The ceiling of a first-floor reception room in a house on the north side of Fitzwilliam Square, Dublin. Many of these properties were among the first to be developed on the site and the building appears to date from the second decade of the 19th century. The plasterwork on the ceiling is free-hand and not taken from moulds, which soon after became the norm. At the moment, it is covered in layers of paint but a ceiling in the adjacent room has recently been cleaned and restored, revealing just how fine is the workmanship here.
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 drawing room ceiling in Killruddery, County Wicklow. This part of the house was designed for the tenth Earl of Meath by Richard and William Vitruvius Morrison in the 1820s. Usually the names of craftsmen employed in such tasks remain unknown but specific information has been found about this ceiling. The principal plasterer was Henry Pobje of Dublin but he didn’t work alone. Fifty years ago in 1968 when Elizabeth, Countess of Meath was repainting the room, she discovered on top of one section of the cornice the name of Simon Gilligan, together with the date 24th April 1824, which was presumably when the plasterwork was completed.
In his Preface to Dublin Decorative Plasterwork of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries (1967) C.P. Curran argues that any study of the subject must concern itself primarily with the latter period: ‘This is so for two reasons. The Dublin stuccodores’ craft reached a singular perfection in that century and notwithstanding the loss their work has suffered and still undergoes in the vicissitudes of the city’s growth, examples of its various excellence are still abundant and are accessible for study.’ Today’s examples, all now in Dublin Castle, admirably illustrate this point.
Demolished in the early 1950s owing to the value of the land on which it stood, Mespil House now tends to be remembered as the home of artist Sarah Purser. But the man responsible for its construction is just as worthy of notice, having enjoyed a distinguished career across diverse fields.
Born in Cork in 1698, after studying first at Trinity College Dublin and then at the University of Leiden, Edward Barry became a doctor like his father before him. Initially he practised in his native city, there writing his first book, A Treatise on a Consumption of the Lungs, published in 1726. In addition to his medical work, he found time to become a member of the Irish Parliament, representing Charleville from 1745 to 1761. By the time his political career began, he had already moved to Dublin, and here produced his principal medical work, On Digestion in 1759. A decade earlier he had been elected President of the College of Physicians and in 1754 he was appointed Regius Professor of Physic at Trinity College Dublin. But he was as interested in the arts as the sciences, and on good terms with many of the notable writers of his day. In 1736 he reported to John Boyle, Earl of Orrery (and future Earl of Cork) about their mutual friend Dean Swift, ‘I’m concerned to hear that Swift is confin’d by some Disorder; I hope nothing but a bilous cholic, which a few Satyrical evacuations will remove.‘ At the age of 63 Barry decided to move his practice to London but there is some question over whether he did as well there as had been the case in Ireland. According to Boswell, Samuel Johnson once remarked of Barry, ‘He was a man who had acquired a high reputation in Dublin, came over to England and brought his reputation with him, but had not great success.’ Created a baronet in 1775, he died the following year but not before producing a final book running to almost 500 pages: Observations, Historical, Critical and Medical on the Wines of the Ancients, and the Analogy between them and Modern Wines. This was the remarkable man responsible for building Mespil House in 1751.
Returning to Curran’s Preface, the author comments that ‘The diversity and excellence achieved by the middle of the eighteenth century is unquestionably due to outside stimulus. In the arts, no more than in nature, there can be no Declaration of Independence, since to be isolated is to be sterile and an organism is strong only in so far as it can assimilate.’ One of the outside stimuli from which indigenous stuccodores assimilated ideas during this period was Barthelemy Cramillion, whose origins and training remain unknown, although it has been suggested he was French Huguenot or Walloon by birth. He first appears in Ireland in August 1775 when employed by Dr Mosse to decorate the chapel of the new Lying-In Hospital, now known as the Rotunda: the contract bound him to complete the work within thirteen months. In December 1757 he was again engaged to execute the chapel altarpiece within six months. His total bill, finally settled in 1760, came to £585, nine shillings and ninepence. He left Ireland a year or two later but then returned in 1772 and in the Dublin Journal advertised his services to ‘Any Nobleman or Gentleman inclined to employ him.’ Two ceilings removed from Mespil House before its demolition and now installed in Dublin Castle (top and bottom series of pictures) have been credited to Cramillion by Joseph McDonnell in Irish Eighteenth-Century Stuccowork and its European Sources (1991). On the other hand, Timothy Mowl and Brian Earnshaw in their 1999 book An Insular Rococo question that attribution, noting that Mespil House dates from 1751, four years before Cramillion appears working on the Rotunda chapel. They also believe the ceilings ‘appear to be the work of two different plasterers,’ noting technical differences in the moulding of figures and in compositional layout. Unless additional documents turn up, most likely we will never know for certain who was responsible. The top group is centred around a medallion depicting Minerva Introducing the Arts to Hibernia, while that below shows Apollo as Sun God emerging to scatter the clouds. Incidentally, a third ceiling from Mespil House is now in Áras an Uachtaráin.
Similar uncertainty hangs over the authorship of another ceiling now in Dublin Castle (shown in the middle group of photographs above) but taken from another, long-since demolished building. Tracton House once occupied a site at 40 St Stephen’s Green, on the corner with Merrion Row. A bank stands there today and Tracton House was pulled down in 1912 to facilitate the commercial premises’ development. The lost building dated from the mid-1740s when the MP, surveyor and director-general of fortifications Arthur Jones-Nevill acquired the site to build himself a fine town residence. In 1765 it passed into the hands of James Dennis who fourteen years later was raised to the peerage as Baron Tracton and from him the property acquired the name by which it was thereafter known. The building subsequently underwent modifications according to changes of ownership and use but one portion remained unaltered: a first-floor back drawing room. This kept intact its decoration as installed at the time of Jones-Nevill. When the whole place was pulled down coincidentally the National Museum was keen to acquire a good example of the Georgian domestic interior and so the room was carefully removed and reinstated in Kildare Street where it stayed for another three decades until once more taken down: it moved to its present location in the 1960s. The main focus of the Tracton House room is its ceiling on which (as J.B. Maguire has discussed in a fascinating article published in the 2012-13 volume of the Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland) are inscribed two dates: 1746 and 1752. Might it be that the ceiling, the central lozenge of which shows Apollo Musagates opulently lounging in the clouds, a lyre resting on one knee, was decorated in two stages? Could the outer compartments featuring diverse trophies of the arts associated with this god have been created before or after the Apollo, hence the two dates? As with the Mespil House ceilings, it seems unlikely we will ever be able to come up with absolute answers. But in the meantime, a visit to these rooms in Dublin Castle is encouraged, especially as it provides an opportunity to put your head in the clouds and there join the company of classical deities.