Re: Re: ‘Dutch Billys’

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The 18th Century Dublin Town House

The Forward, by Mary Daly, is sharp and concise, as you’d expect, but it does immediately throw up that old word association that continues to bedevil and obscure Dublin’s distinctive architectural record from the first half of the eighteenth century.

Before we even get to page one proper of a book purporting to tell the story of ‘The Eighteenth Century Dublin Town House’, we encounter phrases like: ‘This book succeeds splendidly in making Georgian Dublin interesting and relevant for a new generation of readers . . . ’.

‘Eighteenth century Dublin’ and ‘Georgian Dublin’ are not the same thing.

Devising terminology may be an broad brush exercise at best and labelling architectural epochs for the reigning monarch is just asking for trouble, nevertheless in the English architectural record, the broad term ‘Georgian architecture’ and the reigns of four successive Kings, George [from 1714 to 1830] just happens to form a near perfect fit.

This is not the case however in Ireland.

If ‘Georgian Architecture’ is defined by the Neo-Palladianism most obviously promoted by the compelling images contained in Vitruvius Britannicus [first volume published in 1715 – in the second year of George I] and is understood to be a term used to distinguish that architecture from; a the preceding ‘English Baroque’ architecture of the great public building programmes under Wren, Hawksmoor and Archer etc. and; b the preceding domestic architectural formula characterized by the steeply pitched dominant roofs of the ‘Queen Ann’ phase, itself a successor to the ‘Artisan Mannerist’ gables of the 17th century, then what was being built in Dublin in the first half of the eighteenth century was not ‘Georgian’, or at least it was only very occasionally ‘Georgian’.

There’s not going to be any future in us picking this point up every time we encounter it, we’d getting nothing else done for a start, and we’d all lose the will to live. Let’s just say that this book, no more than our architectural history culture in general, is riddled with the notion that the terms 18th century and Georgian are interchangeable, and no matter how hard we tug on the wheel, it may take us some time to turn this tanker around.

Moving on to the Introduction, this is written by a Toby Barnard who is no mug and is apparently a duel citizen of both British and Irish Academia.

The Introduction is in two sections. Section I is bubble wrap, but Section II contains a couple of interesting observations:

‘The proud but humiliated Irish, it has sometimes been argued, asserted themselves through architectural braggadocio. This was expressed more obviously in the scale of the public buildings – the Parliament House and later the Customs [sic] House and Law Courts – than in urban residences’.

OK, I think ‘the proud but humiliated Irish’ [this must be the Catholics] no longer owned property at this stage, perhaps T.B. is thinking of the proud and triumphant Irish [the Protestants]. These are the lads that we’ve noted before were clearly out and about and asserting themselves with a touch of architectural swagger. Either way, it is the next point that is probably of more relevance:

‘Just as the Irish resisted constitutional subjugation to Britain, so they selected architectural forms and decorative idioms that had not always been mediated through their nearest neighbour and entrusted commissions to those who had arrived directly from continental Europe’.

This could be quite a challenging statement, but the footnotes suggest that it is aimed at explaining the fabled Irish attachment to Rococo plasterwork rather than anything connected with curvilinear gabled streetscapes. Nevertheless, it is a crumb from the top table and we’ll take it and give it a chew.

In adopting the ‘Dutch’ gable, the Irish propertied classes certainly selected an architectural form that was not destined to remain current in the realm of their nearest neighbour, but, as Peter Walsh has pointed out, it was an Anglo version of a Dutch gable that we appear to have adopted and to that extent it seems unlikely that the tradition here was influenced to any great degree by input ‘directly from continental Europe’ however tempting it might be to hand this one to the Huguenots.

Just how conscious the Irish propertied classes were that their chosen architectural expression [in the first half of the 18th century] had become set on a dramatically divergent path from current British architectural expression, is the big question that this book doesn’t begin to ask, let alone answer.

‘Fashion, as has been noted already, although a vital factor in explaining changes in the look and uses of the houses, remains an imponderable’, T.B. concedes, lowering expectation for the remaining two hundred and eighty odd pages.

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