the hospital led to the emergence of what at the time was known as Rutland Square. The most distinctive feature of the square was that its centre did not contain the usual park for use of residents, but public gardens created by Dr Mosse as a means of raising funds for his medical establishment. They were the equivalent of London’s Vauxhall and Ranelagh Gardens, laid out with lawns and pleasure pavilions where entertainments, theatrical performances and concerts were offered to paying patrons. Funds raised from these events helped to underwrite the hospital to the immediate south, designed by Richard Castle. To the east were added the Rotunda Assembly Rooms designed in 1764 by John Ensor (it was as a result of this building that the hospital became know as the Rotunda). To the north of Ensor’s adjunct the New Assembly Rooms containing a tea room, supper room (now the Gate Theatre) and ballroom were built from 1784 onwards. So successful and fashionable was Dr Mosse’s enterprise that the sites surrounding his gardens became highly desirable as residences for the affluent, initially along Cavendish Row but soon throughout the district. The single most significant property was that built by the Earl of Charlemont at the centre of the square’s north side. Designed by Sir William Chambers in 1763, its stone facade and forecourt provides a fitting response to the garden front of the hospital lying on lower ground to the south. Hard though it is to conceive now, for almost two centuries the two buildings were separated by trees and lawns.
As elsewhere this part of the capital, Parnell Square’s decline began in the aftermath of the 1800 Act of Union when, without the need to attend parliament, many of the country’s landowners gave up their Dublin residences. Houses formerly in private hands switched to institutional use: in the 1870s for example, Charlemont House was bought by the government for use as the General Register and Census Offices for Ireland and is now the Municipal Gallery of Modern Art. While most of the buildings around the square itself survived reasonably well, those on surrounding streets more clearly displayed the consequences of the area’s diminished fortunes, being turned into tenements with multiple occupation. As for the gardens themselves, amazingly they remained reasonably intact until the middle of the last century: one of a pair of 18th century Tuscan temples built as sedan-chair rest houses only went in 1942. As Christine Casey has written, a leap of imagination is required to envisage Parnell Square as it once looked, not least because ‘the central area is now a jumble of car parks, isolated grassy patchees and C20 appendages to the Rotunda Hospital.’ The loss of the 18th century hospital’s prospect is due to that institution which from 1895 onwards began to add new buildings with inevitable consequences. The first of these is a three- (today four-) storey block to the west designed by Frederick George Hicks as a nurse’s residence. Its red brick and yellow terracotta exterior, very much in the popular taste of the period, is fundamentally unsympathetic to Castle’s classical stone-clad hospital, unlike Albert Murray’s westerly extension of 1905, which while making the Rotunda’s facade lopsided, at least acknowledges its architectural history. Further developments to the north from 1940 onwards continued to remove evidence of the Georgian pleasure gardens, including the Garden of Remembrance, designed by Dáithí Hanly and installed in 1966 to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Easter Rising. Meanwhile many buildings around the square and those on neighbouring streets continued that slide into decreptitude begun in the 19th century.
As can be seen in today’s photographs, Parnell Square today is a mess, lacking coherence or even often adequate maintenance. The condition of surrounding streets is little better, on occasion much worse. Earlier this year, Senator David Norris spoke out about the state of the area, noting that it had been allowed to slip into ever greater degradation with derelict historic buildings, a build-up of household rubbish and inappropriate infill developments on the site of former Georgian houses. Dereliction, he commented, had become “endemic” in the north Georgian core of the city and Dublin City Council appeared to be doing nothing to stop it: ‘The city authorities here are absolutely lamentable.’ In particular, Senator Norris observed that while the council held a list of endangered buildings, it seemed slow to take any meaningful action against such properties’ owners: ‘It’s intolerable that so many buildings are left like this for years.’ As if to emphasise his point, a few weeks ago large sections of the rear wall of 30 North Frederick Street, an 18th century building just a minute’s walk from Parnell Square, collapsed. A ‘protected structure’, the building has been on the city council’s derelict sites register for years yet the authority had done nothing to ensure its survival, despite being regularly warned of the inevitable outcome by concerned organisations like the Civic Trust. Several other houses on the street look in little better condition, as is also the case on the parallel street, Granby Row to the north west of the square. Multiple door bells here indicate buildings in a poor state of repair have been divided into flats; one wonders whether the council inspects these to ensure they conform to legislation on occupancy. On the other hand it is difficult to demand high standards from private owners when public agencies set such a poor example. The instance of the former Coláiste Mhuire best illustrates this point. This terrace of houses to the immediate west of Charlemont House was occupied by a school until 2003 when it passed into the possession of the Office of Public Works, which allowed the buildings to lie idle for a decade. They were then acquired by the city authorities and are, eventually, destined to become the new central library. Meanwhile, they continue to sit empty and in poor condition. No wonder other owners of property feel without compunction to look after their own houses. No doubt grand plans are – slowly – being prepared for Parnell Square but in the meantime the council could demonstrate evidence of good intent, and lead by example, through initiating work on the houses’ roofs, fenestration and so forth. Such work will need to be undertaken regardless of the structures’ eventual use. And the authority would then be in a better position to exercise its legislative powers and insist on an improvement in the condition of other buildings in the vicinity. A new Cultural Quarter sounds all very fine, but what’s really needed is a new culture, one that could and should be inaugurated by Dublin City Council.
A shaft of sunlight falls across the floor of the drawing room in Westport House, County Mayo. The parquet was laid by George, third Marquess of Sligo in 1855, one of a number of changes he made to the building during that decade, which also included a new principal staircase of Sicilian marble. Westport House was originally designed by Richard Castle in the 1730s but was thereafter subject to a variety of alterations and additions incorporating work by amongst others Thomas Ivory and James Wyatt.
More about Westport House in the near future.
Peep around the life-size marble sculpture of Venus newly-emerged from her bath and you can see a view of the central hall at Mount Stewart, County Down. This octagonal space was designed in the 1830s by William Vitruvius Morrison for the third Marquess of Londonderry. In the 19th century it was decorated with suits of armour and lit by coloured glass in the dome above the first-floor gallery. Then in the last century the walls were painted a lusty red, the gallery’s balustrade replaced with ironwork and the original pale stone floor covered in a black and white checkerboard pattern. Mount Stewart reopens to the public this week after several years of restoration undertaken by the National Trust which has now returned the central hall’s walls to their intended cooler tones; plans are afoot also to remove the present floor covering and reveal the stone beneath.