Six years ago on September 24th 2012, the Irish Aesthete made its debut. What was the intent behind this initiative? Impossible to recall, although then as now a primary motivation was encouraging greater and more widespread engagement with Ireland’s architectural heritage, much of which remains at risk from either neglect or misuse. Over the past six years, some aspects of the site have changed, others remained the same. Very soon, the format of a thrice-weekly posting was established, with longer features each Monday and shorter ones every Wednesday and Saturday. The quality of photographs has certainly improved and, one hopes, will continue to do so (not least thanks to improvements in the calibre of mobile phone cameras). There has been a consistent effort to represent the entire island of Ireland, and to show the good, the bad and – with regrettable frequency – the ugly. What hasn’t altered throughout this period has been the attention of friends and followers, which is enormously appreciated: without regular support and feedback, it is unlikely the Irish Aesthete would have continued for so long. Therefore thank you to everyone who has shown interest in this site: you make it worthwhile. Happily today the Irish Aesthete is read across the world and has led to other opportunities for writing and speaking engagements, thereby helping to spread the gospel of our architectural history. A further outcome is that early next year the first book of Irish Aesthete photographs will be published, about which more in due course. Meanwhile, to mark today’s anniversary, here are six personal favourites taken over the years. You may have made other choices from the site: please feel free to share your own suggestions. Of the six shown above, two are properties in private hands, two are in public ownership, and two are ruins. All however are important elements in our common cultural heritage.
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 The piece was originally made to sit above the chimneypiece in the great Presence Chamber, one of a suite of State Apartments created in Dublin Castle around this time.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.
In his Preface to Dublin Decorative Plasterwork of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries (1967) C.P. Curran argues that any study of the subject must concern itself primarily with the latter period: ‘This is so for two reasons. The Dublin stuccodores’ craft reached a singular perfection in that century and notwithstanding the loss their work has suffered and still undergoes in the vicissitudes of the city’s growth, examples of its various excellence are still abundant and are accessible for study.’ Today’s examples, all now in Dublin Castle, admirably illustrate this point.
Demolished in the early 1950s owing to the value of the land on which it stood, Mespil House now tends to be remembered as the home of artist Sarah Purser. But the man responsible for its construction is just as worthy of notice, having enjoyed a distinguished career across diverse fields.
Born in Cork in 1698, after studying first at Trinity College Dublin and then at the University of Leiden, Edward Barry became a doctor like his father before him. Initially he practised in his native city, there writing his first book, A Treatise on a Consumption of the Lungs, published in 1726. In addition to his medical work, he found time to become a member of the Irish Parliament, representing Charleville from 1745 to 1761. By the time his political career began, he had already moved to Dublin, and here produced his principal medical work, On Digestion in 1759. A decade earlier he had been elected President of the College of Physicians and in 1754 he was appointed Regius Professor of Physic at Trinity College Dublin. But he was as interested in the arts as the sciences, and on good terms with many of the notable writers of his day. In 1736 he reported to John Boyle, Earl of Orrery (and future Earl of Cork) about their mutual friend Dean Swift, ‘I’m concerned to hear that Swift is confin’d by some Disorder; I hope nothing but a bilous cholic, which a few Satyrical evacuations will remove.‘ At the age of 63 Barry decided to move his practice to London but there is some question over whether he did as well there as had been the case in Ireland. According to Boswell, Samuel Johnson once remarked of Barry, ‘He was a man who had acquired a high reputation in Dublin, came over to England and brought his reputation with him, but had not great success.’ Created a baronet in 1775, he died the following year but not before producing a final book running to almost 500 pages: Observations, Historical, Critical and Medical on the Wines of the Ancients, and the Analogy between them and Modern Wines. This was the remarkable man responsible for building Mespil House in 1751.
Returning to Curran’s Preface, the author comments that ‘The diversity and excellence achieved by the middle of the eighteenth century is unquestionably due to outside stimulus. In the arts, no more than in nature, there can be no Declaration of Independence, since to be isolated is to be sterile and an organism is strong only in so far as it can assimilate.’ One of the outside stimuli from which indigenous stuccodores assimilated ideas during this period was Barthelemy Cramillion, whose origins and training remain unknown, although it has been suggested he was French Huguenot or Walloon by birth. He first appears in Ireland in August 1775 when employed by Dr Mosse to decorate the chapel of the new Lying-In Hospital, now known as the Rotunda: the contract bound him to complete the work within thirteen months. In December 1757 he was again engaged to execute the chapel altarpiece within six months. His total bill, finally settled in 1760, came to £585, nine shillings and ninepence. He left Ireland a year or two later but then returned in 1772 and in the Dublin Journal advertised his services to ‘Any Nobleman or Gentleman inclined to employ him.’ Two ceilings removed from Mespil House before its demolition and now installed in Dublin Castle (top and bottom series of pictures) have been credited to Cramillion by Joseph McDonnell in Irish Eighteenth-Century Stuccowork and its European Sources (1991). On the other hand, Timothy Mowl and Brian Earnshaw in their 1999 book An Insular Rococo question that attribution, noting that Mespil House dates from 1751, four years before Cramillion appears working on the Rotunda chapel. They also believe the ceilings ‘appear to be the work of two different plasterers,’ noting technical differences in the moulding of figures and in compositional layout. Unless additional documents turn up, most likely we will never know for certain who was responsible. The top group is centred around a medallion depicting Minerva Introducing the Arts to Hibernia, while that below shows Apollo as Sun God emerging to scatter the clouds. Incidentally, a third ceiling from Mespil House is now in Áras an Uachtaráin.
Similar uncertainty hangs over the authorship of another ceiling now in Dublin Castle (shown in the middle group of photographs above) but taken from another, long-since demolished building. Tracton House once occupied a site at 40 St Stephen’s Green, on the corner with Merrion Row. A bank stands there today and Tracton House was pulled down in 1912 to facilitate the commercial premises’ development. The lost building dated from the mid-1740s when the MP, surveyor and director-general of fortifications Arthur Jones-Nevill acquired the site to build himself a fine town residence. In 1765 it passed into the hands of James Dennis who fourteen years later was raised to the peerage as Baron Tracton and from him the property acquired the name by which it was thereafter known. The building subsequently underwent modifications according to changes of ownership and use but one portion remained unaltered: a first-floor back drawing room. This kept intact its decoration as installed at the time of Jones-Nevill. When the whole place was pulled down coincidentally the National Museum was keen to acquire a good example of the Georgian domestic interior and so the room was carefully removed and reinstated in Kildare Street where it stayed for another three decades until once more taken down: it moved to its present location in the 1960s. The main focus of the Tracton House room is its ceiling on which (as J.B. Maguire has discussed in a fascinating article published in the 2012-13 volume of the Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland) are inscribed two dates: 1746 and 1752. Might it be that the ceiling, the central lozenge of which shows Apollo Musagates opulently lounging in the clouds, a lyre resting on one knee, was decorated in two stages? Could the outer compartments featuring diverse trophies of the arts associated with this god have been created before or after the Apollo, hence the two dates? As with the Mespil House ceilings, it seems unlikely we will ever be able to come up with absolute answers. But in the meantime, a visit to these rooms in Dublin Castle is encouraged, especially as it provides an opportunity to put your head in the clouds and there join the company of classical deities.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Often seen, seldom noticed: the lead statues above rusticated granite gateways flanking the Bedford Tower in Dublin Castle’s Upper Yard. Designed by John van Nost the Younger (d.1780) and dating from 1753, they represent Justice and Fortitude: the former, as was often noted by wags in the past, resolutely turns her back on the city. Both have all the sinuosity and swagger of the rococo era, Fortitude in particular might have stepped straight out of a Tiepolo canvas. They are especially precious as the only remaining examples of van Nost’s public art (other work, such as the equestrian statue of George II that once stood in the centre of St Stephen’s Green, having long since been blown up or removed).
A cherub hovers on the edge of an oval frame, one hand clutching a ribbon from which in turn is suspended a basket of fruit and flowers. Part of a ceiling now in one of the rooms on south-east range of Dublin Castle it was originally created for Mespil House situated on what were then the outskirts of the city in the early 1750s. The ceiling is attributed to the stuccadore Bartholomew Cramillion, best-remembered for his work in the chapel of Dublin’s Rotunda Hospital. When Mespil House was demolished in 1951, the ceiling and two others were rescued and subsequently installed in Dublin Castle. As the further detail below demonstrates, this is one of the most glorious examples of rococo plasterwork found in the country. The Irish Aesthete wishes all readers a Happy New Year and hopes you will reach such celestial heights in 2015.