19 October 2010

Saint Catherine’s: the poor man’s Cheadle?

Saint Catherine of Alexandria, Meath Street ... was this the work of McCarthy or of Pugin? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

Patrick Comerford

A few weeks ago, I visited Saint Saviour’s Church, the Dominican church in Lower Dominick Street, Dublin, which Jeanne Sheehy describes as “the most important” of JJ McCarthy’s “city churches.”

Saint Saviour’s is built in the 14th century Decorated Gothic style. The foundation stone was laid on 8 September 1852, and the church was consecrated on 15 January 1861. The façade bears many similarities to the west front of Basilica of Saint Clotilde on the Rue Las Cases in Ste Germain-des-Prés in Paris, without its twin spires. Inside, the fine interior of Saint Saviour’s, with its high arches and delicate tracery and carving, make it one of the most beautiful churches in Dublin; the north aisle and south aisle are later additions.

This was the finest of McCarthy’s Dublin churches, but for the rest of his life McCarthy had to defend himself against accusations that Saint Saviour’s had, in fact, been designed by the great architect of the Gothic Revival, AWN Pugin. In a letter published in the Dublin Builder on 1 February 1863, ‘An Architect’ queried whether McCarthy had designed Saint Saviour’s and implied that it was the work of Pugin.

For the rest of his life, McCarthy defended himself against allegations that he was not the true architect of Saint Saviour’s and that it was, in fact, the work of Pugin. But to be fair to both Pugin and McCarthy, it is clear that Pugin did not design Saint Saviour’s – instead, many of its details are reproduced from Saint Clotilde’s. But McCarthy’s denials and those comparisons do not resolve questions about which church Pugin designed for McCarthy early in 1852.

If Saint Saviour’s is not Pugin’s, I wondered whether there was another church in Dublin that had been designed by Pugin but which McCarthy managed to pass off as his own.

At the time, McCarthy had received three commissions in quick succession for landmark churches in Dublin: Our Lady Star of the Sea, Sandymount (1851), and Saint Catherine of Alexandria, Meath Street, and Saint Saviour’s, Lower Dominick Street (both 1851). These three churches were designed in quick succession in a period of sixteen months, so naturally there were questions whether McCarthy was the sole author and creator of each work.

McCarthy was in correspondence with Pugin early in 1852, seeking advice on his own projects and offering to undertake the management of some of Pugin’s commissions in return for half the fee and all the travelling expenses. The collaboration between the two architects was difficult and finally was cut short by Pugin’s death on 14 September 1852. But was that collaboration in the months immediately prior to Pugin’s death limited to the FitzPatrick chantry in Clough, or did it extend to McCarthy’s more public and prestigious ecclesiastical undertakings in Dublin?

The interior of Saint Catherine’s in Meath Street ... similar in many ways to Pugin’s ‘perfect’ Cheadlle (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

In mid-January 1852, McCarthy wrote to Pugin asking for drawings for a church in Dublin. Rosemary Hill points out in her biography of Pugin, God’s Architect, that this was the sort of arrangement Pugin would not have tolerated a few months earlier, even a few weeks earlier. But a letter in the collection of Phoebe Stanton shows that Pugin wrote back to McCarthy on 15 January, agreeing to undertake “finishing all the drawings details & anything required your superintending.”

And so the question must be asked; which church in Dublin did Pugin design for McCarthy? And did McCarthy claim it as his own – just as Charles Barry in the same year would claim Pugin’s work in the Palace of Westminster as his own?

Pugin’s letter, dated 15 January 1852, advises MCarthy: “Let everyone see and hear by the chancels … down the nave. Keep the churches bright with good windows … you will see that if you honour the chancel we will make your church a chancel.” By the time Pugin wrote this letter, McCarthy’s church in Sandymount was already being built, while work on Saint Saviour’s would not begin for another eight months. It is difficult to imagine that by mid-January 1852, McCarthy was not anticipating the commission he was about to receive for Saint Catherine’s in Meath Street.

So last week I headed off with a student to take a closer look at and to measure Saint Catherine’s in Meath Street. In every respect, this looks like Pugin’s ideal English country parish church. It is built in the Decorated Gothic style, with some Perpendicular features.

The Power memorial window in Saint Catherine’s (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

I’m interested to find out that McCarthy’s commission came through the goodwill of those closest to Pugin’s own patrons in Staffordshire and Co Wexford, the Talbot and Power families, and that craftsmen who worked on it had all been engaged in Pugin’s own works in Ireland.

Saint Catherine’s replaced an earlier, octagonal shaped Georgian chapel that stood on the site. Canon John Laphen’s proposals for the new church were approved by his parishioners at a meeting called in February 1852 and chaired by Sir James Power (1800-1877) of Edermine, Co Wexford.

Power, who was the proprietor of Power’s Distillery, was closely connected with Pugin’s patrons in Staffordshire and Wexford: in 1843, he had married Jane Eliza Talbot, a daughter of John Hyacinth Talbot and a first cousin of Maria Theresa Talbot, Countess of Shrewsbury; then, in 1851, at the age of 58, and almost 30 years after the death of his first wife, Anna Eliza Redmond, John Hyacinth Talbot married Power’s sister, Eliza. Perhaps through Power’s persuasive powers, Laphen’s plans were accepted immediately, and McCarthy began work without delay: the foundation stone was laid on 30 June 1852 by Archbishop Cullen.

McCarthy’s plans included a nave with open timbered roof, side aisles and chapel at an estimated cost of up to £9,000. The church was complete by March 1857 – apart from the upper portion of the tower and spire – and was dedicated on 30 June 1858. McCarthy’s intended tower was never completed, and the stub was finished off later with a machiolated parapet. The side elevations include perforated buttresses and trefoil aisle windows above the stone-roofed aisles.

The interior of Saint Catherine’s is plain. The impressive great East Window (1862) by Frederick Settle Barff (1823-1886), a former Anglican priest who had converted to Roman Catholicism in 1852. The window floods the sanctuary with light, and it is matched by an equally impressive West Window with perpendicular panelled tracery … just as Pugin advised McCarthy when it came to designing churches.

‘The Martyrdom of Saint Catherine of Alexandria,’ by William MacBride of Dublin, in a similar position as the ‘Doom Painting’ in Saint Giles in Cheadle (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

The painting in the architrave, separating the chancel from the nave, depicts ‘The Martyrdom of Saint Catherine of Alexandria,’ and is by William MacBride of Dublin. But is in a similar position as the ‘Doom Painting’ in Pugin’s ‘perfect’ Saint Giles in Cheadle, near Alton Towers, the Earl of Shrewsbury’s home in mid-Staffordshire.

Indeed, Saint Catherine’s is, for all the world, like a poor man’s Cheadle, which Pugin regarded as his ‘perfect’ work.

Pugin died on 14 September 1852, only weeks after the foundation stones had been laid for Saint Catherine’s and Saint Saviour’s. McCarthy quickly assumed the supervision of completing Pugin’s two Irish cathedrals, Saint Mary’s, Killarney, and Saint Aidan’s, Enniscorthy, and of Richard Pierce’s ‘Twin Churches’ in Wexford.

If any Dublin church was designed by Pugin, then it must have been Saint Catherine’s. Could McCarthy have managed to hide this by allowing himself to defend only the allegations made about Saint Saviour’s?

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