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.
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.
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).
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.’
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.