Restoration Drama

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Since last October work has been underway restoring the City Assembly House on South William Street, Dublin. This week it will be possible for members of the public to see the results of this enterprise and to (re)discover an important part of the city’s 18th century architectural heritage.
The City Assembly House dates from the second half of the 1760s and was built by and for the Society of Artists of Ireland. It was an idealistic organisation which believed the best means of advancing interest in and awareness of the creative arts in the country was to have a venue where these skills could be taught and the results put on display. Thus the core of the building is a top-lit octagonal space 40 feet wide and 33 feet high. Today this is the oldest purpose-built exhibition gallery in Britain and Ireland.

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While the gallery occupies the rear of the City Assembly House, the front section was intended to hold offices for the society as well as rooms where students could learn to draw, paint and sculpt. It is this forward area which has now been restored by the Irish Georgian Society, wishing to give the old building a new lease of life.
The City Assembly House has had a somewhat chequered career, since the society responsible for its erection had gone out of existence by 1780. Thereafter the premises were used for debates, shows, balls, masques and so forth until the building was acquired by Dublin Corporation in the early 1800s. It then acted as City Hall for half a century before becoming a law court and, in more memory, a civic museum. The last of these ceased to operate out of the building a decade ago and since then the City Assembly House has stood empty.

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Now the IGS has assumed responsibility for the City Assembly House and for its complete restoration. The first phase was completed a few weeks ago, returning the front of the structure to its original understated elegance. Of particular interest is a top-lit staircase that cleverly climbs up and accommodates landings at different levels to front and rear. The stairs terminate in a handsome oval gallery beneath a glazed dome that provides light down to the ground floor and in particular draws attention to the pretty rococo cornice. Much of this had become indiscernible behind layers of paint and while certain sections required repair, a surprising amount of the original plasterwork has survived intact. Other discoveries included splendid neo-classical decoration in the large first floor room overlooking South William Street, and a granite wall on the ground floor return. Original floors have been cleaned and repaired, chimney pieces reinstated and doors repaired. The result is an absolute delight.
As of last month the City Assembly House is the headquarters of the IGS, but it has always been intended the building should open to the public. And so it will from Wednesday on, with a reception area and bookshop just inside the front door and the main gallery used for temporary exhibitions, beginning with photographs from the Vanishing Ireland project of James Fennell and Turtle Bunbury (until August 31st). Admission is free, so anyone visiting Dublin – or indeed living there – should take this opportunity to delight in one of the city’s lesser-known architectural gems, and to learn more about the work of the IGS. Incidentally, funds permitting it is hoped to begin full restoration of the main exhibition gallery next year.

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For more information about the City Assembly House, and the work of the Irish Georgian Society, see www.igs.ie

And in 2013…

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…The Irish Georgian Society is due to move into its new headquarters on Dublin’s South William Street. This building, the City Assembly House, is of great historical significance: it includes the oldest purpose-built exhibition gallery in Ireland and Britain. Dulwich Art Gallery was only constructed in 1817 whereas work began on the City Assembly House in 1766. Yet until recently its importance was almost unknown and certainly uncelebrated. Even today, hundreds of pedestrians pass by without knowing anything of the structure, or its elegant interiors. This will change once the IGS is installed.
The origins of the City Assembly House lie with a short-lived organisation called the Society of Artists in Ireland. An idealistic venture, its purpose was to increase awareness of and appreciation for the visual arts and for its indigenous practitioners, many of whom believed they had to move to London to receive sufficient notice. So in February 1765, the Society organised an exhibition of paintings, drawings and sculpture, held in Napper’s Great Room on George’s Lane, on the north side of the Liffey. There were 88 exhibits, including work by the likes of John Butts (who would die that same year) and Robert Hunter (fl.1748-1780).

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The debut exhibition was such a success that a month later the decision was reached to build a permanent home for the Society. The site chosen for the new premises was taken on a long lease from Maurice Coppinger, whose name is commemorated by Coppinger Row which runs down the 110 feet side elevation of the City Assembly House; its three-bay frontage of 44 feet on South William Street rises three storeys over basement with a weathered rusticated ground floor below mellow brick. On the other side of Coppinger Row stands the well-known Powerscourt House, built a decade after the City Assembly House as a town residence for the third Viscount Powerscourt and now a shopping mall.
The driving forces behind the Society of Artists’ endeavour were carver Richard Cranfield and sculptor Simon Vierpyl, both of whom combined creativity with entrepreneurship, since they also worked as speculative property developers. But within a short time Vierpyl had ceded his interest in the scheme to Cranfield who was thereafter the building’s sole owner. As so often is the case, we do not know who was responsible for the design of the City Assembly House, although one possibility is that Oliver Grace (dates likewise unknown) was involved in some way, since in the Society’s 1768 show he submitted a drawing of ‘An elevation, proposed as a front to the Exhibition Room.’ It is also speculated that Grace worked on both the designs for St John’s Cathedral in Cashel, County Tipperary and Lyons, County Kildare, the house built at the very end of the 18th century for Nicholas Lawless, first Lord Cloncurry.

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Naturally the principal space in the City Assembly House is its exhibition gallery, a top-lit octagon 40 feet wide and 33 feet high. This shape of room had been popular for spaces used to display works of art ever since Bernardo Buontalenti designed the Tribuna in Florence’s Uffizi Palace in the late 1580s. It was also used on several occasions in buildings by the 18th century Scottish architect Robert Adam, not least the original London premises of auctioneer James Christie on Pall Mall, begun the same year as the City Assembly House. An octagon not only permits more hanging space but also makes viewing of diverse works easier since they are divided between a greater number of walls than would be the case in a cube.
Initially the Society of Artists enjoyed considerable success: having shown just 88 works of art in its first exhibition, by 1780 that number had risen to 214, with every painter and sculptor of note during this period featured. But then the organisation dissolved into rancour and internal feuding, which is so often the case in Ireland. So the building’s owner, Richard Cranfield, had to find alternative uses for the property and following his death in 1809, the leasehold was sold on to Dublin Corporation which used the City Assembly House’s gallery as its meeting chamber until moving into City Hall (formerly the Royal Exchange) on Dame Street in the 1850s. Thereafter the building on South William Street served a variety of purposes, most recently as Dublin’s Civic Museum until that was closed a decade ago.

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Now the Irish Georgian Society, which has a long tradition of working to ensure the future of Ireland’s architectural heritage, has assumed responsibility for the City Assembly House and for ensuring the building as a vibrant future fully reflecting the dynamism of its original developers. At the moment the building is encased in scaffolding and undergoing extensive restoration, during which all kinds of discoveries about its original form are being made; some especially charming decorative features lost for decades are coming to light and will be given due attention. Both the exhibition gallery and the rooms in front, the two linked by a staircase winding towards a glazed oval dome, will once more become known by and accessible to the public. This will ensure that the City Assembly House’s importance in the history of 18th century Dublin will be duly celebrated and the building become a destination for all tourists interested in learning more about the city’s most enterprising era. The IGS’s aspiration is that the City Assembly House’s doors open during spring 2013. The Irish Aesthete hopes everyone will enjoy similarly momentous events in the year ahead.

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If you would like to know more about the City Assembly House or the Irish Georgian Society and its work, please visit the organisation’s website: www.igs.ie