A blue and white Wedgwood jasper ware disc inserted into a marble chimneypiece on the first floor rear drawing room of 45 Merrion Square, Dublin now the offices of the Irish Architectural Archive. This hard stoneware pottery developed by Josiah Wedgwood in 1775 was soon used not for making cups or vases but to produce such items as plaques and discs which could be used in the decoration of rooms. So it is in two rooms at 45 Merrion Square where the plain white of the chimneypiece is relieved by bursts of vivid colour.
The largest house on Merrion Square today is no. 45 which dates from 1785. As mentioned before (see The Fashionable Side, September 24th), it was built by Gustavus Hume who when not acting as a medical surgeon dabbled in property development, being also responsible for laying out Ely Place and Hume Street to the south-west of Merrion Square. Five bays wide and rising four storeys over basement, no. 45 has a restrained neo-classical interior with ground and first floor rooms radiating off an immense cantilevered Portland stone staircase.
For the past decade the building has been home to the Irish Architectural Archive. Founded in 1976 the IAA is an independent charity which receives some state assistance but relies on private support to sustain its services. The organisation’s holdings at present include 2.5 million drawings and documents, 500,000 photographs and 30,000 books, pamphlets and periodicals: the greatest single source of information on Ireland’s buildings and those who designed them, this material is freely available for research to all visitors.
Unfortunately at the moment the IAA like so many other cultural bodies is suffering from inadequate funding and unless additional monies are found, it will have to shut for the months of July and August, with the small body of staff made temporarily redundant. One must worry that if this is permitted to happen, a precedent will have been set, not just for the IAA but similar establishments too. Anybody interested in helping to ensure the IAA’s future can find more information at www.iarc.ie/sponsors/funding-appeal. With its graceful late 18th century plasterwork by Michael Stapleton, the door shown below faces the top of the main staircase. How dreadful were it, along with all the others in the building, to be closed in a few weeks’ time.
As mentioned earlier (24th September), the five-bay number 45 is the largest house in Dublin’s Merrion Square. Dating from 1785 and today home to the Irish Architectural Archive, the building’s neo-classical decoration is less elaborate than that found in some of its earlier neighbours. There are, however, occasional delights, among them this chimneypiece in the first-floor front drawing room. Sadly some of the cameo discs set into white marble have been lost over the past couple of centuries but those remaining introduce an element of skittishness into what is otherwise a distinctly formal space.
This year Dublin’s foremost Georgian space, Merrion Square, marks the 250th anniversary of its creation. Actually that’s not altogether true: as early as 1752 there are references in the rent rolls of Viscount Fitzwilliam of Merrion to his landholding in this area being called ‘Merryon Sq.’ However the square only assumed its present form a decade later when Lord Fitzwilliam laid out the large central space. In March 1762 the estate leased five plots on the western end of the development’ north side, hence this year’s anniversary.
Jonathan Barker’s survey drawn in the same year indicates a number of houses had already been built along what would become the square’s west side, with a large space in the middle offering views of Kildare House. This splendid building, today the seat of Dáil Éireann, the Irish parliament, was designed by Richard Castle in 1745 as a town residence for James FitzGerald, 20th Earl of Kildare who in 1766 became first Duke of Leinster (thus the building has thereafter been known as Leinster House). At the time of Kildare House’s construction, fashionable Dublin congregated on the opposite side of the Liffey and Lord Kildare was advised that he had settled in the wrong area of the city. To which he is supposed to have retorted ‘They will follow me wherever I go.’
As elsewhere in Dublin, building around the square was ‘encouraged’ rather than actually undertaken by its owner. In other European cities the design of new squares and terraces was usually prepared by either a single owner or developer. This means spaces such Queen Square in Bath or Nancy’s sublime Place Stanislas present a uniformity of facades. Such an approach never occurred in Dublin, in part because no landowner was ever sufficiently wealthy, or perhaps confident of commercial success, to embark on such an enterprise. A superb scheme of this kind, for example, was proposed towards the end of the 18th century by the Gardiners for Mountjoy Square but never realised.
Instead landlords would sell off individual plots of land on long leases and then require the purchaser to be responsible for the building’s construction subject to certain conditions. Hence even in the 18th century Dublin was rife with speculators and developers many of whom, like their more recent successors, were over-ambitious and ran into financial trouble: the unfinished building site is not a new phenomenon in the city.
What gives Merrion Square and its ilk distinctive appeal is the fact that the original builders each took a different approach to their plots; even the size of sites differed, although the majority were for houses of three bays. Notice the variation in roofline height because although the standard was for four storeys over basement, proportions of each floor varied from one property to the next. Then there is the subtle variation in colour of brick depending on its source, and the way in which some but by no means all houses were fronted in granite on the ground floor. Look at the way in which each house has mellowed in a different way from that of its neighbours. Also, since the square was developed over a period of more than thirty years, changes in taste are evident in the proportions of doors and windows, and the inclusion of decorative ironwork, whether a first-floor balcony or an entrance lantern. While the interior was, and still is, private space, the exterior represented a public arena offering opportunities to display wealth and discernment.
Never having fallen from favour, Merrion Square survived better than most other parts of 18th century Dublin. All four sides are intact, although rather cluttered with street signage and, at the moment, a daunting quantity of For Sale and To Let notices. The largest extant property is no.45 at the centre of the square’s eastern side. More than 18 metres long and of five bays, it was begun in 1785 by Gustavus Hume, a man who somehow combined a career as a medical surgeon with property development: among his other schemes, he was responsible for laying out Ely Place and Hume Street to the south-west of Merrion Square. Because it was one of the later sections of the square to be built, both inside and out no.45 conforms to neo-classical principles and accordingly is more plainly decorated than some other houses in the immediate environs. Around 1829 the building, by then deemed too big for single occupancy, was divided into two properties and so it remained until ten years ago when restored by the Office of Public Works to its original state. Today no.45 is home to that invaluable resource, the Irish Architectural Archive. The IAA’s gallery is hosting an exhibition on the history of Merrion Square until 12th October.
Irish Architectural Archive, 45 Merrion Square, Dublin 2, www.iarc.ie