A Tour-de-Force




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.




Giving Credit Where Due


The drawing room ceiling in Killruddery, County Wicklow. This part of the house was designed for the tenth Earl of Meath by Richard and William Vitruvius Morrison in the 1820s. Usually the names of craftsmen employed in such tasks remain unknown but specific information has been found about this ceiling. The principal plasterer was Henry Pobje of Dublin but he didn’t work alone. Fifty years ago in 1968 when Elizabeth, Countess of Meath was repainting the room, she discovered on top of one section of the cornice the name of Simon Gilligan, together with the date 24th April 1824, which was presumably when the plasterwork was completed.

To the Muses


Whether on Ida’s shady brow
Or in the chambers of the East,
The chambers of the Sun, that now
From ancient melody have ceased



 

Whether in heaven ye wander fair,
Or the green corners of the earth,
Or the blue regions of the air
Where the melodious winds have birth



Whether on crystal rocks ye rove,
Beneath the bosom of the sea,
Wandering in many a coral grove;
Fair Nine, forsaking Poetry



How have you left the ancient love
That bards of old enjoy’d in you!
The languid strings do scarcely move,
The sound is forced, the notes are few.

To the Muses by William Blake 
Photographs show the Apollo Room at 85 St Stephen’s Green, Dublin decorated c.1740 by stuccodores Paolo and Filippo Lafranchini. 

Forgotten Virtuosi

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The stuccowork found in Irish houses is rightly renowned for its exceptional combination of vivacity and virtuosity. Yet the attention given to this field of design has focussed primarily on practitioners in the 18th century, with little notice paid to those who came later. It is curious that this should be the case: in the decades between the 1800 Act of Union and the onset of the Great Famine in the mid-1840s several waves of house building occurred across the country, and many of these properties were elaborately decorated. By this date plasterwork was no longer created ‘free-hand’ on site but instead frequently made elsewhere in sections and then installed under supervision. But who were the people who carried out this work? While we often know who was responsible for the architecture, the names of firms and craftsmen who created the interiors seen today seem to be unknown, or at least not to have excited scholarly interest. The three houses featured today demonstrate that more could be done to honour and celebrate these virtuosi who did so much to enhance the properties on which they were employed.

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Although a much older property existed on this site, Borris House, County Carlow was comprehensively redesigned for the McMorrough Kavanaghs in the second decade of the 19th century by Sir Richard Morrison (see An Arthurian Legend, November 4th 2013). In terms of decoration, the finest room in the building is the one seen first by visitors: the entrance hall. We believe Morrison was responsible for every element of the design here, ceiling plasterwork, scagliola columns, doorcases and chimney piece. Although the room is almost square it appears to be a circular space due to a radiating ceiling and the carefully proportioned screen of paired columns forming a ring around the perimeter wall. On the ceiling eight beams emanate from a central coffered section to meet florid plaster embellishment that includes festoons of fruit, flowers and leaves resting on masked heads, sheaves of wheat and the crescent moon, and a sequence of immense eagles, their heads thrusting into space beyond outstretched wings. The capitals on top of the columns display equal creativity, as they do not correspond to any of the classical orders but are of Morrison’s own design, incorporating a band of lion heads. The skill involved in carrying out this programme of work is outstanding – but who did Morrison employ to transform his ideas on paper into a three-dimensional reality?

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Emo Court, County Laois has been discussed here on a couple of recent occasions (see Seen in the Round, February 1st last and Of Changes in Taste, March 14th last). Designed in the 1790s by James Gandon, the house’s interiors were only gradually completed over the next seventy years. One of the first spaces to be completed was the dining room, decorated in the early 1830s under the supervision of London architect Lewis Vulliamy. It is likely that Gandon would have proposed a spare, neo-classical scheme here but Vulliamy came up with something altogether more sumptuous, especially on the ceiling which has been divided into a series of sections centred on a rectangle containing a highly elaborate rose (looking more like a chrysanthemum) from which a chandelier would have been suspended. On either side thick bands running the length of the ceiling are filled with ribboned hexagons from which overflow vine leaves and bunches of grapes: this same motif is used again on the perimeter of the ceiling. Meanwhile a pair of demi-lunes immediately above and below the chandelier rose contain an eagle standing on a rippling band of ribbon, its wings stretching beyond crown of oakleaves encircling the bird. Closer again to the edge bare-breasted maidens are flanked by spirals of foliageputti stand on either side of ornamental urns and pairs of doves flutter within floral coronets. Extravagantly absurd and yet executed with such assurance and aplomb somehow the whole scheme comes together. Who deserves the credit for this feat?

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Ballyfin, County Laois (see The Fair Place, July 21st 2014) has been superlatively restored in recent years and now functions as an hotel that sets a standard for all others in this country and beyond. Ballyfin was designed for the Coote family in the early 1820s by Sir Richard Morrison, on this occasion partnered by his son William Vitruvius. The entire house is an exercise in opulent splendour of the kind John Nash was then creating for George IV at Buckingham Palace. Nowhere is this more manifest than the saloon which at either end has screens of green scagliola columns beneath rich Corinthian capitals. These lead the eye up to the coved ceiling over which once more ornament has been incited to run riot. Here panels contain figures of bare-breasted maidens surrounded by scrolled foliage so similar to those found on the dining room ceiling at Emo Court that both must have been executed by the same craftsmen. Likewise in the corners of the saloon ceiling in Ballyfin are pairs of putti, in this instance jointly supporting a lyre. The bordered runs of vine leaves and grapes seen at Emo are here replaced by long garlands of flowers but the spirit and style are consistent between the two houses. The most striking difference can be found on the Ballyfin’s ceiling entablature where snarling lions (or perhaps leopards) face each other separated by a crowned mask. It’s both deft and daft, and above all thrilling to realise craftsmanship of this calibre was available to patrons in 19th century Ireland. Time surely to celebrate the persons responsible, and to ensure their names and contribution to our heritage no longer remain unknown.

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