Re: Re: ‘Dutch Billys’

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Boooooog, I’ve got stuff on Islandbridge, I’ll dig it out tomorrow. I don’t understand the significance of ‘Bailey’ as opposed to ‘Billy’. Peter Walsh explained the term ‘Dutch Billy’ as being a contemporary pet name for William of Orange, that’s always been accepted as far as I know. I don’t know at what point there is documentary evidence for the term being attached to the curvilinear gabled house, but I suspect that Peter Walsh knows and there are encouraging signs that a publication may be imminent.

I fully agree with you that we can trace the development of the ‘Dutch Billy’ in a fairly direct line from the simpler stone-built triangular gabled post-medieval houses that appear to have been the mainstay of Irish townscapes in the 17th century, as depicted by Speed in 1610 and Phillips in the 1680s. That’s fairly logical and matches reasonably well what we see in England and Europe in general, only much plainer and less architecturally ambitious, in line with the slightly frontier aspect of our towns and cities.

A good example of this strong-but-plain Irish street architecture of the 17th century would have been the Archbishop’s Palace on Lawrence Street in Drogheda.

an extract of Ravell’s map of Drogheda, 1749, showing Lawrence St. with the ‘Lord Primate’s Palace’ adjacent to St. Lawrence’s Gate, with Singleton house on the other side, and elevations of both buildings in the margin

On one level this is a magnificent town mansion of collegiate scale, built by Archbishop Hampton around 1620, but on another level, this building is a world away from the likes of Raynham Hall [posted above] which is its almost exact contemporary. Perhaps it would be dangerous to read too much into the plainness and asymmetry of the Drogheda building, perhaps Hampton, an English cleric, just had conservative taste or wished to project a particular image of old fashioned stability and frugality, albeit with forty plus rooms.

Either way, we can readily see how a double curvilinear gabled mansion [like that one depicted by Francis Place in the 1698 drawing of Dublin from the Wooden Bridge] can be related back to the tradition that produced multi-gabled buildings like the Archbishop’s Palace in Drogheda.

What we need to find is an explanation for is why was it that the brick terraced house tradition here, from the end of the 17th century to the mid 18th century, so completely adopted the ‘Dutch’ shaped gable as its defining motif at the same time that in England the flat parapet was becoming the only show in town.

We know that what we’re looking at in the decades after 1690 is a clear divergence in the patterns of street-architecture between England and Ireland at a time when the building traditions in both countries had otherwise perhaps never been as closely aligned. The explanation for this dichotomy can only be that the people delivering street-architecture here and in England were coming under the influence of different forces.

As we’ve discussed before, the strongest force influencing the form of street-architecture in England at this time is undoubtedly the ‘Re-building London Regulations’ which were presented as a fire code but which were in fact put together by a small coterie of architecturally minded intellectuals with classicism on their minds who used the opportunity of the 1666 fire to kill what they saw as the urban disorder of the gabled tradition and impose a greater classical regime on the street-architecture of London. That stylistic battle had actually been going on in London since the 1630s, but the fire dramatically gave the upper hand to the classicists who dominated the Royal commission and who shamelessly depicted everything except a brick box with a flat parapet as a fire hazard.

By contrast, the strongest force influencing the form of street-architecture in Ireland at this time appears to have been a loyalist celebratory impulse. We know that the impulse to celebrate ‘King Billy’, as the saviour of the whole Anglo-Protestant project in Ireland, existed in spades and we know that it endured in Ireland long after his lacklustre reign had faded from an English consciousness increasingly absorbed with the new political sport of Whig/Tory rivalry. If that loyalist celebratory impulse hadn’t been present, and hadn’t been so focused on the person of ‘King Billy’ then the ‘Dutch’ gabled streetscapes that emerged in Dublin, Cork, Limerick Waterford, Drogheda etc. may not have emerged, or at least may not have had the coherence and sense of common purpose that they did.

That’s probably as far as it went, an impulse acting as a booster rocket to an already existing gabled tradition, itself introduced from England and a cousin of a wider pan-northern-European tradition, which briefly [fifty years or so] took street-architecture here on a different trajectory than the street-architecture of England which, under different influences, was undergoing abrupt retraining in classicism.

Even accepting the role of this loyalist celebratory impulse, this it’s still only a small part of whole ‘Dutch Billy’ story. What clearly developed here was much more than a political whim or a loyalist impulse, it was in many ways the complete package, a fully fledged building tradition with a defined geographic spread, with regional variations, with both aristocratic and vernacular wings, and with significant typological development involving considerable invention and imagination and, perhaps above all, with the appearance of a keen understanding of how great streetscape is made.

This sounds like a eulogy again, but it’s important when we spend so much time discussing individual roof profiles that we don’t lose sight of the overall significance of the ‘Billy’ phenomenon and its place in the record of our cultural achievement.

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