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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Relics of Auld Decency

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The upper section of the double-height stair hall in 7 Henrietta Street, Dublin. The house dates from the early 1740s and retains some of its original interior, albeit in a much mutilated condition. For example, as can be seen below with a handful of exceptions the carved balusters were removed over a century ago when the building was divided into tenements and replaced with coarse timber uprights. But the walls retain their plaster panelling, a battered recollection of how splendid this space must once have been.

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Above the Law

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The grand rear entrance to the King’s Inns, Dublin. This complex of buildings, designed in 1800 by James Gandon with a view towards Constitution Hill, backs onto the top of Henrietta Street and it was here that Francis Johnston, who took over the project after Gandon’s death, placed a triumphal arch in 1820 to obscure the obtuse-angled elevation beyond. Note the coat of arms surmounting the entrance: this work is usually attributed to the sculptor Edward Smyth although he died in 1812, eight years before the arch was built.

Opportunity Knocks

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Opportunism and those who practise it are not, as a rule, judged very favorably. Yet there are times when our verdict on opportunists can be inaccurate or imperceptive. Much of Georgian Dublin is a manifestation of opportunism at work: the result of a handful of perspicacious developers – another now-detested term – recognising an opportunity and responding to it. This was certainly the case with the first Luke Gardiner who piecemeal built up landholdings on the northside of the city and there created new streets and terraces to meet growing demand for residential property. Gardiner’s first venture in this arena, and the basis of his future success, was the development from the late 1720s onward of Henrietta Street.

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Luke Gardiner was a man of modest origins, far removed at the start of his professional life from the wealth he would come to enjoy. Much the same could be said of his protégé Nathaniel Clements who, although enjoying somewhat less humble beginnings, was the youngest of five sons and very much expected to make his own way. This he did, like Gardiner, by building houses and then selling them on: the parallels between the past and the present can sometimes be discomfiting. Henrietta Street was also Clements’ first venture into property development, as he took on several sites from Gardiner. One of these was number 4 (originally 5) Henrietta Street which he completed around 1740-41 and sold to George Stone, then Bishop of Ferns. Stone occupied the building but did not finish paying for it, until 1747 when he was appointed Archbishop of Armagh and, in turn, opportunistically moved into a still-grander residence on the street before selling No.4. Its second owner was John Maxwell, MP for County Cavan who nine years later would be created first Lord Farnham. Of Scottish ancestry, Maxwell was the descendant of three generations of clerical opportunists: the Farnham estate in County Cavan had originally been purchased by his grandfather, the Anglican Bishop of Kilmore and Ardagh. When John Maxwell acquired No.4 Henrietta Street, it came with a plot of land to the immediate east, perhaps serving as a garden. In 1754 Maxwell’s only daughter married another MP, Owen Wynne of Sligo, likewise the descendant of opportunists, although in this instance they had been army men. Around the time of his marriage the plot next to No.4 passed into Wynne’s hands and a house was built here. Today it is No.3 Henrietta Street.

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There are unanswered questions remaining about the history of 3 Henrietta Street, not least who was responsible for its design. The house is sometimes attributed to Nathaniel Clements because like its neighbour – which he almost certainly did build – there is a semi-circular bow at the back of the building. On the other hand, by the time of No.3’s construction, Clements had moved on to other projects and, more critically, he and Maxwell were political opponents, so it seems unlikely his assistance would have been sought here. Perhaps when Wynne embarked on the enterprise he decided to copy some features of his father-in-law’s adjacent residence. The interior shows alterations believed to date from 1830. Originally the entrance hall – like other houses on this side of the street – would have been of two storeys with the stairs visibly rising to the first floor. In the 19th century this staircase was taken out and a smaller one inserted, divided by a wall from the front of the house with the new entrance hall made just one storey high. But the first floor reception rooms retain much of their original decoration, the pair to the front of the room having a deep frieze with strapwork and festoons, while below the walls are sectioned by plaster panelling. To the rear at this level is a wonderful room with rococo stuccowork in the coved ceiling which extends into the bow, and gives the space a more intimate character than any of the others possess.

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As already mentioned, in the 19th century 3 Henrietta Street, like almost all other houses in the vicinity, underwent changes both of design and usage. The advent of the King’s Inns at the top of the street, and the gradual departure of private owners in the aftermath of the 1800 Act of Union meant many of the buildings came to be used as solicitors’ offices: in the decades leading up to his death in 1885 some three-quarters of the street were bought by the lawyer Tristram Kennedy and let to other members of his profession. However, his property portfolio was subsequently acquired by another – altogether less attractive – opportunist, former Dublin Lord Mayor Joseph Meade. Seeing a chance to get a good return on his investment, notoriously he converted most of the houses into tenements. The original interior spaces were divided to fit in more rooms for entire families to occupy and valuable items such as chimney pieces were stripped out and sold off. This was the fate of 3 Henrietta Street for a large portion of the last century, and evidence of its decline, as much as of its glory, can still be seen in the building. But the house is now on the market, and awaits a new owner who can offer it a viable future. What will happen next? As has been the case here over the past two and a half centuries, opportunity knocks – and 3 Henrietta Street once more awaits the advent of an opportunist.

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Fire and Water

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The facade of 3 Henrietta Street, Dublin. Of four bays and four storeys over basement, the house dates from c.1754 when Owen Wynne of Hazelwood, County Sligo married the Hon Anne Maxwell, daughter of John, first Lord Farnham who occupied the building next door. (For more information on Hazelwood, see Sola, Perduta, Abbandonata*, February 25th 2013). Like many other properties along the street, in the late 19th century No. 3 was divided into tenements and has yet to recover from this fate; in more recent times, it has suffered from water ingress and subsequent timber decay. Its circumstances were not helped by a recent fire immediately outside the property: while the relevant services were able to train their hoses to a certain height, they did not reach the upper section, hence the evidence of smoke damage on already highly vulnerable brickwork.

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From Townhouse to Tenement – and Back

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In recent weeks a succession of events in Dublin have commemorated the centenary of the Lock-Out, an occasion when many of the city’s larger employers, determined their workforce should not become trade-unionised, denied access to factories, yards and docks to anyone suspected of involvement in the movement for labourers’ rights. One of the consequences of this remembrance has been to recall how many Dubliners of the period lived in extreme poverty, occupying houses which had been built for the wealthiest members of 18th century Irish society but were subsequently divided into tenement dwellings in which entire families would rent a single room. It is worth pointing out, incidentally, that the owners of these properties were not absentee landlords but, as is made plain in James Plunkett’s 1969 novel Strumpet City (which deals with the 1913 Lock-Out), members of the indigenous Catholic haute bourgeoisie.
The area north of the river Liffey was especially given over to tenement housing, a far cry from the circumstances in which these buildings had first been erected. Such was the case, for example, on Henrietta Street, originally laid out in 1729-30 by the period’s most visionary developer, Luke Gardiner whose descendants would subsequently become Earls of Blessington. Gardiner’s ambitions are reflected in the size of the Henrietta Street houses, some of which are four- or five-bay wide, making them considerably larger than other terraced properties of the time. As befitted such splendid residences initially Henrietta Street was occupied by some of the wealthiest aristocratic families in the country; early occupants included the Earl of Bessborough, Viscount Mountjoy and Lord Farnham; a 1792 city directory lists one Archbishop, two Bishops, four peers and four MPs as living there.

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Together with its immediate neighbour to the north, No. 12 Henrietta Stree is among the earliest extant terraced houses in Dublin and dates from 1730-1733 when both were erected by Luke Gardiner with the intention of being either rented or sold. A surviving drawing for a stone-cut doorway by Sir Edward Lovett Pearce suggests that this pre-eminent architect had a hand in the design of the houses, although both have been so much altered since their original construction that only fragmentary evidence survives of their appearance when newly-built. In the case of No. 12, some of the greatest structural modifications occurred from 1780 onwards when Richard Boyle, second Earl of Shannon, decided to join the pair of buildings in order to create one vast town residence for himself.
A descendant of the original Richard Boyle, the early 17th century Great Earl of Cork, Lord Shannon inherited considerable wealth and political influence from his father Henry Boyle who for a long time served as both Chancellor of the Irish Exchequer and Speaker of the Irish House of Commons. Seemingly described by Sir Robert Walpole as ‘king of the Irish House of Commons’ he eventually relinquished his seat there in 1756 when he accepted a peerage and became Earl of Shannon. Although his son never played as significant a role in the affairs of the country, even so he became known as ‘the Colossus of Castlemartyr’ (the name of his country seat in County Cork) due to the power he wielded by controlling so many electoral boroughs. If only for this reason, he needed to have a residence close to the centre of power in Dublin and thus settled on linking the two houses on Henrietta Street.

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Among the most significant changes made to No. 12 Henrietta Street after its acquisition by Lord Shannon was the removal of its main staircase and, on the first floor, the instatement of windows very much longer than their predecessors which, as was the fashion earlier in the century, had only dropped to dado level. Some of the wooden window and door frames appear to have been recycyled on the floor above, where they remain to this day. The piano nobile rooms were also re-decorated during this time with simple neo-classical plasterwork cornices designed by Dublin stuccodore Charles Thorp. What most impresses a visitor today are the height and volume of these spaces, and the purity of light with which they are suffused.
The Earl of Shannon remained in residence until his death in 1807 after which the two buildings were once more divided. From 1821 No.12 was occupied by Captain George Bryan of Jenkinstown Park, County Kilkenny, known as the richest commoner in Ireland – although he suffered a dent in his wealth through the long and ultimately unsuccessful legal claim he made to a dormant Irish peerage. Presumably it was during his time that the present staircase was installed in the rear hall; its antecedent had been located immediately inside the front door as remains the case next door. Until the close of the 20th century, Captain Bryan was the house’s last owner-occupier since it next became offices for a solicitor and a Proctor before passing into the possession of the British War Office which from 1861 onwards used the premises as headquarters of the City of Dublin Artillery Militia. After which it went into precipitous decline and sunk into an open-door tenement building, remaining such until rescued in 1985.

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When No. 12 Henrietta Street came into the hands of its latest owner – who has since invested it in a legal entity called The Irish Land Trust – he had to undertake an enormous amount of work to secure the house. At the time of his acquisition there was extensive dry rot, deteriorating timbers, roof valley decay and many other daunting structural problems. All of these have since been resolved and the property can now look forward to a secure future. Some internal decoration has also been undertaken, not least the removal of internal partitions which had been fitted in order to accommodate more tenants. The original chimneypieces had long since been taken out and sold, as had all intercommunicating doors but the latter have since been replaced. Fortunately, buried beneath successive layers of linoleum, the original wood floors had survived, as had the window shutters.
Despite its great size, the house does not hold very many rooms: just two on the ground floor and three on each of those above. Limited financial resources means the interior has been lightly decorated, and in some places, such as the smallest of the first-floor rooms, evidence of the house’s use as a tenement has been retained: look at the way successive layers of paint were applied to walls only as high as could be reached by the inhabitants. One advantage of this light touch is that the building’s remarkable architectural qualities can be appreciated without the distraction of furniture and pictures. In particular the main reception rooms come into their own when lit at night by candles alone. On such an occasion it is possible to imagine the house as it must have looked more than 200 years ago when the Lord Shannon was in residence and entertaining his political cronies.

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During the forthcoming Open House Weekend (October 4th-6th) No. 12 Henrietta Street will be the location for an exhibition of contemporary artworks, which will launch a new venture called @TheDrawingRoom designed to develop public awareness of architecture, culture and heritage through a series of events in some of Dublin’s finest Georgian houses. For more information, see: http://www.thedrawingroom.info