A detail of Harry Clarke’s Eve of St Agnes window, now in the Hugh Lane Gallery, Dublin. Inspired by Keats’ poem of the same name, the window was commissioned in 1923 by Harold Jacob (of the Jacob’s Biscuit family) for his father’s home on Ailesbury Road. Completed within a year, the window was duly installed and then moved to a couple of other properties before being acquired by the gallery forty years ago in 1978. The history of the window and the inspiration for its design (not least the influence of the Ballets Russes, and its sumptuous sets and costumes by the likes of Léon Bakst) in an essay by Jessica O’Donnell included in the just-published Harry Clarke and Artistic Visions of the New Irish State. The book seeks to contextualize the artist not just within Ireland but also the broader modernist movement by examining different aspects of his output: Angela Griffith, for example, writes on the two promotional booklets published by Jameson whiskey in the mid-1920s, for which Clarke provided illustrations, while Fiona Bateman looks at windows produced by the Clarke studios for Irish Catholic Missionaries in Africa (apparently many of these remain in churches in Kenya, Nigeria and other countries). Rightly dedicated to the memory of the late Dr Nicola Gordon Bowe (the first anniversary of whose death falls in a couple of weeks), the book further illuminates our knowledge of cultural life in Ireland during the first years of the independent state.
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).
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 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.
It is now half a century since Castletown, County Kildare opened to the public. Constructed during the 1720s as one of our earliest and still greatest extant country houses, the building might have been lost had it not been for the plucky vision of the Hon Desmond Guinness in purchasing Castletown, and then the sterling work of the Irish Georgian Society in undertaking restoration work so that it could welcome visitors. Since 1994 Castletown has been in state ownership and the Office of Public Works, together with the Castletown Foundation, supports an ongoing programme of further improvements to house and contents.
One of the latest projects undertaken inside Castletown has been the conservation of the Red Drawing Room, part of an enfilade on the northside of the ground floor. The design of this space dates from the second half of the 1760s when much work was being undertaken in the house by Tom and Lady Louisa Conolly but the walls were hung in crimson hand-woven damask probably in the late 1860s/early 1870s. An early decision was made not to replace this much-weathered material but to preserve it in situ, carrying out necessary repairs while leaving evidence of age and wear-and-tear. This work is now complete and the room returned to inspection by visitors who will be able to admire a rehang of pictures and other additions to the decorative scheme, not least new curtains of damask woven to match that on the walls. An essay on the Red Drawing Room’s conservation by Christopher Moore is included in Volume XX of the Irish Georgian Society’s Irish Architectural and Decorative Studies journal which has just been published.
A detail of the ceiling in the former St Paul’s Church, Cork. The building dates from 1723 when on instructions of the corporation a new parish was created in this part of the city. Fitted out with now-lost gallery and box pews, the interior still boasts this ceiling. According to the Journal of Cork Historical And Archaeological Society (Vol. XLVIII, No. 167, 1943) the stuccowork is was believed to have been ‘the work of Italian prisoners taken during the Napoleonic Wars.’ The church remained in use for services until 1949/50 and thereafter served for some time as a factory. More recently, it has been turned into retail premises.