Head In the Clouds

In his Preface to Dublin Decorative Plasterwork of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries (1967) C.P. Curran argues that any study of the subject must concern itself primarily with the latter period: ‘This is so for two reasons. The Dublin stuccodores’ craft reached a singular perfection in that century and notwithstanding the loss their work has suffered and still undergoes in the vicissitudes of the city’s growth, examples of its various excellence are still abundant and are accessible for study.’ Today’s examples, all now in Dublin Castle, admirably illustrate this point.

Demolished in the early 1950s owing to the value of the land on which it stood, Mespil House now tends to be remembered as the home of artist Sarah Purser. But the man responsible for its construction is just as worthy of notice, having enjoyed a distinguished career across diverse fields.
Born in Cork in 1698, after studying first at Trinity College Dublin and then at the University of Leiden, Edward Barry became a doctor like his father before him. Initially he practised in his native city, there writing his first book, A Treatise on a Consumption of the Lungs, published in 1726. In addition to his medical work, he found time to become a member of the Irish Parliament, representing Charleville from 1745 to 1761. By the time his political career began, he had already moved to Dublin, and here produced his principal medical work, On Digestion in 1759. A decade earlier he had been elected President of the College of Physicians and in 1754 he was appointed Regius Professor of Physic at Trinity College Dublin. But he was as interested in the arts as the sciences, and on good terms with many of the notable writers of his day. In 1736 he reported to John Boyle, Earl of Orrery (and future Earl of Cork) about their mutual friend Dean Swift, ‘I’m concerned to hear that Swift is confin’d by some Disorder; I hope nothing but a bilous cholic, which a few Satyrical evacuations will remove.‘ At the age of 63 Barry decided to move his practice to London but there is some question over whether he did as well there as had been the case in Ireland. According to Boswell, Samuel Johnson once remarked of Barry, ‘He was a man who had acquired a high reputation in Dublin, came over to England and brought his reputation with him, but had not great success.’ Created a baronet in 1775, he died the following year but not before producing a final book running to almost 500 pages: Observations, Historical, Critical and Medical on the Wines of the Ancients, and the Analogy between them and Modern Wines. This was the remarkable man responsible for building Mespil House in 1751.

Returning to Curran’s Preface, the author comments that ‘The diversity and excellence achieved by the middle of the eighteenth century is unquestionably due to outside stimulus. In the arts, no more than in nature, there can be no Declaration of Independence, since to be isolated is to be sterile and an organism is strong only in so far as it can assimilate.’ One of the outside stimuli from which indigenous stuccodores assimilated ideas during this period was Barthelemy Cramillion, whose origins and training remain unknown, although it has been suggested he was French Huguenot or Walloon by birth. He first appears in Ireland in August 1775 when employed by Dr Mosse to decorate the chapel of the new Lying-In Hospital, now known as the Rotunda: the contract bound him to complete the work within thirteen months. In December 1757 he was again engaged to execute the chapel altarpiece within six months. His total bill, finally settled in 1760, came to £585, nine shillings and ninepence. He left Ireland a year or two later but then returned in 1772 and in the Dublin Journal advertised his services to ‘Any Nobleman or Gentleman inclined to employ him.’ Two ceilings removed from Mespil House before its demolition and now installed in Dublin Castle (top and bottom series of pictures) have been credited to Cramillion by Joseph McDonnell in Irish Eighteenth-Century Stuccowork and its European Sources (1991). On the other hand, Timothy Mowl and Brian Earnshaw in their 1999 book An Insular Rococo question that attribution, noting that Mespil House dates from 1751, four years before Cramillion appears working on the Rotunda chapel. They also believe the ceilings ‘appear to be the work of two different plasterers,’ noting technical differences in the moulding of figures and in compositional layout. Unless additional documents turn up, most likely we will never know for certain who was responsible. The top group is centred around a medallion depicting Minerva Introducing the Arts to Hibernia, while that below shows Apollo as Sun God emerging to scatter the clouds. Incidentally, a third ceiling from Mespil House is now in Áras an Uachtaráin.

Similar uncertainty hangs over the authorship of another ceiling now in Dublin Castle (shown in the middle group of photographs above) but taken from another, long-since demolished building. Tracton House once occupied a site at 40 St Stephen’s Green, on the corner with Merrion Row. A bank stands there today and Tracton House was pulled down in 1912 to facilitate the commercial premises’ development. The lost building dated from the mid-1740s when the MP, surveyor and director-general of fortifications Arthur Jones-Nevill acquired the site to build himself a fine town residence. In 1765 it passed into the hands of James Dennis who fourteen years later was raised to the peerage as Baron Tracton and from him the property acquired the name by which it was thereafter known. The building subsequently underwent modifications according to changes of ownership and use but one portion remained unaltered: a first-floor back drawing room. This kept intact its decoration as installed at the time of Jones-Nevill. When the whole place was pulled down coincidentally the National Museum was keen to acquire a good example of the Georgian domestic interior and so the room was carefully removed and reinstated in Kildare Street where it stayed for another three decades until once more taken down: it moved to its present location in the 1960s. The main focus of the Tracton House room is its ceiling on which (as J.B. Maguire has discussed in a fascinating article published in the 2012-13 volume of the Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland) are inscribed two dates: 1746 and 1752. Might it be that the ceiling, the central lozenge of which shows Apollo Musagates opulently lounging in the clouds, a lyre resting on one knee, was decorated in two stages? Could the outer compartments featuring diverse trophies of the arts associated with this god have been created before or after the Apollo, hence the two dates? As with the Mespil House ceilings, it seems unlikely we will ever be able to come up with absolute answers. But in the meantime, a visit to these rooms in Dublin Castle is encouraged, especially as it provides an opportunity to put your head in the clouds and there join the company of classical deities.

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8 comments on “Head In the Clouds

  1. Karen D'Alton Poff says:

    Thank you, I’ve heard about the ceilings from mespil house but thought they were out of bounds by being in Áras an Uachtaráin. I’ve been looking for a photo of mespil house for quite a while, I’ve searched newspapers and checked the architectural archives and Richview. Could you offer any guidance on where else I could look?

    • Apologies for only responding to you now – blame the recent bout of travels…
      Anyway, sadly no I don’t know of where you might find a photograph of Mespil House: I too have been looking for an exterior image of the building (or even some of the interiors, with the ceilings in situ) but no luck as yet. I wonder if the OPW might have something – I will try to remember to ask in the coming days…

  2. Lewis says:

    you can find at least one photo of Mespil House in “Four Roads to Dublin: The History of Rathmines, Ranelagh and Leeson Street”, by Deirdre Kelly (O’Brien press 2001)

  3. I can’t believe this. This has been too easy. (My apologies to the staff in Richview and DIA who I’ve being plaguing about this.) Book ordered and I can’t wait to see what it looks like! Thank you both so much. K

  4. Karen Poff says:

    Got Deirdre Kelly’s book, found photo of mespil House. It’s in the fr brown collection so David Davison is going to find it for me thank you so much.

  5. Andreas F. Borchert says:

    Alice Barrow, a cousin of Sarah Purser, created multiple water-colour paintings of Mespil house. John O’Grady’s book about Sarah Purser includes three of them on pp. 112–113 (figures 54–56). They show the drawingroom and the staircase leading to the drawingroom. At https://www.blouinartsalesindex.com/auctions/Sarah-Purser-3304464/s an oil painting by Sarah Purser is to be seen, titled “On the landing, Mespil House”.

    C. P. Curran published two articles about Dublin plaster work in 1939 and 1940. The latter, published in JRSAI, provide a plate between the pp. 22 and 23, showing the four elements from the ceiling of the dining room. Is anything about their whereabouts known?

    The Irish Times reported on September 3, 1951, that Mespil House is to be demolished shortly “to make way for a block of flats” and that the plaster ceilings are to be preserved – at Áras an Uachtaráin and the Irish embassy in London. It is hard to believe that buildings of such significance were not protected at that time!

    To quote Curran: “In their perfect disposition of light and shade; of graduated low and high relief; in the just relation of plain and decorated surface; in the flowing grace and clarity with which the design is to lightly executed and in their consummate delicacy of modelling these ceilings are the very poetry of plaster. They represent the most accomplished achievement of the stuccodore’s art in Ireland.”

    Thanks for your posting!

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