Presents of Mind III


A niche in the façade of Dublin’s Lying-In Hospital, otherwise known as the Rotunda. Designed by Richard Castle, what is now the world’s oldest continuously operating maternity hospital opened on this site in 1757 and takes its popular name from the adjacent Round Room which with accompanying assembly rooms were constructed to raise income for the institution. The hospital’s façade is of Wicklow granite, the use of which is discussed in The Building Site in Eighteenth-Century Ireland written by the late Arthur Gibney (and edited for publication by Livia Hurley and Edward McParland). While a certain amount of investigation has been conducted into the architecture of the Georgian period, the process of construction during the same era is relatively little studied. This is what makes Gibney’s book so fascinating: he has studied contemporary records to discover how buildings both public and private were put together at the time. The first two chapters examine who was responsible for what on a building site, and the various form of contractual arrangements employed whenever work was undertaken. Regarding the latter, several options were available, some of which involved fixing the final cost in advance (carrying an attendant risk that contractors keen to make a good profit might skimp on materials and finish) while what was known as a measured contract ‘paid each trade separately for measured quantities of work based on agreed rates.’ The potential financial gains to be made by builders, especially in large-scale public schemes, were exposed following a parliamentary enquiry in 1752 into a national barracks building programme: this led to the dismissal of the Surveyor General Arthur Jones Nevill in 1752 (he was expelled from Parliament the following year).
Gibney follows with chapters looking at different areas of the building trade covering carpentry, joinery and the timber trade, wall construction, brickwork and stone, roofing and glazing, plastering and painting. The emergence of builder architects like George Semple and the Ensor brothers is also considered; as Gibney observes, ‘Eighteenth-century craftsmen in Irish cities were essentially part of a middle-class milieu with access to the same opportunities as members of the merchant community.’ By the book’s conclusion, the reader has a full understanding of how buildings were constructed in the 18th century and what characteristics distinguished them from equivalent structures in Britain and elsewhere (it transpires the differences are most immediately evident in the way floors were made). Gibney’s work is a most welcome addition to the field of Irish architectural studies and helps to provide a fuller picture of building work in this country during the Georgian period.


The Building Site in Eighteenth-Century Ireland by Arthur Gibney (edited by Livia Hurley and Edward McParland) is published by Four Courts Press.

Cultural Contemplation


The Sculpture Gallery of the Municipal Art Gallery, Parnell Square, Dublin. This space, and those to the immediate north, were added 1931-33 by City Architect Horace O’Rourke to what had originally been the first Earl of Charlemont’s town residence (designed c.1763 by Sir William Chambers). This is unquestionably O’Rourke’s finest contribution to the site: a double-height room with coved ceiling leading to a central glazed section, apsed ends to east and west, and screens of paired Doric columns to north and south. Beyond lie a sequence of interconnecting galleries reached through identical doorways of polished walnut.

Truly Majestic


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.

A Sad Reminder


This week it was announced an application had been submitted by a company called Reliance Investments Ltd for the refurbishment of Aldborough House, Dublin. The plans propose the building, which has lain empty and neglected for the best part of two decades, be converted to use as offices, with the addition of two substantial glazed wings and an underground car park. The unhappy condition of Aldborough House has been discussed here more than once (see A Thundering Disgrace, January 13th 2014 and A Thundering Disgrace No More, February 27th 2017), as well as the very real threats to its survival. Vernon Mount, Our Lady’s Hospital, Belcamp House: the recent decimation of Ireland’s architectural heritage is a dispiriting roll-call. So far Aldborough House has not gone the same way, but it remains at risk.



No doubt Reliance Investments’ scheme will generate opposition since it affects the character of the building and its site. However, both of these have already been so severely compromised that no one can claim the original integrity of Aldborough House is recoverable. Furthermore, the history of the property over recent years indicates options for a viable future are few: hitherto nobody has come up with a feasible strategy. Much as it might be wished that either state or local government would wake up to their responsibilities and intervene, the likelihood of this seems remote. Wishful thinking is not going to yield results, nor is hostility to a commercial development. Accordingly what is proposed by Reliance Investments may be far from ideal, but unless someone comes up with a realistic alternative it could prove the best – if not the only – chance around to ensure Aldborough House remains standing. Meanwhile, today’s pictures are a reminder of the building’s present condition.

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. 

Almost Ready


Looking down an enfilade of rooms on the ground floor of the 1903 Milltown Wing at the National Gallery, Dublin. This portion of the building was designed by Sir Thomas Newenham Deane (following his death in 1899, its completion was overseen by his son Sir Thomas Manly Deane). A notable decorative feature is the doorcases carved in walnut by the Italian woodworker Carlo Cambi. The picture below shows the equivalent sequence of rooms on the first floor which, like much of the rest of the gallery, have been closed to the public for the past six years: once fully re-hung with pictures from the collection, they are due to reopen in mid-June.

Shedding Light on a Subject

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The houses of Dublin’s Henrietta Street have featured here more than once, and deservedly so since even if many have suffered long periods of neglect those that remain are among the most important such buildings in the capital. Henrietta Street was the first major scheme undertaken by the 18th century’s enlightened and far-seeing property developer Luke Gardiner (would that his present successors displayed such taste and perspicacity). From 1721 onwards he began to construct large domestic residences on what had hitherto been open ground to the north of the existing city. Nothing better demonstrates confidence in such an enterprise than the developer himself living on site, and around 1731 Luke Gardiner built his own house, the architect responsible being the most fashionable of the era, Sir Edward Lovett Pearce. This is 10 Henrietta Street which remained in ownership, even if increasingly intermittent occupation, through successive generations of the original family until 1829 when Charles Gardiner, Earl of Blessington died without a male heir. His fascinating second wife, born Marguerite Power, is believed to have visited the house only once and it eventually became used by members of the legal profession (not surprisingly since the Gardiner estate thereafter became immersed in long and costly litigation). In 1899 the building was acquired by the Daughters of Charity of St Vincent de Paul, members of which order continue to live there still.

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Unlike many other properties on Henrietta Street, the interiors of No.10 remain relatively unaltered, the most notable changes occurring during the 18th century when the house was still owned and lived in by the Gardiners. On the ground floor, a rear room originally known as the Breakfast Parlour, appears least changed from the original decorative scheme, with a splendid doorcase flanked by Corinthian columns and topped by a pedimented entablature: the ceiling here, unlike most of the others, exemplifies sober early 18th century classicism, compartmentalised in low-relief geometric plasterwork patterns.
Structurally the most significant intervention was a reconfiguring of the entrance hall and staircase. When the house was first built, it featured a double-height entrance containing stairs leading to the first-floor. However, some years after the death of Luke Gardiner in 1755 his son Charles reordered this space to create a single-storey entrance hall, behind which a new staircase hall was instated. Probably around the same time a number of rooms were given new ceilings in the rococo manner. These decorations are important because in the majority of cases they are made not of plaster but papier-mâché. The use of this medium is unusual but not unique – a number of other examples survive elsewhere in the city and in Carton, County Kildare – but it seems strange to find it here. One of the attractions of papier-mâché was its relative cheapness (relative to stuccowork, that is) but the Gardiners were certainly affluent to afford anything they wished. On the other hand, its great merit is easier (and cleaner) installation than plaster, so perhaps this is why papier-mâché was preferred for the redecoration of existing rooms.
It was not used, on the other hand, for the saloon, or ballroom (now used as a chapel), which in its present form looks to have been either added or extended at the time when Charles Gardiner was re-fashioning other spaces in the house. The saloon ceiling (central photograph above) while stylistically not unlike the others on this level is of plasterwork, and the other striking decorative feature is a substantial Venetian window in the centre of the west wall.

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An inventory survives for 10 Henrietta Street, taken in November 1772 and itemising the contents of each room in the house. It adds immensely to our understanding not just of this property but also of how rooms in an 18th century urban residence were furnished. The answer is: relatively sparsely. The two interlinked first-floor drawing rooms, for example, each contained a large pier glass (valued at £12 & 10 shillings, and £9 respectively), and a marble-topped table (£4 and £3) but only a handful of other items, at least those considered worth recording. The Ante Chamber – formerly the upper portion of the entrance hall – featured ‘2 Large Landscapes in Gilt frames’ (£22 & 15 shillings), a large Dutch market scene (£7) and a mahogany dressing table (just 15 shillings). The most notable items were in the saloon which held two marble-topped tables with brass borders (£9), two ‘large Pictures of the Cartoons Gilt Frames’ (a pair of cartoons attributed to Raphael and valued at £50), two full-length portraits in gilt frames of George I and the Duke of Bolton (£17), a similar portrait of the Earl of Stafford and his secretary (£7), a pair of mahogany card tables (£1 & 16 shillings) and ‘2 Plates of Glass in late Mr Gardiner’s frames’ (£17). And so it goes on through the house, giving us an insight into living conditions at the time. Coupled with the preservation of the house itself (which benefitted some years ago from a major restoration programme that saw many of the rooms brought back to their initial state), 10 Henrietta Street sheds clearer light than perhaps any other such property in Dublin on how a grand urban residence looked in the Georgian period.

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