Has this country ever produced a more self-regarding architect than James Franklin Fuller? In 1916 he published Omniana: The Autobiography of an Irish Octogenarian which includes five appendices, each one dedicated to quotes from press reviews of his earlier, fictional books (‘We have never read a story with greater pleasure,’ Bath Chronicle, ‘As charming as a summer day’s ramble along an unknown lane, rich in unexpected turns and windings,’ Graphic, and so forth). The work also features highlights from his alternative careers, among them being an actor with regional troupes in England; one stint, he informs readers, came to an end the afternoon he found himself in the wardrobe room with nobody except the leading actress who ‘suddenly called on me to enact the part of Joseph while she herself assumed the role of Potiphar’s wife. The result was the same as that recorded in the Scriptures. I fled precipitately – leaving the lady to lock up her theatre.’ Fuller also trained for a period as a mechanical engineer, and was briefly a part-time soldier (he enrolled for what was supposed to be a British legion in Italy under Garibaldi, but to his indignation wound up in the suburbs of London ‘a mere ordinary recruit’ and had to buy his way out of the army). During the course of these adventures and misadventures, Fuller trained in the offices of another Irish-born architect, Frederick William Porter and then worked briefly with several English architects, most notably William Burges and Alfred Waterhouse, before securing a position in 1862 as district architect with the Irish Ecclesiastical Commissioners with responsibility for the north-west region of the country.
James Franklin Fuller was born in Kerry in 1835, the only son of what can best be described as minor gentry although given his preoccupation with pedigree it is unlikely this is the term he would have chosen. Two further appendices in his autobiography (‘Humour and geniality exude from every line,’ Liverpool Post and Mercury) outline his forebears in both maternal and paternal lines: with regard to the former, he was able to trace his ancestry back to Charlemagne no less, with the latter from Duncan, first King of Scotland. Attention is duly paid in the book’s opening pages to the importance of one’s family possessing the right quarterings, namely those that confer the right ‘to appear at Court functions, presided over by the Sovereign.’ Readers will be relieved to learn that Fuller had these. Later he engages in some consideration of how the newly-rich presume to claim coats of arms to which, in his eyes, they have no right.
The concern with pedigree and the perceived presumptions of arrivistes may explain why Fuller was to have trouble with one of his more important clients, Sir Arthur Edward Guinness, raised to the peerage in 1880 as Baron Ardilaun. Seven years before this elevation Fuller had been engaged by Sir Arthur to enlarge Ashford Castle, County Mayo but the relationship soon turned sour and he was replaced by another architect, George Ashlin (for more about Ashford and the Ardilauns, see Lady Ardilaun Requests the Pleasure…, October 6th last). Without specifically naming Sir Arthur, the following passage in Fuller’s autobiography makes perfectly clear his disdain: ‘Among my clients, at one time, was a multi-millionaire who has been made a lord. Somehow I could not bring myself to appraise him at his own evaluation, or to accept him as a super-man. I labelled him as something quite different. He had long been acclaimed a philanthropist, because of some large gifts for the benefit of the proletariat – gifts which secured him a title and affected his bank balance as much as a drop taken from the ocean affects its volume. We rubbed along for three or four years, until the friction became too acute and then we drifted apart. It was my fault no doubt and it was not wise from a worldly point of view. He lives and flourishes: so “nothing matters.” Nevertheless, the evolution of the plutocrat into the autocrat, and then into the aristocrat is an interesting study…’
That Fuller always felt himself above the concerns of the insufficiently well-quartered becomes apparent thanks to another passage in his autobiography (‘A rich treat of wit and wisdom and shrewd observation,’ Truth). Following the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland in 1869 and the loss of his position as one of its district architects, he established his own office in Dublin. From here, he writes, ‘For over half a century I carried on successfully a very extensive practice as an architect; and during the whole of that time, I violated – or rather, persistently disregarded, all the conventional rules which are supposed to be inseparable from success…A few months after opening my offices I discarded the regulation copying-press and the regulation letter-book…The ‘correct’ thing to do with letters received, was to preserve, docket and to pigeon-hole them, in the case of each separate client; whereas nine out of ten of them went into my waste paper basket immediately after receipt. I only preserved, until the finish of the particular business in hand, those that I thought likely to be necessary. I used my own discretion with regard to letters written by myself, only keeping copies of a few…I hardly expect to be believed when I say that, in issuing cheques, I never troubled to fill in the corresponding counterfoils…I kept no ledgers or books of any sort: I could not see the least necessity for them.’ Amazingly Fuller claimed his singular behaviour was ‘to the uniform satisfaction of my clients’ although we have seen that this was certainly not the case with regard to Sir Arthur Guinness.
Strangely, although Fuller covers a great many subjects in his autobiography (‘A delightful arm-chair companion,’ Daily Graphic), he scarcely mentions many of the buildings for which he was responsible. One of these is shown here, St Anne’s in Clontarf, Dublin. The original early Georgian house on the site was called Thornhill and owned by the Vernons who lived close by in Clontarf Castle. In 1835 Benjamin Lee Guinness, then head of the brewing dynasty, bought Thornhill and its immediately surrounding land: the estate was thereafter increased until it covered more than 500 acres.
Meanwhile the old house was renamed St Anne’s after an ancient well of the same title in the area and was somewhat enlarged. However, the photographs here are of the building after it had been further embellished by Benjamin Lee’s son, the aforementioned Sir Arthur Guinness, Lord Ardilaun who from 1873 once more employed Fuller for this purpose. As can be seen, the eventual house had the appearance of a gargantuan Italianate palazzo, with vast double-height, top-lit galleried hall and equally substantial winter garden reached after an enfilade of reception rooms. The surrounding gardens were similarly transformed with extensive planting of specimen trees and the creation of a sequence of follies including a Herculanean Temple on a mock-ruined bridge abutment which served as a tearoom for the family and a Pompeian Water Temple of Isis by the duckpond.
Even by the time work was completed at St Anne’s in the 1880s, the place had become an anachronism, out of scale and out of sympathy with the Ireland then beginning to emerge. After Lady Ardilaun’s death in 1925, the estate was inherited by one of her husband’s nephews, the Hon Benjamin Plunket, retired Bishop of Meath. Unable to afford its upkeep, in 1939 he sold St Anne’s and almost 450 acres of land to Dublin Corporation for £55,000. The enormous house designed by Fuller stood empty of its original contents and used by the Local Defence Force until gutted by fire in 1943; the ruins were demolished in 1968. By that time 200 acres of the estate had been given over to local housing, the remainder, including the walled garden, is now a public park. Perhaps it is as well Fuller did not dwell so much on the buildings he designed since in this case we are dependent on a collection of old photographs to recall what it looked like.