‘The new church in this city is a very beautiful one, the body of it is in the same stile exactly as that of Belfast already described; the total length 170 feet, the breadth 58. The length of’the body of the church 92, the height 40, breadth between the pillars 26. The isle (which I do not remember at Belfast) is 58 by 45.
A room on one side the steeple space for the bishop’s court, 24 by 18; on the other side a room of the same size for the vestry, and 28 feet square left for a steeple when their funds will permit. The whole is light and beautiful, it was built by subscription and there is a fine organ bespoke at London.’
Description of Christ Church Cathedral, Waterford from Arthur Young’s A Tour in Ireland, 1776-1779.
There has been a Christian place of worship on the site of Christ Church Cathedral since the 11th century and famously in 1170 this was the venue for the marriage of Strongbow (Richard de Clare, second Earl of Pembroke) and Aoife, daughter of Dermot MacMurrough. In 1210, the original building was replaced by a new cathedral which survived until the 18th century when the city’s corporation expressed a desire to erect a modern structure. However, the bishop of the time, Richard Chevenix, was reluctant to allow the old cathedral’s destruction so, according to local legend, it was arranged that one morning, as he walked past the building, a quantity of rubble and dust would be dropped from the roof onto his path, thereby encouraging him to agree with the corporation’s proposal. The first plans for a new cathedral were drawn up in 1739 by William Halfpenny (to whom the design of the original hunting lodge at Castlecor, County Longford is also attributed, see: A Worthy Recipient « The Irish Aesthete) but these were not carried out. In 1773 Dublin architect Thornas Ivory was asked to report on the condition of the cathedral and recommended that it be rebuilt. Nevertheless, he did not get the commission, this going instead to a local man, John Roberts.
John Roberts was born in Waterford in either 1712 or 1714, son of architect and builder Thomas Roberts whose own father, also called Thomas and described as ‘a Welshman of property and beauty’ had settled in the city in 1680. It is believed that as a young man, John Roberts spent some time in London, although nothing is known of what he did there and to whom, if anyone, he was apprenticed. Returning to Waterford around 1744, he fell in love, and eloped, with Mary Susannagh Sautelle, daughter of a well-to-do Huguenot family who did not approve of the relationship; as a result, she was disinherited and the couple’s first couple of years were difficult (they were, on the other hand, very happy together and went on to have 22 children, of which eight survived to adulthood). In 1746 the aforementioned Bishop Richard Chenevix, who knew both the Roberts and Sautelle families, gave the young architect his first great opportunity, inviting him to complete the episcopal palace, originally designed by Richard Castle but left unfinished at the time of the latter’s death. Thereafter, other commissions followed, although not all of them can be confirmed. Among those outside Waterford city which have been attributed to Roberts are the great forecourt at Curraghmore (see Now Available « The Irish Aesthete) and Cappoquin (see Risen from the Ashes « The Irish Aesthete), both in County Waterford, as well as Tyrone House, County Galway (see A High House on High Ground « The Irish Aesthete) and Moore Hall, County Mayo (see When Moore is Less « The Irish Aesthete). Within and in the immediate vicinity of Waterford city, Roberts – who took a long lease on the old bishop’s palace beside the cathedral – designed several other buildings such as the Assembly Rooms and Playhouse (1783), a new Leper Hospital (1785, now an apartment complex), Newtown House (1786, now Newtown School) and a private residence for William Morris (1795, today the Chamber of Commerce). Famously, 20 years after designing Christ Church, in 1793 he was commissioned to design a second cathedral in Waterford: dedicated to the Most Holy Trinity, this was the first Roman Catholic cathedral built in Ireland since the Reformation. The commission also proved to be the death of Roberts. Accustomed to rising daily at 6am, one morning he mistakenly got up at three and, going to inspect work at the cathedral, he found the place empty: sitting down, he fell asleep and as a result caught a serious chill that resulted in his demise in May 1796 at the age of 84. Popularly known as ‘Honest John Roberts’, it was later written that ‘to all in his employment he was especially kind and thoughtful, He was in the habit of paying half the wages to the wives on Saturday rnorn:ing, that they might purchase to advantage at the early market and he always gave to each the exact money and thus to some extent prevented a visit to the publichouse for change.’ He was also the founder of a remarkable dynasty, two of his sons being the artists Thomas Roberts and Thomas Sautelle Roberts, a grandson being Abraham Roberts, a general in the East India Company, and the latter’s son being Field Marshall Frederick Roberts, first Earl Roberts.
On January 17th 1774 the committee of Christ Church Cathedral met to consider the best method of either taking down and reconstructing or repairing the building. The members agreed that ‘the plain plan omitting the rustik work laid before the committee by Mr. John Roberts for re-building the cathedral appears to be the most eligible of any as yet produced to us. Estimate 23,704- 5s-6d. The old steeple to be taken down and the bells placed in the French church.’ (Evidently Roberts’ original design suggested a degree of rustication on the exterior of the cathedral, its exclusion being most likely on the grounds of cost). Work soon began and most of it was completed by 1779 at a cost of £5,397, somewhat higher than the original estimate, and even as late as 1783 subscriptions were still being raised for the steeple. Built using as much stone as was possible from its demolished predecessor, the new Christ Church’s design is much indebted to the churches of James Gibbs which Roberts would have seen during his time in London as a young man. Here, for example, as in the case of St Martin-in-the-Fields, the limestone spire rises at the west end of the building, directly behind the portico, graduating from a square base in three stages up to the octagonal steeple; much of the detailing here is indebted to Gibbs’s spire for St Mary le Strand. Unlike the portico of St Martin-in-the-Fields with its six great Corinthian columns, that of Christ Church has just four of the Doric order, thereby making less of an impact than might otherwise be the case, but the side elevations and arrangement of windows clearly borrows from the London church. So too does the interior, even after being considerably re-ordered in the late 19th century. Entering through the west end portico, the visitor first steps into an open ante-chapel, separated from the main body of the cathedral by a screen supporting the organ; in this space, some funerary monuments salvaged from the old cathedral were installed (including a rather fine one to the brothers Nicholas and John FitzGerald by John van Nost). Beyond the screen, the nave, 80 feet long, is separated from the aisles by a splendid line of Corinthian columns supporting the barrel-vaulted ceiling. The checkerboard floor of white marble and black limestone is original, as is the reredos at the east end with its pedestalled Corinthian columns and pilasters on either side of a centre panel with sunburst. The reredos was once topped by a line of urns, but these have since gone, along with other elements of Roberts’s scheme. We know how the interior once looked thanks to a print published in 1806. This shows that the nave was lined on either side by galleries resting on rusticated pedestals supporting the Corinthian columns; at ground level, there were the customary box pews. The ceiling decoration was somewhat different to that seen today, owing to a fire in October 1815, ‘occasioned by the neglect of some persons who were employed to attend a stove placed in the organ loft, for the purpose of airing it.’ Not only were the organ and surrounding woodwork destroyed but the ceiling so badly damaged that it had to be redecorated, but the result is unquestionably splendid. In 1889-91, the architect Thomas Drew carried out extensive alterations to the interior, including the galleries’ removal, new choir fittings, pulpit, lectern, the addition of architraves & mullions to windows, and the closing up of lower windows (the absence of galleries rendering these redundant). In addition, the rusticated column pedestals were taken away and replaced with others of red Cork marble and carved Caen stone. So this is what we see today: a somewhat bastardised version of John Roberts’s design but still one beautiful enough to merit Mark Girouard’s 1992 description of Christ Church Cathedral as ‘the finest 18th century ecclesiastical building in Ireland.’