A Tour-de-Force




Robert Rochfort, first Earl of Belvedere is rightly notorious for having imprisoned his wife for over thirty years on the grounds of adultery with one of his brothers: she was only released after his death in 1774. At some date before then, the earl had embarked on building a new residence for himself in Dublin. Located on Great Denmark Street and looking down North Great Georges Street, the incomplete Belvedere House was inherited by the second earl who initially sought to dispose of the property, offering it for sale in 1777. However, either he was unable to find a buyer, or he decided to retain the house, work on which was finished in 1786. Since 1841 it has been owned by the Jesuit Order which runs a secondary school on the site. In plan and composition Belvedere House closely resembles 86 St Stephen’s Green, begun in 1765, the design of which is now attributed to Robert West who, in addition to being a fine stuccodore was also a part-time architect and property developer. When Belvedere House was offered for sale in 1777, interested parties were directed to West, thereby indicating that similarities between this building and 86 St Stephen’s Green were not accidental.




The attribution of Belvedere House’s design to Robert West is of significance because of the building’s remarkable interior decoration. The staircase hall and first-floor reception rooms contain some of Dublin’s most elaborate plasterwork, and divining who was responsible for this tour-de-force has been the subject of much analysis. In 1967 C.P. Curran’s Dublin Decorative Plasterwork of the 17th and 18th centuries noted in the collection of drawings left by stuccodore Michael Stapleton several items directly relating to the design of ceilings in Belvedere House. Accordingly, this work was assigned to Stapleton. However, the fact that West was responsible for designing the house complicates matters, and the consensus now appears to be that both he and Stapleton had a hand in the plasterwork. Conor Lucey (in The Stapleton Collection, 2007) suggests that Stapleton may have been apprenticed to, or trained with, West and the fact that he was named the sole executor of the latter’s will in 1790 indicates the two men were close. The source material for the stucco work is diverse, that in the stair hall deriving in part from a plate in Robert Adam’s Works in Architecture, but the first-floor rooms feature a wider range of inspiration, much of it from France and Italy. The main reception room at the front of the building has an oval in the centre of its ceiling, which seemingly held a scene of Venus wounded by Love taken from Francois Boucher’s painting of the same name. However, when the Jesuits assumed responsibility for the house, the saucy nature of the work led to its removal. The adjacent room’s ceiling contains a roundel showing Diana in a chariot drawn by two stags: this was allowed to remain. In recent years a full restoration of these rooms has been undertaken by RKD Architects, allowing us better to appreciate how they must have looked when first completed, a tribute to the remarkable craftsmanship that existed in 18th century Ireland.




The Glory of the House


In his Topographical Dictionary of Ireland (1837), Samuel Lewis wrote that the ‘noble mansion’ at Newbridge, County Dublin was said to hold ‘several valuable paintings by the old masters, which were collected on the continent by the Rev M. Pilkington, author of the Dictionary of Painters, who was vicar of this parish; the drawing room contains several of the paintings described by him.’ The cleric mentioned here was Matthew Pilkington, born in King’s County (now Offaly) in 1701 and ordained a deacon in the Church of Ireland twenty-two years later. His was likely not a very profound vocation, but a position in the established church offered career advantages of which he intended to take advantage. Initially all went well. In 1725 he married the well-connected Laetitia van Lewen, as diminutive – but also as witty – as her husband, and the couple became friends with the likes of Jonathan Swift and Patrick Delany. Through the former Pilkington secured the position of Chaplain to the London Mayor of London and so moved to the other side of the Irish Sea. However in London he antagonized potential supporters and was imprisoned two years later. On returning to Dublin, he then became estranged from his wife and the couple was eventually and scandalously divorced in 1737: just over a decade later Laetitia Pilkington published her entertaining memoirs, from which her former husband emerges in a poor light. Ultimately he recovered his social position thanks to the patronage of Charles Cobbe, Archbishop of Dublin who offered Pilkington the living of Donabate and Portraine next to Cobbe’s newly completed seat at Newbridge. As mentioned by Lewis, it is believed that Pilkington travelled to mainland Europe to buy paintings for the house and that this in turn would have informed the work by which he is remembered: The Gentleman’s and Connoisseur’s Dictionary of Painters, the first such book published in English. It appeared in 1770, four years before the author’s death.




The greater part of Newbridge was built between 1747 and 1752 to the designs of Scottish-born architect James Gibbs, his only known work in Ireland. The following decade a large drawing room was added to the rear of the house. In 1755 Archbishop Cobbe’s son and heir Thomas married Lady Elizabeth Beresford, youngest daughter of the first Earl of Tyrone, and sister of the first Marquess of Waterford, and space was needed for the young couple and the art collection being assembled for the family by Matthew Pilkington. The architect on this occasion was a local man, George Semple who had already overseen the erection of Newbridge. Semple initially proposed adding a pair of wings to the south-facing façade but in the end the decision was taken to construct a single large drawing room/picture gallery to the rear of the house, taking the space previously occupied by a pair of small offices. As has been noted by Julius Bryant, to preserve homogeneity of style within the building Semple used Gibbs’ 1728 Book of Architecture as a source for the design of doorcases and chimney pieces, the former immediately apparent at the entrance to the room from the adjacent antechamber. Running some 45 feet in length, the space has a ceiling featuring ‘a sea of scrolling leaves and floral garlands encircled by dragons and birds fighting over baskets of fruit.’ This work is believed to have been undertaken by stuccodore Richard Williams, a pupil of Robert West: the Newbridge accounts for this period include seven payments to ‘Williams ye stucco man.’




A drawing of the Newbridge drawing room dated c.1840 and attributed to Frances Cobbe shows the room as it looked following a refurbishment of the space two decades earlier. In 1821 payments for furniture were made to Woods & Son, and to Mack, Williams & Gibton of Dublin, who were also paid for curtains in 1828. The carpet, by Beck & Co. of Bath was supplied in March 1823 for £64 and 18 shillings, while the crimson flock wallpaper and matching border came from the Dublin firm of Patrick Boylan. The present arrangement of paintings, the greater part of them collected during the previous century by Archbishop Cobbe and his son and daughter-in-law, dates from the same period. Towards the end of the 19th century, Frances Cobbe called the drawing room ‘the glory of the house. In it the happiest hours of my life were passed.’ She remembered the room as assembled by her parents. Some of the collection had been sold in Dublin in 1812, and in 1839 two key paintings, by Hobbema and Dughet, were sold to pay to fund the construction of some 80 estate workers’ cottages. In November of that year, then owner Charles Cobbe (father of Frances) wrote in his diary, ‘I have filled up the vacancies on my walls occasioned by the loss of the two pictures which have been sold, and I felt some satisfaction in thinking that my room (by the new arrangement) looks even more furnished than before.’ Such is still the case today. In 1985 Newbridge passed into the hands of the local authority, now Fingal County Council, which has been responsible for house and estate ever since. However, Alec Cobbe artist, designer and musical instrument collector, who grew up in the house continues to be devoted to the building. He has valiantly undertaken successive projects to preserve and conserve the interiors, not least the drawing room. As a result today, as noted by Bryant, this gorgeous space today ‘provides a rate opportunity to study an Irish collection in its historic context.’

The Surviving Twin


Around 1720 Algernon Coote, sixth Earl of Mountrath agreed to take a lease on a house due to be built at 30 Old Burlington Street, London. Erected over the next few years this property was designed by Richard Boyle, third Earl of Burlington (and also fourth Earl of Cork), together with his protégé the Scottish architect Colen Campbell. In the event, Lord Mountrath never occupied the building, which was demolished in 1935. However, what might be described as its twin can be found in Dublin, at 9 Henrietta Street, which dates from c.1731.
Why this similarity of design between the two houses (especially since images of 30 Old Burlington Street were neither engraved nor published)? The original owner of 9 Henrietta Street was one Thomas Carter, an ambitious politician who would serve as Master of the Rolls in Ireland and Secretary of State for Ireland. Known for his opposition to English government interference in the affairs of Ireland, Carter’s great ally in the Dublin parliament was Henry Boyle, future first Earl of Shannon and a cousin of Lord Burlington (whose Irish affairs he managed). Furthermore in 1719 Carter married Mary Claxton, first cousin of Sir Edward Lovett Pearce, to whom the design of 9 Henrietta Street is attributed (in turn, Pearce’s uncle was Thomas Coote of Cootehill, a cousin of Lord Mountrath). It will also be remembered that Pearce was the architect who designed the new parliament building in Dublin. Family connections were as helpful in 18th century Ireland as they are today.





Aside from certain details, 9 Henrietta Street follows the design of the Old Burlington Street house both inside and out. The exterior is of five bays and three storeys over basement, of brick other than rusticated rendering on the ground floor (unlike the London property which was all faced in brick). The entrance is through a doorcase with blocked Ionic columns rising to a pediment centred on a massive keystone. Directly above, as with London, is an arched window, flanked by Ionic pilasters.
Likewise internally the plan differs little from the London house, notably in the entrance hall which is the finest extant on Henrietta Street (so many of the other staircases were pulled out when buildings were converted into tenements). On entering the property, one sees a screen of Corinthian columns (of marbleized timber) to the right of which is the double-height staircase, taking up a quarter of the entire space. Beneath an elaborate wrought-iron balustrade with mahogany handrail, cantilevered Portland stone stairs climb around three walls to reach the first floor. The walls retain their original plasterwork panelling, beneath a compartmentalised and coffered ceiling. Thanks to its scale and quality of finish, this is one of the most dramatic 18th century interiors in Dublin.
9 Henrietta Street’s other important room is to the rear of the ground floor, which, like the entrance/staircase hall has been little altered (although in line with changing fashion the windows here were lowered c.1800). Once more the walls are plaster panelled and the ceiling compartmentalised. The chimneypiece, of painted wood and marble, features a lion’s head with foliate garlands to either side; above is an aedicule with Corinthian pilasters and a gilded eagle occupying the pediment. The main doorcase, leading to the room in front, is likewise pedimented and flanked by Corinthian columns.




Unlike many other houses on Henrietta Street, No.9 had a relatively benign history over the past three centuries, which explains why its appearance has changed so little. Following Thomas Carter’s death in 1763, his two sons lived in the building, after which it was occupied by John, first Viscount O’Neill who was killed by rebel forces during the Battle of Antrim in June 1798. For some four decades in the first half of the 19th century, the house was residence to Arthur Moore, a former member of the Irish parliament (and opponent of the Act of Union), later Judge of the Court of Common Pleas in Ireland. Following his death it was used as the Queens Inns Barristers’ Chambers. At the start of the last century the building was acquired by the Daughters of Charity of St Vincent de Paul who also owned the neighbouring 10 Henrietta Street (see Shedding Light on a Subject, March 20th 2017). It remains in their care to the present time. 9 Henrietta Street was restored some twenty years ago by Paul Arnold Architects and is now used as a resource and education centre for the local community.

Laudate Pueri Dominum


The County Kildare institution long known as Maynooth Seminary was established by act of the Irish Parliament in June 1795 as The Royal College of St Patrick to provide ‘for the better education of persons professing the popish or Roman Catholic religion.’ Curiously it would be eighty years before building work began on the college’s present chapel. In the early 1850s the English champion of the Gothic Revival and convert to Catholicism Augustus Welby Pugin had produced designs for the quadrangle called St Mary’s Square. His plans included a chapel but owing to Pugin’s death in 1852 and a shortage of funds, this part of the project was not initiated. Only in October 1875 was the foundation stone laid, the architect now being J.J. McCarthy, often popularly described as ‘the Irish Pugin.’ By 1880 expenditure on the work had reached £26,242 and when McCarthy died two years later just the basic structure had been completed: a report issued in the middle of the 1880s appealed for financial aid so that the ‘useless empty shell’ could be finished as ‘a splendid, fully furnished collegiate chapel’. In 1887 seven Catholic architects were invited to tender for the job of designing the interior, William Hague being selected. The building was consecrated and opened for worship by Cardinal Michael Logue in June 1891 but still the work went on. Hague designed the tower and spire in 1895 but, as with his predecessors, he did not live to see the work here reach conclusion; rising 273 feet, it is the tallest such built structure in Leinster. Inside, the Lady Chapel at the east end was decorated and furnished by architect G.C. Ashlin in 1908–11; Ashlin was also responsible for the alabaster high altar and reredos.




At 222 feet, Maynooth is the longest church choir in the world and certainly the most elaborately decorated in Ireland. Every surface carries ornament, all sharing the same theme of ‘Laus Deo’ (Praise God). The marble mosaic floor, for example, carries lines inspired by Psalms 112 and 46 opening with the line ‘Laudate pueri Dominum’ (Praise the Lord, young men). The use of the fleur-de-lis on the floor is intended to evoke not just the Trinity (in the same way that the shamrock is supposed to do) but also the links between Ireland and France during the worst times of the Penal era. Meanwhile the ceiling is covered in canvas featuring a vast heavenly procession of figures leading up to the main altar, predominantly angels and saints, many of the latter being associated with Ireland and the early Christian church here. Each figure is enclosed within a medallion again bearing lines from sacred texts. The design was by the English religious artist and decorator Nathaniel Westlake but the work executed by a little-known artist based in Dublin called Robert Mannix. The walls above the choir stalls are life-size representations of the Stations of the Cross: like the ceiling they are in oil on canvas, and were designed and supplied by Westlake.




More colour is provided in the interior by stained glass installed in the 1890s and for which three companies were responsible: that owned by the aforementioned Westlake; Cox, Buckley & Sons; and the Munich-based firm of Mayer & Co, which was then much patronized by Catholic and Anglican churches alike throughout Ireland. The glass in the chapel nave is devoted to representing scenes from the life of Christ while at the west end of the building a large rose window inspired by that in the Cathedral of Notre Dame at Reims is devoted to celebrating Christ the King surrounded by sundry saints, apostles and evangelists. In the main body of the chapel, the space between the top of the choir stalls and the bottom of the windows is filled with a string course of Caen stone carved with animals and birds to demonstrate that even members of the animal kingdom sing the praises of their creator. The corbels at this level represent angels presenting various instruments used in church services by clerics, the two closest to the high altar holding a mitre and crozier (as used by bishops). Finally there are the stalls, all 454 of them carved in oak by a Dublin firm, Connollys of Dominick Street. The finial in the back row of each section supports the figure of a saint while those on the lower levels represent a different plant or tree, again to demonstrate the variety of divine creation. Whatever one’s faith, or even if one has none, the decorative scheme of Maynooth College Chapel cannot fail to impress. It has a rigour and entirety of both vision and execution rarely found in Irish Catholic churches. Furthermore the interior has escaped despoliation by either unnecessary post-Vatican II reordering or by the imposition of some later cleric’s ill-judged aesthetic notions (cf. the so-called ‘renovations’ of the cathedrals in both Killarney and Monaghan). As a result it remains not just the largest chapel in Ireland but also one of the country’s finest Roman Catholic buildings.

 

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.

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.