If anyone ought to be familiar with the library at Birr Castle, County Offaly it is the building’s present chateleine, Alison Rosse. Located to the immediate right of the entrance hall, this rooom has been the victim of no less than two accidental fires, the first in 1832 and the second ninety years later. But on both occasions the library was restored and its shelves restocked so that today it looks as though the place never suffered any damage. Like all good domestic libraries, it serves a multitude of purposes: not just as a repository for books, but somewhere to take tea or repose, a space in which to seek sanctuary or hospitality. All this is evident in the watercolour seen above which shows the castle library well able to fulfill these functions, and many others besides. It appears in a new publication, Room for Books: Paintings of Irish Libraries featuring twenty-five such spaces as captured by Alison Rosse, accompanied by William Laffan’s text. Most of those included, a mixture of public and private libraries, still exist but one that has since been dispersed is that of the late Maurice Craig, shown below. When Maurice and Agnes Bernelle lived in Sandymount, Dublin he maintained this room on the first floor of their house. Following her death and his move to a smaller residence, he brought a great many of the books with him: I remember them being crammed into shelves and heaped on every available surface along which a resident cat (Maurice loved cats) would step with such care that no volume was ever displaced. Despite the seeming disorder, he was familiar with the place of every work in the collection and immediately able to lay his hand on whatever was needed for consultation. Bibliophiles love books not just for their physical beauty but also for their content. And such will be the case with the present publication, recommended as a last-minute gift (although book lovers will appreciate receiving a copy any time).
Room for Books: Paintings of Irish Libraries by Alison Rosse and William Laffan is published by the Irish Georgian Society, €10.00
A view of the northern end of Sackville (now O’Connell) Street as shown in William Turner de Lond’s depiction of the entry of George IV into Dublin on August 17th 1821. The king had actually landed at Howth five days earlier, on his fifty-ninth birthday and in a state of some inebriation: it may have been as a result of the latter that his ‘official’ arrival only took place when it did. The scene shows George IV, the first British monarch to visit Ireland in 130 years (and the first for much longer to come without bellicose intent), standing in his carriage to acknowledge the cheering crowds. This was not a piece of fiction: a contemporary report in The Patriot observed that ‘they never saw any manifestation of popular enthusiasm so heartfelt, as that which hailed his Majesty from, at least, 100,000 persons of all ranks and estates.’ The painting was only one among several produced to commemorate the occasion (a number of artists recognised its commercial potential) and is of interest for showing the Rotunda Hospital in the background as well as the east side of Rutland (now Parnell) Square.
It is one of a number of such works included in a recently-published book, Creating History: Stories of Ireland in Art which accompanies an exhibition of the same name currently running at the National Gallery of Ireland. While at least some of the works discussed are imaginative recreations (such as Samuel Watson’s portrayal of the 11th century Battle of Clontarf, painted in 1844, and James Barry’s Baptism of the King of Cashel by St Patrick, c.1800-1), others provide an invaluable record of how parts of this country looked in the past. Such is the case with the picture shown below, Francis Wheatley’s 1780 picture of the Irish House of Commons. For some observers the interest here would be in identifying some of the political parties included in the work. For others, however, it is especially important for showing how this chamber, designed by Sir Edward Lovett Pearce, looked before being seriously damaged by fire in 1792. Although reconstructed to a simpler design, the House of Commons was abolished eight years later and, as is well-known, when the Parliament building was subsequently bought by the Bank of Ireland, the British government insisted structural changes were made to ensure it could not revert to its original purpose. Creating History: Stories of Ireland in Art examines more than fifty works of art and includes essays by the likes of Professors Tom Dunne and Roy Foster, Róisin Kennedy and Emily Mark-Fitzgerald.
In 1788 almost 28,000 silver teaspoons were recorded in the ledger of the Dublin Assay Office, an institution established in 1637 – and still in operation today – to assess the purity of all gold and silver manufactured in Ireland. Teaspoons were especially popular both because their small size made them more affordable than other items in the same metal, but also thanks to the rise in consumption of drinks such as tea, coffee and hot chocolate, all of which were sweetened with sugar. By the late 18th century, for example, the average annual consumption of tea in this country is estimated to have been two or three pounds per person. This fascinating information, and much more beside, can be found in a newly-published study of Silver in Georgian Dublin by Dr Alison FitzGerald.
While Irish silver has been well explored by Douglas Bennett and others, the focus of these connoisseur-driven investigations has usually been on matters of style and authorship. FitzGerald on the other hand is representative of a new generation of art historians keen to explore the character of material culture and thus contextualise the object of their attention within its period. This is what she has done so admirably in the present book, which looks at the production, distribution and consumption of silver in Georgian Dublin, and beyond. So, for example, when discussing the increasing popularity of tea over the course of the 18th century, assisted by a gradual reduction in its price, she looks not only at silver tea pots but also the greater use of ceramic vessels, preferable because less expensive. So a household might have a ceramic teapot but also silver sugar tongs (selling for 12 shillings in 1772).
The choice of retail premises from which they could make their purchases, while never as great as that in London (where some Irish grandees preferred to shop for such goods) certainly improved over passing decades, and for local clients had the advantage of offering credit for purchases: FitzGerald provides a number of instances where goldsmiths such as Isaac D’Olier had to advertise that all accounts owing to him had to be settled immediately and in full. Then, as now, it was often cheaper to buy at auction, and these events regularly took place, often following a collector’s death: Charles Cobbe, who became Archbishop of Dublin in 1740 acquired a considerable amount of silverware at the sale of his late father-in-law Sir Richard Levinge’s effects. And silver was regularly melted down and refashioned as tastes, and consumer requirements changed.
Some items survived better than others, not least teaspoons. The set of ten shown above above, dating from c.1800 and carrying the mark of Carden Terry and Jane Williams, was recently sold by Adam’s of Dublin for €2,500. On the other hand, buckles – once a staple in every gentleman’s wardrobe – gradually disappeared as styles of dress altered. In 1788 more than 24,000 silver buckles were sent to be assayed in Dublin, mostly intended for shoes and knee breeches: by 1800 that number had dropped to a mere eighteen. Once deemed redundant, they faced recycling, and accordingly only a certain number can now be found. The pair shown below, today in the collection of the San Antonio Museum of Art, were made c.1790 by Joseph Jackson of Dublin.
Drawing on a huge range of sources ranging from diaries and letters to contemporary guild accounts, inventories and trade ephemera – not to mention the archives of the Dublin Assay Office – Alison FitzGerald’s book is a wonderfully informative, entertaining and engaging read, absolutely packed with information and profusely illustrated with illustrations that complement an already eloquent text. A terrific addition to our knowledge of this period.
The east wing of the Curvilinear Range at the National Botanic Gardens in Dublin. This is the oldest section of the building, dating from 1843 at a time when the gardens were still under the supervision of the Royal Dublin Society (they passed into state care in 1877). Constructed by local contractor William Clancy who had submitted the lowest bid, the range was soon extended to the design of Dublin ironmaster Richard Turner who would go on to be responsible for many similar works elsewhere, not least the Great Palm House at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. Note the incorporation of the RDS’s name over the entrance, and on a length of the gutter that of Mr Clancy, a small compensation for his labours since who effectively bankrupted himself when the estimate of costs proved hopelessly inadequate.
On the eastern side of Library Square runs the oldest extant range of buildings within the walls of Trinity College, Dublin. Dating from c.1700, the Rubrics was once matched by similar blocks to the west and north (the south side is taken up by Thomas Burgh’s Great Library, on which work began in 1712). The other sides have long since been either cleared or replaced, but the Rubrics remains, albeit somewhat truncated and with new brick facing added in the late 19th century. Nevertheless, it provides an impression of how the college must have appeared during the early Georgian period.
Located in the centre of north Dublin, the debtors’ prison on Green Street was built in 1794 and offers a fascinating insight into the city’s history. Constructed from granite and limestone and U-shaped in form, it rises three storeys over basement. The prison contained thirty-three cells, or rooms, available either furnished or unfurnished. These were occupied by debtors until they had paid off all outstanding obligations, but despite its appearance conditions in the building were not necessarily grim. Inmates often brought in their own food, and were permitted visitors: in effect, the place served as a kind of hotel from which guests were not allowed to leave. It was later used as a police barracks and accommodation for police widows.
At one time threatened with demolition (for one of the road widening schemes with which the city council was for a while obsessed) in the 1990s the former prison was leased by the Office of Public Works to a charitable body, the Green Street Trust, which undertook a considerable amount of restoration work with the intention of ensuring community use for the property. Unfortunately this imaginative initiative stalled due to want of funds and the prison was returned to the OPW: since then it has stood empty and the building has fallen into a vulnerable state (it now features on An Taisce’s Buildings at Risk register).
Last Monday, the Department of Public Expenditure and the Office of Public Works went to court to secure the removal from the debtors’ prison of a group of squatters who had moved into the property, the plaintiffs arguing the site was not safe. Interestingly there appears to have been no discussion of how or why the building had become unsafe, nor indeed which public bodies were responsible for its upkeep (not least ensuring it could not be accessed by unauthorised persons). Presumably had the property been kept both safe and secure, the Department of Public Expenditure and the Office of Public Works would not have needed to go to court (and presumably would not have had to pay lawyers’ fees). The debtors’ prison is listed by Dublin City Council as a protected structure: this seems not to have prevented it falling into the present poor condition. If the state does not abide by its own legislation regarding the care of protected structures, why should private individuals and companies be expected to behave any better towards historic buildings in their possession?
Photograph by Ciarán Cuffe.
As some readers will be aware, over the last weekend two 18th century houses in Ireland suffered catastrophic and irreversible damage due to fire. Although in different parts of the country, what linked these two buildings was their connections to George Washington. Belcamp, on the outskirts of Dublin, dates from the mid-1780s when it was constructed by Sir Edward Newenham, a member of the Irish Parliament and ardent supporter of the American Revolution. In homage to which, he subsequently incorporated into his new residence an oval room modelled on that in the White House (itself designed by Irishman James Hoban in 1792). Furthermore in the grounds of Belcamp Newenham erected a miniature fort, the Washington Tower, built in honour and during the lifetime of the first President of the United States – and the first such monument erected to him anywhere.
Vernon Mount, County Cork has been discussed in detail here before (see Mounting Concern, January 14th 2013): its name is an obvious homage to Washington’s own home in Virginia, Mount Vernon. Contemporaneous with Belcamp, the house stands to the south of Cork city on a raised site with panoramic views over the Lee valley. Highly unusual in design – being a two-storey over basement villa, the curved entrance front having symmetrical convex bows on either side – Vernon Mount was likely designed by local architect Abraham Hargrave for Atwell Hayes a prosperous merchant involved in brewing, milling and glass manufacture. A particular feature of the house were its painted interiors by Nathaniel Grogan the elder who had spent a number of years in the United States before returning to his native city. Here he was commissioned to work on the decoration of Vernon Mount, including a ceiling painting on canvas in the drawing room. Within an octagonal frame, this depicted Minerva Throwing Away the Spears of War, a reference perhaps to the cessation of hostilities at the end of the American War of Independence. Around the central work were a series of lozenge-shaped panels and roundels featuring floral motifs, angels and centaurs. Meanwhile on the first floor, reached by a splendid cantilevered stone staircase with neo-classical wrought-iron balustrade, the oval upper landing was painted with eight marblised Corinthian columns interspersed with seven doors, each having a tromp l’oeil niche ‘containing’ classical statues and urns; these doors led to the house’s bedrooms and a concealed service staircase.
Both Belcamp and Vernon Mount have been allowed to stand empty for more than a decade, victims of the elements and of vandalism, since neither building was sufficiently maintained nor safeguarded. Now both are effectively ruins, with next to nothing left to salvage. In the year of a Presidential election on the other side of the Atlantic, one wonders how must our American friends view the way in which we Irish have allowed these historic links with one of their founding fathers to be squandered. The connection with George Washington ought to have been cherished and honoured, not least as a means of showing this country’s long-held belief in independence and self-government. Imagine how much the restoration of both buildings could have demonstrated the shared cultural values of our two countries: it must be asked why did not government, tourism bodies and others with a stake in promoting the state’s interests recognise so obvious an opportunity. Equally the relevant local authorities in both instances had the legal right to intervene and ensure the buildings were looked after and not allowed to fall into dereliction. Neither chose to exercise their legislative obligations and instead stood by while Belcamp and Vernon Mount slipped further and further into a pitiful condition before finally succumbing to fire. As an indictment of our state’s inability to care for its own heritage, and to recognise its own interests, the fate of these two buildings would be hard to surpass.