28 November 2009

Saving a beautiful piece of Victorian stucco art

James Comerford’s stucco art work for the façade of The Irish House is currently on exhibition at the Dublin Civic Trust in 4 Castle Street, Dublin

Patrick Comerford

I have been canon-in-residence in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, this week, preaching at the Sung Eucharist in the cathedral on Sunday morning, and taking part in Evening Prayer or Choral Evensong on a number of evenings during the week.

On Thursday evening, I arrived in a little early, and went for coffee in Toffoli, a charming Italian-style coffee shop and bistro, which I am glad to see has reopened in 34 Castle Street.

On my way back to the cathedral, I was taken aback. The Dublin Civic Trust is based in No 4 Castle Street, the last surviving shop in a once-thriving merchant street. This shop was known to generations of Dubliners as the shop of Thomas Barnwell, shoemakers, and is now an historic monument and the headquarters of the Dublin Civic Trust.

Throughout the year, there are regular exhibitions in the shop, focussing on topics and issues relating to the built and cultural heritage of Dublin City.

But in the dark on Thursday evening, I was breath-taken when I realised that the current exhibition contains some of the great stucco plaster artwork of my great-grandfather, James Comerford (1817-1902).

James Comerford was in partnership with William Burnett when they were commissioned by their client Patrick O’Kelly to design The Irish House, his new pub on the corner of Wood Quay and Winetavern Street, at the end of the hill below Christ Church Cathedral.

O’Kelly was probably familiar with James Comerford’s stucco work at this time for Pugin and Ashlin in the new Augustinian Church nearby in John’s Lane.;

The Irish House was built in 1870, and became one of the most amazing architectural works of art in late Victorian Dublin, reflecting the Romantic Movement that was sweeping across Europe in the latter part of the 19th century.

The Irish House was elaborately decorated by Burnett and Comerford, its façade brought alive by a series of decorative plaques, motifs and flourishes recalling scenes from Irish history. Its allegorical tale of constitutional politics was depicted in flamboyant style through the use of external stuccowork created by the genius of these two artists.

On its upper storey, iconic scenes from Irish history and myth were represented in richly-painted stucco artwork. A maiden stood by a seated harpist representing Éireann about to tour the island. Facing the quays, a 17-figure frieze depicted Henry Grattan’s last appeal to the Irish House of Commons before the passing of the Act of Union in 1800. Above the entrance was the coat-of-arms of Patrick O’Kelly, who commissioned the building. And on the Winetavern Street side, Éireann wept forlorn on her stringless harp, while Daniel O’Connell stood proudly clutching the Repeal document.

Casts from the scene in the Irish House of Commons in James Comerford’s work for the façade of The Irish House (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2009)

The building was pioneering in Dublin in its use of exterior stucco to such elaborate effect and as a dominant facing material. It has been described as “a kind of urban folly,” a “combination of art and nationalist iconography, “a gesamtkuntswerk” … CP Curran wrote over 40 years ago of “its whole frontal all-glowing in colour like a Byzantine casket.”

It was a powerful statement of belief in the claims of Irish identity, a popular tribute to the memory of Henry Grattan and Daniel O’Connell, and a manifesto for constitutional, non-revolutionary nationalism. In Kevin Nowlan’s words, “What gives a particular character to the façade of The Irish House is that it represents the full flowering of romantic nationalism.” The art historian Sean Lynch suggests the building must have caused a stir amongst the Lord Lieutenant and his entourage when passing along the quays from the Vicregal Lodge to Dublin Castle.

However, as part of the unconscionable barbarism that saw the destruction of the Wood Quay site, the Irish House was torn down by Dublin Corporation in 1968. Many of the interior fittings were sold or lost, while plans to find a permanent exhibition place for the stucco artwork from the façade never materialised.

The work of Burnett and Comerford continued to lie on palates in a jigsaw puzzle on a warehouse floor and there were fears that it would be dispersed, sold or lost.

But much of the work has been recued and bought by the Dublin Civic Trust, and for the last few weeks that have been on exhibition in the trust’s shop-front exhibition area at No 4 Castle Street.

A handsomely-illustrated 36-page book, The Irish House, An Teach Gaelach, Public House 1870-1968, has been compiled and edited by Geraldine Walsh, CEO of the Dublin Civic Trust, to coincide with this exhibition. Graham Hickey has contributed to the full colour photographs of The Irish House and the works of William Burnett and James Comerford, as well as an evaluation and analysis of their work and their contribution to Irish art by Séan Lynch, Kevin B. Nowlan, Graham Hickey and Peter Walsh.

I wonder if I had not been in residence in Christ Church Cathedral this week whether I would have stumbled across this splendid exhibition. But my enthusiasm about in the last 48 hours means Geraldine Walsh and the Dublin Civic Trust have invited me as a great-grandson of James Comerford to return to 4 Castle Street in ten days time and at 5 p.m. on Tuesday 8 December to launch the book that goes with this exhibition.

James Comerford died over 100 years ago, in 1902. Over a century later, and over four decades after the demolition of The Irish House, I am overwhelmed to be involved in this exhibition which ensures his work will not be forgotten and his memory will not fade.

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