Truly Majestic


An overmantel in oak and pine attributed to the Dublin carver John Houghton and dated 1750/51: it appears he was paid £12 for his work. The piece was originally made to sit above the chimneypiece in the great Presence Chamber, one of a suite of State Apartments created in Dublin Castle around this time. The Presence Chamber was destroyed in a fire which broke out in the building in January 1941 and is now known only from photographs: the overmantel survived because at some date in the late 19th/early 20th century it had been moved to another location. The carving depicts Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius accepting homage from a group of Parthians following the conquest of their country in A.D.166. It is clearly intended to be an allegory for the government of Ireland by William Stanhope, first Earl of Harrington who had been appointed Lord Lieutenant in 1746. Following the initiative of his predecessor (and cousin), Philip Stanhope, fourth Earl of Chesterfield, Harrington continued the job of overhauling the old state rooms in the castle, in 1749 requesting from the Lords of the Treasury the substantial sum of £6,991.13.6 for this purpose. Both the overmantle and the portrait of Harrington (below) by James Worsdale are included in a fascinating exhibition Making Majesty currently at Dublin Castle. It is accompanied by an extremely informative (and readable) catalogue of the same name, edited by the show’s organizers Myles Campbell and William Derham.

Studying the Classics

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Often overlooked by visitors to Cork’s Crawford Art Gallery is the institution’s remarkable collection of classical sculpture casts. Derived from those in the Vatican, the casts were made on the instructions of Pope Pius VII and under the supervision of Antonio Canova. They were originally presented to Britain’s Prince Regent (the future George IV) but he having no desire for them, the casts languished until William Hare, Lord Ennismore (later first Earl of Listowel), then President of the Cork Society of Arts persuaded the Prince to have the collection shipped to Ireland where they duly arrived in 1818. Initially displayed inside a converted theatre on Patrick Street, the casts subsequently passed into the care of the Cork School of Art and thus came to reside in what is now the Crawford Gallery. Above, the Belvedere Torso can be seen through the form of the Lancellotti Discobolus. The latter also figures below, sighted beyond the Borghese Gladiator and the Apollo Belvedere.

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Lost and Found

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Like many words in the English language, ‘lost’ is open to diverse use. It can, for example, mean missing or misplaced but just as often is employed to denote something that has vanished, perished or been destroyed. Such is the case with an engrossing – albeit chastening – book recently published, Lost Ireland: 1860-1960. Author William Derham has trawled through thousands of photographs to select 500 images of buildings throughout the island, the majority of which have entirely disappeared or else been so altered/mutilated that they no longer bear any semblance to their original state.

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In a thoughtful introductory essay, Derham provides an historical context for why so many older buildings in Ireland should come to have been lost and laments the disappearance of certain building types such as the early unfortified house represented by Eyrecourt, County Galway: dating from the second half of the 17th century and still intact less than 100 years ago, it is now a roofless shell. Likewise Ireland has no examples of the ‘cagework’ urban house in which the frame would be of wood and the spaces between filled with wattle and daub. The last of these to survive, in Dublin on the corner of Castle and Werburgh Streets, was demolished as long ago as 1812. Likewise the once-widespread brick gabled townhouses known as Dutch Billies are now almost extinct, or else subsumed into later buildings.

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Some losses – notably among the ranks of the Irish country house – are already well-known, but even here Derham finds examples likely to be unfamiliar to most readers, and explains the shameful role played in the erosion of their number by that state body the Land Commission. However he covers many other areas of depletion and, frankly, dissipation, such as the damage inflicted on Roman Catholic churches and cathedrals in the aftermath of the second Vatican Council. Using the excuse of a new liturgy, members of the Irish clergy stripped interiors of the buildings for which they were responsible: one of the most egregious examples being the gutting of Pugin’s Killarney Cathedral at the instigation of then-bishop Eamon Casey. Tellingly their clerical equivalents in other countries did not feel impelled to engage in similar acts of vandalism. But valuable secular buildings were also squandered for no good reason, such as the demolition in 1964 of a fine mid-18th century market house in Mountrath, County Laois – supposedly because a public lavatory was needed (although this was never built). As much as an exhortation to protect what remains as a requiem to what has gone, this is a beautifully produced book and allows us to find again, if only in photographic form, what has been lost. Do acquire a copy while you can as it is certain to sell out.

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Lost Ireland: 1860-1960 by William Derham is published by Hyde Park Editions, price £39.95/€49.95. The photographs above were taken at a recent exhibition in Dublin Castle to coincide with the launch of the book. They show (from top), Roxborough Castle, County Tyrone (burnt 1922), Longford Castle, Longford (demolished 1972), Woodstock, County Kilkenny (burnt 1922) and Ballynastragh, County Wexford (burnt 1923). The exhibition has now ended but deserves to travel to other venues around the country in coming months; why not encourage your local arts centre/library to borrow it?

The Regency Buck

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Born in 1786 at Elm Hall, County Tipperary, John Burke moved to London where he became engaged in genealogical studies. In 1826 he issued his Genealogical and Heraldic Dictionary of the Peerage and Baronetage of the United Kingdom the first such work in which entries were arranged alphabetically, and both peers and baronets were included. Initially continued by his descendants before passing into other hands, the abiding popularity of ‘Burke’s Peerage’ has led to its regular appearance ever since. In 1819 Burke met another displaced Irishman, the artist Adam Buck who that year exhibited a watercolour portrait of his new friend’s wife at the Royal Academy. Further images of the family followed (some seen below) not least the picture above: dating from 1833 it depicts John Burke and his son, the future Sir John Bernard Burke. These works are included in an exhibition devoted to Buck currently running at the Crawford Gallery, Cork (the artist’s native city). As one of the most prolific and successful miniaturists and portraitists of the early 19th century, Buck saw his work widely reproduced as prints or on porcelain. However even before his death in 1833 (the same year as the Burke double-portrait) he had begun to fall out of fashion and for a long time thereafter was little regarded. This exhibition helps to re-establish him as one of Ireland’s finest artists of the period and merits a visit to Cork.

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Adam Buck (1759-1833): A Regency Artist from Cork runs at the Crawford Gallery until April 9th next.


Images of the Old Days

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George Petrie (1790-1866) is today best recalled as one of the 19th century’s most notable antiquaries and archaeologists but he was also a fine artist, who n 1857 became President of the Royal Hibernian Academy. Many of his pictures provided the basis for engravings used to illustrate the period’s guidebooks and travelogues, and while he drew and painted views of the country’s ancient monuments he also produced a series of watercolours showing the Dublin of his day. To mark the 150th anniversary of Petrie’s death, the Royal Irish Academy (here he served as Vice President and which holds much of his archive) is currently exhibiting some of these pictures such as the view of Christ Church Cathedral above, which shows the building prior to its comprehensive restoration in the 1870s. Similarly the image below captures City Hall in its original incarnation as the Royal Exchange, and with a row of buildings to the immediate east which have long since been demolished. A fascinating show and well worth visiting in its final days.

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Views of Dublin: Original Watercolours by George Petrie, MRIA runs at the Royal Irish Academy, 19 Dawson Street, Dublin until next Monday, February 15th. Pictures reproduced by permission of the Royal Irish Academy © RIA.

A Spirit of Theatre

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The origins of Dublin castle go back to the first decade of the 13th century, but this site – the highest spot in the immediate locality – was previously occupied by a fortress constructed around the first half of the tenth century after the Vikings settled here. More than two hundred years later the Normans arrived and took possession of Dublin, making it their centre of government in Ireland. Hence in 1204 King John commanded the erection of a large stone castle where the Viking fortification had previously stood. The result was a building of strong walls and good ditches designed to defend the city but also to serve as an administrative centre and to provide protection for the King’s treasury. The castle was largely completed by 1230 under the direction of Henry of London, then Archbishop of Dublin. It is only during the reign of King John’s son, Henry III that the first references are made to a chapel within the castle’s walls. Deeply religious (he maintained at least fifty chapels for his own and his household’s exclusive use), Henry was particularly devoted to the cult of St Edward the Confessor, to whom he was related (Edward’s mother had been a Norman princess) and whose remains he installed in a costly shrine in Westminster Abbey. Thus around 1242 when the king ordered that new windows be made for the chapel in Dublin Castle he had the building dedicated to Edward the Confessor. Situated to the immediate east of the circular Record Tower – today the most intact portion of the mediaeval castle – over the following centuries the chapel underwent the same vicissitudes as the rest of the site. Between 1358-61 its interior was extensively redecorated, with 600lbs of glass purchased for the windows, together with a new crucifix and rood and two devotional statues, one of the Virgin, the other of St Thomas the Martyr who now succeeded Edward the Confessor as the chapel’s patron. It would appear that in the 16th century further repairs and refurbishments were carried out by Sir Henry Sidney, then acting as Ireland’s Lord Deputy, and perhaps again in 1638 after a fire had damaged the upper floor of the building. Worse followed in 1684 after another fire broke out to the immediate west. In order to contain the conflagration, Lord Arran, son of the first Duke of Ormonde (then serving as Lord Deputy) ordered the chapel and a number of other adjacent structures be blown up.

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It would appear that towards the end of the 17th century Sir William Robinson, then Surveyor General, rebuilt the chapel along with other portions of the castle in order to make the whole place more comfortable as a residence for the English crown’s representative in Ireland. But while such work continued over successive decades, the chapel remained a relatively modest property: a late 18th century painting shows it to have been of red brick and looking more domestic than religious in character. However, as 1800 and the Act of Union approached, the building underwent reappraisal and it was considered to be ‘little consistent with its attachment to a royal palace.’ In 1801 James Gandon was invited to submit plans for a new chapel. He produced seven designs, none of which survive so one can only speculate what this great advocate of neo-classicism might have created. After a further delay finally in 1807 Francis Johnston who two years earlier had been appointed architect to the Board of Works, embarked on the building one sees today. As Judith Hill has written, the result was intended to emphasize the role of the Church of Ireland in the governance of the country, symbolized by its location within the walls of the administration’s headquarters. It therefore had to provide public access, greater space ‘and an enhanced architectural presence within the castle precincts.’ As a result, the eventual chapel was double the size of its predecessor, with an organ and space for a choir to offer cathedral-standard services: like the viceroy, the chapel was expected to represent the royal presence in Ireland. Underlining its ancient links to the regime, access to the chapel for the castle’s residents was via the old Record Tower. This Johnston reworked in order to improve its appearance, increasing the tower’s height by the addition of another storey with tripartite windows and then topping the whole with machicolated battlements resting on tiered corbels.

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Francis Johnston, who would soon move on to design the classical General Post Office on Sackville (now O’Connell) Street, was equally at home working in the gothic mode, as he had already demonstrated with Charleville Castle, County Offaly (begun 1798). He adopted the same style for the new chapel in Dublin Castle, even if here it acts as decoration laid over classical symmetry. The exterior of cut limestone building is, as intended by Johnston, rather austere, north and south elevations being of six bays, their two-tiered windows flanked by stepped buttresses that finish in pinnacles. The west end is absorbed into the drum of the mediaeval Record Tower but that at the east, Judith Hill proposes, draws inspiration from the façade of Westminster Hall in London which had recently been cleared of later accretions. Buttressed towers stand guard on either side of a low door above which can be seen the window which lights the chancel within. Decorative flourishes come from the profusion of heads – 103 in total – found at the base of each pinnacle and ornamenting all doors and windows. These were carved by Edward Smyth, best-known today for his keystone heads personifying the rivers of Ireland that adorn Dublin’s Custom House. Here he was likely assisted by his son John. According to Johnston, some of the heads were intended to be historical ‘and some fanciful.’ Dean Swift, for example, can be found on the north elevation, where St Peter, clutching the keys of heaven, hovers over the main public entrance to the building. St Patrick and Brian Boru face each other on either side of the east end door, the window above featuring Faith, Hope and Charity. The same three virtues can be seen inside where John Smyth is believed to have been responsible for the greater part of the work (his father Edward died in 1812). It has been noted that Smyth the younger’s contribution is often flamboyantly baroque in character, a counterpoint to Johnston’s interpretation of Perpendicular Gothic. The stucco heads form part of a larger decorative programme in which a number of other craftsmen played a role, not least stuccodore George Stapleton who created the plasterwork tracery with which the body of the chapel is smothered.

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The spirit, if not the form, of baroque found in Smyth’s figurative work pervades what was henceforth known as the Chapel Royal. The interior fizzes with frothy energy thanks not only to the elaborate plasterwork but also the oak galleries carved by Richard Stewart, their fronts divided into panels, each containing the coat of arms of a different Lord Lieutenant surrounded by virtuosic foliate ornamentation. Some of the stained glass in the east window is 15th century French and was presented by Lord Whitworth (Lord Lieutenant at the time of the chapel’s inaugural service in December 1814) while that below was specially made by Joshua Bradley. Other windows contain later glass that bathes the interior in a kaleidoscope of colour. The theatricality of the building must have been even more apparent in its original incarnation when the altar table was concealed behind a large carved pulpit (now in nearby St Werburgh’s church, see: Simply Divine, May 27th 2013). The centre section of the first-floor galleries, that on the south side intended to be occupied by the Viceroy, that on the north by the Archbishop of Dublin, projects forward in the manner of an opera box. This impression was amplified when the Lord Lieutenant’s seat was surmounted by an elaborately carved baldacchino smothered in plush red drapes. The same rich fabric was used for seat coverings such as the benches made by the Dublin firm of Mack, Williams and Gibton. The total bill for their contribution came to over £1,593. Indeed eventual expenditure on the Chapel Royal reached £42,000 which was more than four times the original estimate of £9,532: this compares with the £50,000 spent on building Johnston’s near contemporaneous GPO which is a much larger building. Some of the chapel’s high cost can be ascribed to necessary structural work owing to the nature of a sloping site below which ran the river Poddle (as well as an old quarry). But much of it was due to Johnston’s determination to create a virtuosic building. The chapel retained its original interior until the two tenures of the seventh Earl of Carlisle as Lord Lieutenant between 1855 and 1864. One suspects that Lord Carlisle, a fervent Christian (his mother, to whom he was devoted, had been a keen evangelical) found the character of the Chapel Royal too frivolous for his taste. To improve the calibre of services, he had a new Telford organ installed at the west end, while at the east the old pulpit was removed to allow a clear view of the altar table (a new and smaller Caen stone pulpit was placed to the immediate north). The baldacchino over the Lord Lieutenant’s box came out too while the entire ceiling was painted azure with gold stars. Thankfully much of this Victorian redecoration was removed when the Chapel Royal was refurbished some thirty years ago and in so far as is possible it has now reverted to its appearance when first opened.

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A visit to the Chapel Royal is now included in tours of Dublin Castle and is much recommended. In addition, an exhibition on the building called ‘Pinnacles, Pomp & Piety’ – featuring many of the original contents from the Chapel, such as furniture, silverware and historic drawings – can be seen in the State Apartments until March 6th 2016. This is accompanied by a terrifically informative book, ‘The Chapel Royal, Dublin Castle, An Architectural History’ (Myles Campbell and William Derham, editors), to which today’s text is indebted and which will likewise enhance other readers’ knowledge both of the Chapel Royal, and the context in which it was built and decorated.

Ireland: Crossroads of Art and Design VII

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The neo-classical painter Robert Fagan was born in London and spent the greater part of his career in Italy. But he never forgot his Irish heritage and in 1801 painted this picture, Portrait of a Lady as Hibernia. The work has often been considered a response to the previous year’s Act of Union, the effect on Ireland suggested by the harp’s broken strings. And the painting is replete with other references to the old country, not least the wolfhound, the pages of text headed by the words ‘Erin go bragh’ (Ireland forever), the thatched cottage and, of course the green gown – worn rather negligently – by the sitter. The proposal has been made that she was a Margaret Simpson, mistress of Henry, thirteen Viscount Dillon, a notion strengthened by the carved nude female reclining luxuriantly on the harp. This is not Ireland as later nationalists would represent her, but serves as a fitting symbol for the cosmopolitan splendour of the country’s culture during the long 18th century which is being so wonderfully celebrated at present in Chicago’s Art Institute.
This ends a week of marking the exhibition Ireland: Crossroads of Art and Design, 1690-1840 which runs until June 7th. The Irish Aesthete reverts to customary coverage from tomorrow.