Looking down an enfilade of rooms on the ground floor of the 1903 Milltown Wing at the National Gallery, Dublin. This portion of the building was designed by Sir Thomas Newenham Deane (following his death in 1899, its completion was overseen by his son Sir Thomas Manly Deane). A notable decorative feature is the doorcases carved in walnut by the Italian woodworker Carlo Cambi. The picture below shows the equivalent sequence of rooms on the first floor which, like much of the rest of the gallery, have been closed to the public for the past six years: once fully re-hung with pictures from the collection, they are due to reopen in mid-June.
The houses of Dublin’s Henrietta Street have featured here more than once, and deservedly so since even if many have suffered long periods of neglect those that remain are among the most important such buildings in the capital. Henrietta Street was the first major scheme undertaken by the 18th century’s enlightened and far-seeing property developer Luke Gardiner (would that his present successors displayed such taste and perspicacity). From 1721 onwards he began to construct large domestic residences on what had hitherto been open ground to the north of the existing city. Nothing better demonstrates confidence in such an enterprise than the developer himself living on site, and around 1731 Luke Gardiner built his own house, the architect responsible being the most fashionable of the era, Sir Edward Lovett Pearce. This is 10 Henrietta Street which remained in ownership, even if increasingly intermittent occupation, through successive generations of the original family until 1829 when Charles Gardiner, Earl of Blessington died without a male heir. His fascinating second wife, born Marguerite Power, is believed to have visited the house only once and it eventually became used by members of the legal profession (not surprisingly since the Gardiner estate thereafter became immersed in long and costly litigation). In 1899 the building was acquired by the Daughters of Charity of St Vincent de Paul, members of which order continue to live there still.
Unlike many other properties on Henrietta Street, the interiors of No.10 remain relatively unaltered, the most notable changes occurring during the 18th century when the house was still owned and lived in by the Gardiners. On the ground floor, a rear room originally known as the Breakfast Parlour, appears least changed from the original decorative scheme, with a splendid doorcase flanked by Corinthian columns and topped by a pedimented entablature: the ceiling here, unlike most of the others, exemplifies sober early 18th century classicism, compartmentalised in low-relief geometric plasterwork patterns.
Structurally the most significant intervention was a reconfiguring of the entrance hall and staircase. When the house was first built, it featured a double-height entrance containing stairs leading to the first-floor. However, some years after the death of Luke Gardiner in 1755 his son Charles reordered this space to create a single-storey entrance hall, behind which a new staircase hall was instated. Probably around the same time a number of rooms were given new ceilings in the rococo manner. These decorations are important because in the majority of cases they are made not of plaster but papier-mâché. The use of this medium is unusual but not unique – a number of other examples survive elsewhere in the city and in Carton, County Kildare – but it seems strange to find it here. One of the attractions of papier-mâché was its relative cheapness (relative to stuccowork, that is) but the Gardiners were certainly affluent to afford anything they wished. On the other hand, its great merit is easier (and cleaner) installation than plaster, so perhaps this is why papier-mâché was preferred for the redecoration of existing rooms.
It was not used, on the other hand, for the saloon, or ballroom (now used as a chapel), which in its present form looks to have been either added or extended at the time when Charles Gardiner was re-fashioning other spaces in the house. The saloon ceiling (central photograph above) while stylistically not unlike the others on this level is of plasterwork, and the other striking decorative feature is a substantial Venetian window in the centre of the west wall.
An inventory survives for 10 Henrietta Street, taken in November 1772 and itemising the contents of each room in the house. It adds immensely to our understanding not just of this property but also of how rooms in an 18th century urban residence were furnished. The answer is: relatively sparsely. The two interlinked first-floor drawing rooms, for example, each contained a large pier glass (valued at £12 & 10 shillings, and £9 respectively), and a marble-topped table (£4 and £3) but only a handful of other items, at least those considered worth recording. The Ante Chamber – formerly the upper portion of the entrance hall – featured ‘2 Large Landscapes in Gilt frames’ (£22 & 15 shillings), a large Dutch market scene (£7) and a mahogany dressing table (just 15 shillings). The most notable items were in the saloon which held two marble-topped tables with brass borders (£9), two ‘large Pictures of the Cartoons Gilt Frames’ (a pair of cartoons attributed to Raphael and valued at £50), two full-length portraits in gilt frames of George I and the Duke of Bolton (£17), a similar portrait of the Earl of Stafford and his secretary (£7), a pair of mahogany card tables (£1 & 16 shillings) and ‘2 Plates of Glass in late Mr Gardiner’s frames’ (£17). And so it goes on through the house, giving us an insight into living conditions at the time. Coupled with the preservation of the house itself (which benefitted some years ago from a major restoration programme that saw many of the rooms brought back to their initial state), 10 Henrietta Street sheds clearer light than perhaps any other such property in Dublin on how a grand urban residence looked in the Georgian period.
Three years ago this site drew attention to the scandalous condition of Aldborough House in Dublin (see A Thundering Disgrace, January 13th 2014). The last great aristocratic townhouse to be built in the capital (and, other than Leinster House, the largest) the building’s name comes from the man responsible for its construction Edward Stratford, second Earl of Aldborough. Although the earl already possessed a fine residence next to Belvedere House on Great Denmark Street, he was determined to construct a new one that would testify to his wealth and social position, in addition to serving as centre-piece to a westerly extension of the city beyond that already achieved by the Gardiners. Portland Row is a continuation of the North Circular Road, running from the Phoenix Park to the docks, and it made sense to anticipate further development in this part of Dublin. Unfortunately Lord Aldborough failed to take into account the consequences of the 1800 Act of Union (for which he voted) which led to a steep decline in the city’s fortunes and left his great town house marooned.
Five years in construction, and costing over £40,000, Aldborough House was only enjoyed by its owner for a short period since he died in January 1801. The property passed to his widow who subsequently remarried but was likewise dead a mere eighteen months later. Then came a decade of litigation before Lord Aldborough’s nephew Colonel John Wingfield was confirmed in possession of the house; he promptly sold its entire contents. The building was then let to ‘Professor’ Gregor von Feinaigle, a former Cistercian monk and mnemonist, who opened a school there. (Incidentally, it is proposed that the word ‘finagle’ derives from the professor’s name and reflects his dodgy pedagogical methods). Six years later von Feinaigle died and by 1843 the house had become an army barracks. In 1850 the garden statuary was all sold and in the 1940s the garden itself was lost, used by Dublin Corporation for social housing so that today Aldborough House has effectively no grounds. As for the house itself, coming into public ownership it served as a depot for the Department of Posts and Telegraphs during the last century. During this time and especially in later decades the property was compromised by various ill-considered alterations such as the vertical divisions of rooms to create office space and the effective gutting of the former theatre. At the end of the 19th century all the chimneypieces, supposedly by Pietro Bossi, were removed and placed somewhere safe, never to be seen again. Nevertheless, the house remained in use and in reasonable condition. In 1999 the state telecommunications company Telecom Eireann was privatised as Eircom and that organisation offered Aldborough House for sale. The Irish Music Rights Organisation (IMRO) considered it for a new headquarters but then opted not to go ahead with the scheme and in 2005 the building was sold for €4.5 million to a company called Aldborough Developments and over the next nine years it fell further and further into disrepair.
Today’s photographs were taken during a recent opportunity to inspect the interior of Aldborough House, and they testify to the building’s poor condition. The vast central staircase, of cantilevered Portland stone with wrought-iron balusters, is now supported by a number of metal poles rising the height of the building: the glazed dome at the top has been covered over, so no natural light reaches here. Many of the other areas are likewise boarded up, and can only be seen with the aid of a torch. The main rooms on ground and first floors are today principally striking for their scale, immense bare spaces stripped of whatever decoration they had once been given (although in the ballroom scagliola pilasters with Corinthian capitals survive beneath layers of paint). Long windows running almost the full height of the walls provide ample views of what was once largely open countryside but is now urban sprawl. Some of the overdoors, on which classical figures recline and putti frolic indifferent to the decay around them, remain but others have been pulled out. The chimneypieces, as already mentioned, are long gone, even in rooms on the attic storey. Tantalising hints of former splendour appear here and there, but in the main the impression is of long-term neglect with inevitable consequences for the building. Aldborough House changed hands once more in autumn 2014 and initially little seemed to be happening to improve the site. More recently however, clearance and stabilisation work has taken place, as well as the advent of decent security to ensure the place is no longer vulnerable to vandalism. There are proposals now being developed to give Aldborough House a viable future and if these are allowed to proceed the property would be restored and brought back to use. For too long it has sat empty and untended: anyone who cares for our architectural heritage must hope that this situation will soon change and Aldborough House no longer be a thundering disgrace.
The upper section of the double-height stair hall in 7 Henrietta Street, Dublin. The house dates from the early 1740s and retains some of its original interior, albeit in a much mutilated condition. For example, as can be seen below with a handful of exceptions the carved balusters were removed over a century ago when the building was divided into tenements and replaced with coarse timber uprights. But the walls retain their plaster panelling, a battered recollection of how splendid this space must once have been.
And so 2016 draws to its close, a year which for many people around the world has been so crowded with shock one suspects its departure will not be much mourned. But like Barthelemy Cramillion’s mid-18th century stucco bird (originally in Mespil House, now in Dublin Castle, for more see Head in the Clouds, March 2016) we must try to soar above our present circumstances and hope the future will bring better times. And like the elephant below in the entrance hall of Huntington Castle, County Carlow, we can do our best to move forward slowly and steadily. To paraphrase Samuel Beckett: Well, shall we go on? Yes, let’s go on.
If anyone ought to be familiar with the library at Birr Castle, County Offaly it is the building’s present chateleine, Alison Rosse. Located to the immediate right of the entrance hall, this rooom has been the victim of no less than two accidental fires, the first in 1832 and the second ninety years later. But on both occasions the library was restored and its shelves restocked so that today it looks as though the place never suffered any damage. Like all good domestic libraries, it serves a multitude of purposes: not just as a repository for books, but somewhere to take tea or repose, a space in which to seek sanctuary or hospitality. All this is evident in the watercolour seen above which shows the castle library well able to fulfill these functions, and many others besides. It appears in a new publication, Room for Books: Paintings of Irish Libraries featuring twenty-five such spaces as captured by Alison Rosse, accompanied by William Laffan’s text. Most of those included, a mixture of public and private libraries, still exist but one that has since been dispersed is that of the late Maurice Craig, shown below. When Maurice and Agnes Bernelle lived in Sandymount, Dublin he maintained this room on the first floor of their house. Following her death and his move to a smaller residence, he brought a great many of the books with him: I remember them being crammed into shelves and heaped on every available surface along which a resident cat (Maurice loved cats) would step with such care that no volume was ever displaced. Despite the seeming disorder, he was familiar with the place of every work in the collection and immediately able to lay his hand on whatever was needed for consultation. Bibliophiles love books not just for their physical beauty but also for their content. And such will be the case with the present publication, recommended as a last-minute gift (although book lovers will appreciate receiving a copy any time).
Room for Books: Paintings of Irish Libraries by Alison Rosse and William Laffan is published by the Irish Georgian Society, €10.00
A view of the northern end of Sackville (now O’Connell) Street as shown in William Turner de Lond’s depiction of the entry of George IV into Dublin on August 17th 1821. The king had actually landed at Howth five days earlier, on his fifty-ninth birthday and in a state of some inebriation: it may have been as a result of the latter that his ‘official’ arrival only took place when it did. The scene shows George IV, the first British monarch to visit Ireland in 130 years (and the first for much longer to come without bellicose intent), standing in his carriage to acknowledge the cheering crowds. This was not a piece of fiction: a contemporary report in The Patriot observed that ‘they never saw any manifestation of popular enthusiasm so heartfelt, as that which hailed his Majesty from, at least, 100,000 persons of all ranks and estates.’ The painting was only one among several produced to commemorate the occasion (a number of artists recognised its commercial potential) and is of interest for showing the Rotunda Hospital in the background as well as the east side of Rutland (now Parnell) Square.
It is one of a number of such works included in a recently-published book, Creating History: Stories of Ireland in Art which accompanies an exhibition of the same name currently running at the National Gallery of Ireland. While at least some of the works discussed are imaginative recreations (such as Samuel Watson’s portrayal of the 11th century Battle of Clontarf, painted in 1844, and James Barry’s Baptism of the King of Cashel by St Patrick, c.1800-1), others provide an invaluable record of how parts of this country looked in the past. Such is the case with the picture shown below, Francis Wheatley’s 1780 picture of the Irish House of Commons. For some observers the interest here would be in identifying some of the political parties included in the work. For others, however, it is especially important for showing how this chamber, designed by Sir Edward Lovett Pearce, looked before being seriously damaged by fire in 1792. Although reconstructed to a simpler design, the House of Commons was abolished eight years later and, as is well-known, when the Parliament building was subsequently bought by the Bank of Ireland, the British government insisted structural changes were made to ensure it could not revert to its original purpose. Creating History: Stories of Ireland in Art examines more than fifty works of art and includes essays by the likes of Professors Tom Dunne and Roy Foster, Róisin Kennedy and Emily Mark-Fitzgerald.