A (Neo)Classic Design

James Wyatt Drawing 2 ( LDR )
Although Robert Adam is today represented in Ireland by just one house – a suite of rooms at Headfort, County Meath – examples of work by his rival James Wyatt can be found throughout the country. Indeed as Wyatt’s most recent biographer John Martin Robinson has noted, despite the fact that the architect only crossed the Irish Sea once, in 1785, ironically a much higher proportion of his houses survive in Ireland than in England. Wyatt’s earliest Irish commission was for the design of the Dartrey Mausoleum, County Monaghan dating from c.1772 and therefore contemporaneous with the architect’s famous assembly rooms on London’s Oxford Street, the Pantheon, with which it shares many features albeit on a smaller scale (for more on the Dartrey Mausoleum, see A Shining Distinction on Earth, September 15th 2014). Thereafter for the next quarter century he never wanted for patrons here, aided by an excellent Irish agent, Thomas Penrose, member of a well-known Cork Quaker family. Ann engineer and architect, Penrose worked first with the Sardinian-born Davis Duckart before being employed by the Dublin Wide Streets Commissioners: in 1784 he was appointed Inspector of Civil Buildings in succession to the recently-deceased Thomas Cooley. It is indicative of the close working relationship between Wyatt and Penrose that elements of several buildings which the former designed are attributed to the latter. In any case, we know that thanks to Penrose’s presence in Dublin, Wyatt was able to send drawings from his London office to Ireland and be confident his intentions would be properly executed. The relationship only ended with Penrose’s death in 1792 but Wyatt’s appointment four years later as Surveyor General of the King’s Works in England meant he no longer had time for further Irish commissions.

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Even without his physical presence in the country, Wyatt’s impact on Ireland was substantial and long-lasting. His style of neo-classicism continued to be admired and emulated for decades after the architect’s death in 1813. One well-known example of this abiding influence is the set of hall seats Wyatt designed in 1797 for Castle Coole, County Fermanagh and manufactured by London cabinet maker William Kidd. Distinctive features such as splayed saber legs and corresponding arms means it is easy to trace other items copied from these seats, beginning with a set of six originally produced for Dunsandle, County Galway and possibly ordered directly from Wyatt. Thereafter cabinet makers took up the design and would sometimes alter it to make the seat into a broader bench: one such piece features in the soon-closing exhibition, Ireland: Crossroads of Art and Design, 1690-1840 at Chicago’s Art Institute. That particular example was made by the Dublin firm of Williams & Gibton possibly as late as 1842, in other words three decades after Wyatt’s death. John Martin Robinson points out other features from his architectural repertoire which entered into the Irish mainstream, ‘including his particular type of stucco arabesque, the use of Coade stone and the Wyatt tripartite form of sash window.’ The Wyatt window in particular became a staple of Irish domestic architecture, but as Robinson also observes, ‘There are dozens of surviving houses in Dublin with Wyatt-type stucco ceilings and wall decorations, which were probably not directly designed by him, and many country houses have Wyatt-derived rooms, which are not by Wyatt himself, but local craftsmen copying him.’ All of which makes it challenging to discern which buildings were indeed designed by the architect rather than by admirers.

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The list of extant houses for which we are confident Wyatt produced designs includes the likes of Lucan, County Dublin; Mount Kennedy, County Wicklow; Abbeyleix, County Laois; and Slane Castle, County Meath. Others like the Oriel Temple, County Louth have been considerably altered since first constructed and it is therefore difficult to appreciate how they were intended to look. However, one of Wyatt’s most significant interior schemes still to survive is for the Picture Gallery, or Great Room in Leinster House, Dublin; this space now serves as the Senate Chamber in Dáil Éireann. The building had been designed by Richard Castle in 1745 as a town residence for the future first Duke of Leinster. After the latter’s death in 1773, the second Duke was left with a large incomplete space in the north end of the building and therefore invited Wyatt to come up with a scheme for its decoration: in September 1776, having married the heiress Emilia St George the previous year, he wrote to his mother ‘Mr Wyatt has sent me…the most beautiful finishing for my Gallery at L. House which I shall prepare and hope to do next Spring as have the furniture ready for it.’ Dating from 1777, the resultant room is rightly judged to be one of the finest interiors of the period, its plasterwork sometimes attributed to the stuccodore Michael Stapleton although Conor Lucey has commented that the factors leading to such an attribution ‘are no longer wholly reliable.’ No matter, the end result as Robinson remarks ‘launched the taste for Wyatt’s neo-classical decoration’ and led to a flood of further commissions, one of them being the dining room at Westport House, County Mayo.

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Like Leinster House, the core of Westport House was designed by Richard Castle who in 1731 designed a new residence for John Browne, later first Earl of Altamont. Towards the end of Lord Altamont’s life he commissioned designs to extend the building from Thomas Ivory and while it is not certain whether these or other proposals were adopted, Westport House was enlarged towards the end of the 1770s. As often happened, it was left to a later generation to finish off the interior decoration of the newer parts of the property. In this case the third earl (subsequently created first Marquess of Sligo), a year after inheriting the family estates in 1780 invited Wyatt to come up with a scheme for Westport’s dining room. Drawings for the design remain in the house and show how faithfully the architect’s proposals, as can be seen in today’s photographs. The dining room at Westport is not unlike that at Curraghmore, County Waterford designed by Wyatt a couple of years earlier for the first Marquess of Waterford. In both instances the elaborate decoration of walls and ceiling is broken up by medallions featuring classical figures. But whilst those at Curraghmore are painted in colour and grisaille, the Westport figures are moulded in low relief. Given the blue colour scheme of the walls, the overall effect is not unlike stepping into the world of Josiah Wedgwood whose Jasperware was then deemed the height of fashionable popularity. Set inside square and rectangular plaster panels the medallions are both round and oval, sometimes with one, sometimes with several figures, sometimes cheerful (putti playing with bows and arrows), sometimes sombre (a woman elegantly leaning on a funerary urn). Their immediate frames are picked out in gold, as are other elements in the scheme such as festoons and garlands. The ceiling on the other hand has a more complex colour scheme incorporating shades of pink and cream and brown, providing a contrast to the walls’ blue tones. Dated February 1781, the original drawings have a scheme of green and white: the present polychrome colouring dates from a repainting exactly a century ago. Nevertheless, now over 230 years old Wyatt’s dining room at Westport House continues to delight and helps to explain why his work has for so long been admired in this country.

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4 comments on “A (Neo)Classic Design

  1. Joe Vanek says:

    Robert – I am loving this site of yours – this latest item a real visual treat.
    We had a great launch on the 28th of May and Frank McG gave what amounted to a eulogy which was a trifle overwhelming…… Sales are excellent so Gandon are very pleased and the
    book is even in the shop at the National Gallery as well as all the major shops around the city. I will look forward to your television – dining programme – I hope all this goes well . J

  2. Shannon says:

    What beautiful work and thank you for showing it so well. It amazes me, the time and effort that was taken in the work done; the smallest detail noted. A definite thing of beauty!

  3. EmmaDora says:

    IA, your blog is exquisite: I was always lukewarm on traditional styles, but your taste in understated classics is perfect.

    (If only I were married to a billionaire and could rescue a few of those picturesque but sad tumbledown mansions…)

    Please keep it up!

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