One of the most significant restoration projects in Ireland over recent years has involved not a grand country house or an important public building, but a modest retail premises in central Dublin. We retain so little material evidence of our commercial history that it is difficult to imagine the vibrant economic life of the country in former centuries. That is why the restoration of 3-4 Parliament Street deserves applause. The thoroughfare was opened up by the Wide Street Commissioners in 1762 in order to provide a suitably grand approach from Essex Bridge to Dublin Castle. Almost all the houses lining the street have undergone considerable change over the past 250-plus years but this building retains its original appearance both inside and out, having served for much of the intervening period as Read’s Cutlers.
The interior of Read’s has altered little since first being fitted out in the 1760s. The ground floor shop, where once swords, as well as knives and forks were once sold, still contains its original counters, display cases and fitted wall cabinets, while upstairs is laid out as a family residence. Some years ago, the building having lain empty and neglected, this was all at risk of being lost but thankfully Read’s latest owner Clem Kenny appreciated its value and engaged in a through and meticulous restoration, a private initiative for which he deserves universal applause and appreciation. Next Thursday, November 15th, Dublin Civic Trust – which has long engaged in similarly valiant enterprises – is offering a tour of Read’s for which tickets can be booked on eventbrite.ie Rather than spoil the surprise of what lies behind that modest façade, these pictures are intended simply to whet appetites. Anyone who has not yet had an opportunity to see inside Read’s is urged to do so (and thereby also assist the Dublin Civic Trust’s worthy work).
Last week, the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht issued a consultation document designed to inform a new national plan called Heritage Ireland 2030. This, it appears, will ‘recognise the vital role our heritage plays in our community, our economy and our society’ and, in addition, will prpvide ‘a coherent, comprehensive and inspiring framework of values, principles and strategic priorities which will guide and inform the heritage sector over the next decade.’ The strategy is to be built around three core themes: National Leadership and Heritage, Heritage Partnerships, and Communities and Heritage. An open invitation is extended by the department for submissions on the plan’s formation (although curiously no deadline is provided) and more information is available at: https://www.chg.gov.ie/heritage/heritageireland2030.
No doubt many people will have opinions on what ought to be prioritised in Heritage Ireland 2030, but here’s one suggestion. According to the consultation document, an objective of the plan will be the production of ‘An effective policy and regulatory framework and governance structure that supports an integrated approach to the protection, conservation and use of heritage.’ Just such a regulatory framework and governance structure already exists thanks to the 2000 Planning Act. As part of that legislation, owners or occupiers of protected structures are legally required to make sure a building for which they are responsible does not become endangered through neglect, decay, damage or harm. Heritage Ireland 2030 might insist that local authorities act according to the terms of the act, and thus ensure less of our built heritage, despite being listed for protection, is lost forever. Let’s act on existing strategies before embarking on new ones.*
*Interestingly, a conference called Democratising Conservation is being held at University College Dublin on Friday 16th November: publicity for the event announces that ‘a national system of architectural heritage protection has now been in place in Ireland for almost 20 years, providing a rigorous professional framework in which conservation decisions are framed.’ Not everyone will necessarily agree with this opinion.
Robert Rochfort, first Earl of Belvedere is rightly notorious for having imprisoned his wife for over thirty years on the grounds of adultery with one of his brothers: she was only released after his death in 1774. At some date before then, the earl had embarked on building a new residence for himself in Dublin. Located on Great Denmark Street and looking down North Great Georges Street, the incomplete Belvedere House was inherited by the second earl who initially sought to dispose of the property, offering it for sale in 1777. However, either he was unable to find a buyer, or he decided to retain the house, work on which was finished in 1786. Since 1841 it has been owned by the Jesuit Order which runs a secondary school on the site. In plan and composition Belvedere House closely resembles 86 St Stephen’s Green, begun in 1765, the design of which is now attributed to Robert West who, in addition to being a fine stuccodore was also a part-time architect and property developer. When Belvedere House was offered for sale in 1777, interested parties were directed to West, thereby indicating that similarities between this building and 86 St Stephen’s Green were not accidental.
The attribution of Belvedere House’s design to Robert West is of significance because of the building’s remarkable interior decoration. The staircase hall and first-floor reception rooms contain some of Dublin’s most elaborate plasterwork, and divining who was responsible for this tour-de-force has been the subject of much analysis. In 1967 C.P. Curran’s Dublin Decorative Plasterwork of the 17th and 18th centuries noted in the collection of drawings left by stuccodore Michael Stapleton several items directly relating to the design of ceilings in Belvedere House. Accordingly, this work was assigned to Stapleton. However, the fact that West was responsible for designing the house complicates matters, and the consensus now appears to be that both he and Stapleton had a hand in the plasterwork. Conor Lucey (in The Stapleton Collection, 2007) suggests that Stapleton may have been apprenticed to, or trained with, West and the fact that he was named the sole executor of the latter’s will in 1790 indicates the two men were close. The source material for the stucco work is diverse, that in the stair hall deriving in part from a plate in Robert Adam’s Works in Architecture, but the first-floor rooms feature a wider range of inspiration, much of it from France and Italy. The main reception room at the front of the building has an oval in the centre of its ceiling, which seemingly held a scene of Venus wounded by Love taken from Francois Boucher’s painting of the same name. However, when the Jesuits assumed responsibility for the house, the saucy nature of the work led to its removal. The adjacent room’s ceiling contains a roundel showing Diana in a chariot drawn by two stags: this was allowed to remain. In recent years a full restoration of these rooms has been undertaken by RKD Architects, allowing us better to appreciate how they must have looked when first completed, a tribute to the remarkable craftsmanship that existed in 18th century Ireland.
The first floor rear room of 11 Parnell Square, Dublin. This was one of the first houses built on the square soon after leases were given in 1753, its original owner being Richard Steele. By 1770 it had come into the possession of John Butler, future 17th Earl of Ormonde, who enlarged the building by adding a further bay. In 1887 it became the premises of the National Club which, as the name indicates, was a nationalist organisation: ironically (or perhaps intentionally), the neighbouring house served as the Grand Orange Hall of Ireland. In 1901 11 Parnell Square became the headquarters of the recently-established Dublin County Council and it was then that the interior underwent extensive remodelling. This room became the council chamber and, no doubt in an effort to convey due gravitas to proceedings, the walls were lined with stained oak panelling, as Christine Casey has noted, in a peculiar mixture of Tudor and Celtic Revival styles. It was here that decisions were taken for many years on the development of the greater Dublin area, the consequences of which continue to be felt.
The light may be dim but the subject of this sculpture certainly wasn’t. Visitors to the Old Library in Trinity College Dublin tend to be so engaged with the architecture of the space that they don’t notice the plinths holding busts that line either side of the room. The all-male gathering features classical philosophers, distinguished figures associated with the college and also, rightly, a number of famous Irishmen. This is scientist Robert Boyle, discoverer of Boyle’s Law (which explains how pressure is inversely proportional to volume) as represented by the Flemish sculptor Peter Scheemakers. In 1743 he was commissioned by the college authorities to produce the first 14 busts in the library. Nearby can be seen Dean Swift by Louis-François Roubiliac which dates from c.1748/49 and is the finest item in the collection.
An oak chimneypiece in the former Director’s Office of the National Library of Ireland, Dublin. It is one of ten designed for the building by architect Thomas Manly Deane in 1890 and carved by Carlo Cambi in Siena, much to the chagrin of Irish craftsmen who believed they should have been given this and similar commissions for the National Museum and National Gallery. The chimneypiece, and its companion on the opposite side of the library’s entrance hall in what was originally the Trustees’ Room, are judged to be the library’s two best, both featuring herms with flowing locks supporting an architrave scattered with birds and gryphons, the whole centred on a smiling putto.
Six years ago on September 24th 2012, the Irish Aesthete made its debut. What was the intent behind this initiative? Impossible to recall, although then as now a primary motivation was encouraging greater and more widespread engagement with Ireland’s architectural heritage, much of which remains at risk from either neglect or misuse. Over the past six years, some aspects of the site have changed, others remained the same. Very soon, the format of a thrice-weekly posting was established, with longer features each Monday and shorter ones every Wednesday and Saturday. The quality of photographs has certainly improved and, one hopes, will continue to do so (not least thanks to improvements in the calibre of mobile phone cameras). There has been a consistent effort to represent the entire island of Ireland, and to show the good, the bad and – with regrettable frequency – the ugly. What hasn’t altered throughout this period has been the attention of friends and followers, which is enormously appreciated: without regular support and feedback, it is unlikely the Irish Aesthete would have continued for so long. Therefore thank you to everyone who has shown interest in this site: you make it worthwhile. Happily today the Irish Aesthete is read across the world and has led to other opportunities for writing and speaking engagements, thereby helping to spread the gospel of our architectural history. A further outcome is that early next year the first book of Irish Aesthete photographs will be published, about which more in due course. Meanwhile, to mark today’s anniversary, here are six personal favourites taken over the years. You may have made other choices from the site: please feel free to share your own suggestions. Of the six shown above, two are properties in private hands, two are in public ownership, and two are ruins. All however are important elements in our common cultural heritage.