Musings on Irish Architectural Details
Classical Comments with Calder Loth
by Calder Loth Senior Architectural Historian for the Virginia Department of Historic Resources. Member of the Institute of Classical Classical Architecture & Art‘s Advisory Council.
It was an enriching experience to have been a participant in the ICAA tour Great Houses & Gardens of Northern Ireland & the Republic, May 2013. For both aficionados and connoisseurs of classical architecture, the places we visited were a feast to the eye. Each site presented a host of offerings, including history, architecture, collections, landscape, as well as hospitality, making it challenging to absorb it all. For me, it was intriguing to observe an array of specific architectural details and then puzzle over their derivations. Naturally, our rich itinerary offered a treasure trove of details to ponder. Space here allows me to discuss only a sampling, but I hope this small selection will remind us that details, especially classical details, have much to tell us.
Among the most admired of Northern Ireland’s landmarks is James Stuart’s Temple of the Winds at Mount Stewart, built 1765. (Figure 1) This gem was inspired by the Tower of the Winds, the ancient octagonal structure at the base of the Acropolis, recorded by James Stuart and Nicholas Revett and published in Volume I (1762) of their monumental study of ancient Greek architecture, The Antiquities of Athens. (Figure 2) The most conspicuous difference between the ancient structure and the Irish one is that the latter does not repeat the wide frieze of sculptural representations of the eight winds. Nor do we find windows in the Athenian work. Stuart, however, faithfully employed the distinctive order that he and Revett found on the Tower of the Winds’ two dwarf porticoes.[i] The capital is a variant of the Greek Corinthian, consisting of one row of acanthus leaves below a row of palm fronds. (Figure 3) Stuart gave his Irish capitals greater flare than his illustration in Antiquities of Athens. The fronds are more deeply undercut and have decidedly more curve than the ancient ones, giving the impression that they are not merely decorating the bell of the capital but are straining to support the abacus. (Figure 4) The Mount Stewart temple is one of the earliest modern applications of the Tower of the Winds Corinthian, an order since employed on thousands buildings throughout Europe and America.[ii]
Castle Coole, a masterpiece of the Anglo-Palladian style by James Wyatt, presents an unfolding inventory of curiosity-provoking details. Begun in 1790, the house has the five-part format favored by the British Palladians. (Figure 5) Decorating the interior rotunda is a series of Corinthian pilasters with mottled scagliola shafts. A prominent feature of each pilaster capital is the sharply pointed abacus, a contrast to the usual chamfered tips. (Figure 6) Normally, we associate this type of abacus with Greek works. A look through The Antiquities of Athens showed the Library of Hadrian, the Temple of Jupiter, the Arch of Hadrian, and the Ruin at Salonika all displaying Corinthian capitals with pointed abaci. Nevertheless, none was an exact match to Castle Coole’s capital. What then was Wyatt’s model for the castle’s order? It occurred that the so-called Temple of Vesta has Corinthian capitals with pointed abaci.[iii] Dating from the 2nd century B.C., this circular structure near the Tiber River is one of the oldest surviving buildings in Rome. (Figure 7) It may have been the work of Greek artisans; its columns are Pentellic marble, the same used for the Parthenon. The capitals have long been partly shielded from view by a Medieval conical roof. Fortunately, the indefatigable Antoine Babuty Desgodetz faithfully recorded the temple’s capitals in his voluminous study: Les Édificies Antiques de Rome (1682). (Figure 8) We see his depiction of the temple’s capital as a near match to Castle Coole’s, with pointed abaci and an acanthus leaf cradling seeds in each abacus, a detail unique to this structure. We are unsure whether the decision to follow Desgodetz’s illustration was Wyatt’s or that of Joseph Rose, Castle Coole’s plasterer.
Other Castle Coole capitals eliciting interest are those in the upper level of the stately stair hall. (Figure 9) The distinguishing features of each capital are the egg-and-dart echinus and the wide necking decorated with small classical motifs, including rosettes and pinched leaves. Both Vincenzo Scamozzi and Giacomo Vignola published similar versions of this capital in their 16th-century treatises. However, both of their depictions included a bead-and-reel molding under the echinus and a decorated molding topping the abacus. The Castle Coole capital has neither. Hence, the more likely design source for the capitals is the Doric order in Abraham Swan’s The British Architect, published in 1757. (Figure 10) Swan’s capital, like Castle Coole’s, has no bead-and reel molding and no decorated cap on the abacus. The ornaments in the necking vary slightly.
Figure 13: vignette, The Antiquities of Athens, Vol. III, p. 51. Figure 14: cresting, Choragic Monument of Lysicrates, The Antiquities of Athens, Vol. 1, Ch. IV, Plate VI (detail).
The finely articulated interior details of the 1816 Seaforde House are a striking contrast to the mansion’s severely plain exterior. (Figure 11) This starkness is odd when we realize that its architect, Peter Frederick Robinson, designed such fanciful works as the “Egyptian Hall” in London’s Piccadilly (demolished) and the Regent’s Park Swiss Cottage (demolished), and assisted with the Royal Pavilion in Brighton. Yet, we see Robinson’s creativity at work in the pilaster capitals defining the bookcases in the Seaforde House library. (Figure 12) A perusal of the standard architectural treatises of the period reveals no exact parallel. We can only guess that Robinson selected certain details from The Antiquities of Athens and combined them to make his own Grecian-style composition. The central anthemion growing out of scrolls may have been derived from a vignette in Volume III. (Figure 13) The sinewy talon-like figures below were possibly inspired by the similar forms in Stuart and Revett’s depiction of the cresting of the Choragic Monument of Lysicrates (Figure 14). I hope this speculation might encourage further investigation of this handsomely erudite capital.
Hillsborough Castle near Belfast serves as the official residence of the Queen and members of the royal family when they visit Northern Ireland. The house dates from the 1770s, with various extensions made in the 1830s and ‘40s. Sheltering the main entrance is a colonnade employing a generic Ionic order. (Figure 15) Of more interest is the shallow tetrastyle portico fronting the courtyard entrance to the south wing. The Ionic order here is a faithful adaptation of the order of the Temple on the Ilissus River in Athens.[iv] (Figure 16) The tiny amphiprostyle temple was demolished sometime in the 19th century and is known only through the several illustrations in The Antiquities of Athens. (Figure 17) The simple dignity of the order made it a favorite of Greek Revival architects throughout the British Isles and America. At Hillsborough, we see only slight variations from the original. The architrave is not as deep and the bands on the volutes are flat rather than grooved as shown by Stuart and Revett.[v] Moreover, the columns have plan shafts—probably to avoid competing with the unfluted columns of the main entrance. Stuart and Revett also indicated sculptured figures in the frieze, but noted that they had been lost and probably were a later addition anyway. Nearly all modern versions of the order have a plain frieze.
Figure 20: Entablature frieze, Choragic Monument of Thrasyllus, The Antiquities of Athens, Vol. II, Ch. IV, Plate IV (detail). Figure 21: Erechtheum capital, The Antiquities of Athens, Vol. II, Ch. II, Plate V (detail).
A highlight of the tour was a visit to Barons Court, seat of the Duke of Abercorn. (Figure 18) The house is a sprawling assemblage begun in the 1780s and evolved through alterations, a post-fire rebuilding, more additions, and partial demolition, all taking place over a century and more. The present north elevation, now the entrance front, is largely the work of Sir Albert Richardson, dating from 1946. The façade is dominated by a tetrastyle Ionic portico doubling as a porte-cochere. Here we see yet more reliance on The Antiquities of Athens as a design source, although later publications of the same Greek motifs may instead have come into play. (Figure 19) The wreathes decorating the Barons Court frieze are symbols of achievement, derived from Stuart and Revett’s illustration of the wreathes in the entablature of Choragic Monument of Thrasyllus. (Figure 20) The portico capitals are a somewhat simplified version of the capitals on the Erechtheum, also depicted by Stuart and Revett. (Figure 21) The defining features of the Erechtheum’s Ionic order are the drapery like folds in the volutes and the anthemions decorating the wide necking below the egg-and-dart echinus. The Erechtheum has three sets of Ionic capitals, each slightly different. The example shown here is from the eastern elevation, the simplest version. The Barons Court capitals eliminate the braded band just above the echinus.
Figure 24: Corinthian cornice, L’Idea della Architettura Universale, Book IV, Folio 97 (detail).
A landmark dwelling of the Irish Republic is Beaulieu House, one of Ireland’s earliest unfortified manor houses. (Figure 22) Begun in 1660, its construction coincides with the restoration of the monarchy and the subsequent coronation of Charles II in 1661. The house displays a decidedly Dutch influence, particularly in its molded brick detailing. Notwithstanding the rich 17th-century interiors, my attention was drawn to the boldly carved Corinthian modillions on the exterior cornice, clearly the work of a woodworker intent on maintaining consistency with the overall virility of the house. (Figure 23) The scrolled modillions feature deeply cut acanthus leaves and carved moldings. They differ from standard Corinthian modillions by having flat scrolls on the sides that twist into a spiral without the normal rosette in the center. A graphic source for such a modillion available during Beaulieu’s construction period is Book IV of Vincenzo Scamozzi’s L’Idea della Architettura Universale (1615). (Figure 24) This work, along with Palladio’s I Quatro Libri (1570), was a standard reference for the classical orders in the 17th century. Inigo Jones, who met Scamozzi, owned Scamozzi’s treatise. It was available to Dutch artisans through its publication in the Netherlands in 1640. Scamozzi’s modillion for the Corinthian order has the same basic boldness as Beaulieu’s and the same inner coil without rosette.
Townely Hall in County Louth exhibits the mastery of Irish architect Francis Johnston (Figure 25). Completed by 1799, the highly ascetic exterior gives no hint of the stunning interiors, particularly the central domed stair hall, one of Ireland’s great architectural spaces. However, a handsome but puzzling interior feature is the doorway in one of the reception rooms. (Figure 26) Its richly carved trim is adapted almost precisely from the doorway within the north portico of the Erechtheum. So we ask, where did Francis Johnston find an image of this doorway to copy for Townely Hall? Neither of the standard 18th-century works on Greek architecture: Stuart and Revett’s The Antiquities of Athens and Julien-David Le Roy’s Les ruines des plus beaux monuments de la Grece (1758) offer illustrations of this doorway. Indeed the “as is” views of the Erechtheum in both works show the north portico walled up with rubble, hiding the doorway from view. Furthermore, Stuart and Revett stated: “We found the Portico of Minerva Polais [Erechtheum north portico] walled up, being a magazine of military stores, all entrance into it was denied.”[vi] The image of the Erechtheum doorway shown here is from the 1998 Acanthus Press reprint of Johann Matthaus von Mauch and Charles Pierre Joseph Normand’s Parallel of the Classical Orders of Architecture. (Figure 27) The original caption for this plate states the illustration was “First published in Normand, 1830-36, plate 83.” [vii] Normand’s source for this drawing is not stated. Francis Johnston’s source for the doorway in Townely Hall also remains a mystery, at least for me. Indeed, is the doorway original to the house or is it a latter addition installed when published images of the Erechtheum doorway became available?
Andrea Palladio’s several villa designs incorporating colonnaded quadrant wings connecting the residence to barchesse or service structures served as the inspiration for Russborough, a prodigious monument of the Anglo-Palladian movement. (Figure 28) Designed by Richard Castle and completed in 1751, the house and its several appendages present a facade more than 700 feet in length. Alas, prohibition of interior photographs prevented me from capturing and sharing any interesting details within. That notwithstanding, my attention fixed on a treatment of the end wall of one of the extreme terminal wings. The otherwise blank wall is highlighted by a blind Palladian or Venetian arch, reduced to its essentials. (Figure 29) Its resemblance to the entrance feature of Palladio’s Villa Poiana is striking. (Figure 30) Yet Palladio’s published elevation of the villa shows columns supporting the arch rather than bare piers and no circular indentations. This leaves us to wonder whether the architect thought on his own to strip the feature to its basics, or did he see an image of the villa as built? Castle traveled on the Continent but there is no indication that he visited the Veneto.
Unquestionably, the most splendid of Ireland’s Anglo-Palladian piles is Castletown, thankfully rescued from threatened demolition by the Hon. Desmond Guinness in 1967, and now under the care of the state. (Figure 31) The resemblance of the central mass to an Italian palazzo is not surprising when we learn that it was designed by Allesandro Galilei, a gifted Italian architect best known for his gigantic façade for Rome’s Basilica of St. John Lateran. Castletown’s regal interiors are renowned. A doctoral dissertation is required to do them justice. I will focus on one detail: a doorway in the famous ca. 1765 print room. (Figure 32) The doorway features a compressed pulvinated frieze enriched with a series of boldly carved upright acanthus leaves. Decorating the bed moldings are foliated carvings and a dentil course. The crown molding and backband also are set off with carved decorations. This type of treatment was not unusual for high-style mid-Georgian interiors. However, we must question whether the design was part of the standard repertoire of Castletown’s artisans, or whether they relied on a published source. If the latter, we can look at Plate 25 of Abraham Swan’s Upwards of One Hundred and Fifty New Designs for Chimney Pieces. . . (1768), where we see a doorway design with numerous similarities. (Figure 33) Because Swan’s publication date is three years later than the date attributed to the room, we cannot say with certainty that the artisans were following this particular image. Nevertheless, Swan’s design was probably based on schemes in wide use at the time.
[caption id="attachment_6675" align="aligncenter" width="570"] Figure 34: Postgraduate Studies Reading Room, Trinity College, Dublin (Loth).
Figure 35: Postgraduate Studies Reading Room, entablature detail (Loth).
Figure 36: Choragic Monument of Thrasyllus, The Antiquities of Athens, Vol. II, Ch. IV, Plate IV (detail).
Some free time in Dublin allowed me to wander into the ‘squares’ of Trinity College. The precinct is dominated by the stately Georgian edifices by Sir William Chambers. However, my instinctive interest in the Greek Revival drew me to a small building tucked in the surrounding assemblage. (Figure 34) What any architectural historian would assume is a classic mid-19th-century Greek Revival edifice surprisingly was commissioned in 1921 and completed in 1937. Initially conceived as a war memorial, the building was designed by Thomas Manly Deane and now serves at the reading room for postgraduate studies. Like his predecessors, Deane picks forms and details from The Antiquities of Athens and combines them into a cunningly original composition. The entablature and piers, of course, are adaptions of Stuart and Revett’s depiction of the Choragic Monument of Thrasyllus, a tiny structure built into the side of the Acropolis and destroyed in the 19th century (Figure 35). Unique to the monument are the frieze with its series of olive leaf wreathes and the continuous row of guttae beneath the taenia. (Figure 36) These details have been reproduced in countless ways, including on the Lincoln Memorial and on various Dublin town house doorways.[viii] At Trinity College, Deane applies more compact wreathes and has Roman-style tapered guttae instead of the cylindrical Greek-style guttae. The cornice and pier capital closely follow the original.
The point of this survey of Irish details is to demonstrate that the multiplicity of classical motifs around us are largely adapted from published images, many of which can be traced to ancient sources, some long gone. It is interesting to observe how architects and artisans have fashioned their own interpretations of these details. Few are exact copies and some combine elements from more than one source. Moreover, noteworthy is the impact of Stuart and Revett’s The Antiquities of Athens on the architecture of Ireland, and indeed much of the Western World. Fortunately, nearly all of the treatises and pattern books that provided design material for architects and builders of past centuries in Ireland and elsewhere are now available in inexpensive reprint. We hope that contemporary practitioners of classical and traditional architecture can make use of these invaluable works much as did their predecessors.
Disclaimer: I am no expert on Irish architecture. I welcome corrections or additional information on any of the material, observations, or assumptions stated in this article.