Re: Re: ‘Dutch Billys’

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So little attention has been paid to the tradition of gabled street-architecture in Britain that, against this background, it is difficult to gauge just how distinctive the Dutch Billy tradition is here.

We’ve looked at images from Kipp, Hollar and others before and we’ve found examples of English streetscape with a sprinkling of curvilinear gabled houses in them, in the second half of the 17th century. However, in general in England it would probably be fair to say that street-architecture is thought to follow a steady progression:

– post-medieval cagework houses with gable-fronts to the street [including twin and multiple gabled examples],
– through brick house types with ornamental ‘shaped’ gables,
– to houses with a parallel-to-the-street roof alignment featuring dormers and projecting eaves,
– to [by the early decades of the 18th century] the ubiquitous flat parapet terraced house template of the Georgian era.

In this sequence, the characteristically simple, concave curvilinear and pedimented, gable we recognise as a ‘Dutch’ profile [as opposed to the more complex, multiply curved, ‘Shaped’, ‘Mannerist’ or ‘Holborn’ gable] makes only a fleeting appearance.

Outside the main urban centres, hundreds of examples of manor houses and farmhouses with shaped gables survive dotted around the countryside, particularly in the brick areas of eastern England, but also occasionally in the stone built regions of Scotland and Wales, but again it is the exception rather than the rule to find the Dutch profile in this rural wing of the British gabled tradition. In Britain these ‘Mannerist’ tendencies in architectural taste tend to be explained by architectural historians as a manifestation of the Tory faction’s attachment to comfortable nostalgia, in stark contrast to the Whig preference for grand antique classicism, and its sober streetscape counterpart, soon to manifest itself in the all-conquering English Palladianism of the 18th century.

Yet however fleeting the appearance of the ‘Dutch’ gabled house was in the record of English street-architecture, given the similarities of form and the overwhelmingly English background of the property owning and artisan craft communities in Dublin at this time it is probably an inescapable conclusion that it is from this English source and not directly from Holland or some more far flung northern European gabled source that the Irish ‘Dutch Billy’ tradition grew.

I think it’s important to acknowledge this, not least because we need to know how consistent with prevailing English building practice Irish street-architecture was at a point, late in the 17th century, if we’re to grapple with just how distinctive Irish street-architecture then became in the first half of the 18th century.

Below is a detail of Francis Place’s view of Greenwich circa 1700, which gives us a glimpse of a reasonably fashionable 17th century streetscape that should be neither too provincial, nor too metropolitan [nor directly bound by London building regulations] to stand comparison with Dublin.

This is the south end of Crooms Hill on the western boundary of the Greenwich Hospital grounds with – left-to-right – a house known as ‘Belvedere’ featuring a balustraded platform and cupola on the roof [somewhat similar to houses depicted in Brookings view of Stephens Green], in the middle, there is a terrace of three ‘Dutch’ gabled houses that would have sat equally comfortably into Place’s view of Dublin from the north and, on the right, a double gabled house with a pillastered façade. Only the latter structure survives today and it is described by English Heritage as dating to 1630.

As depicted by Place, this last house, which is now the Presbytery to the adjoining 19th century church, is shown with ornamental ‘shaped’ gables, which would represent an elaboration of its current less ornamental form. Conversely, Place has apparently simplified the fenestration and reduced the number of pillasters on the facade, if this is in fact the same house that survives at that approximate location today, which I think it must be.

A further complication arises in that there is a detailed drawing of the house as it stood in 1808 which shows a curvilinear gabled treatment that is very close in profile to the twin gabled, 5-bay, Mill-Street-type house that we’re familiar with over here, a good example of which was also to be found on Stephen’s Green.

A detail of an early 19th century painting of the College of Surgeons showing the adjoining doubled gabled, 5-bay, house that originally bounded the north side of the old Quaker burial ground on the corner of York Street

Brookings depiction of Stephen’s Green in 1728. I can’t remember which side of the Green this is thought to be, artistic licence has definitely been taken, but the house types are probably representative.

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