14 July 2014

A visit to the Casino, Dublin’s
finest neoclassical building

The Casino in Marino is one of the finest 18th century neoclassical buildings in Europe (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

Patrick Comerford

After my return visits to Saint Michan’s Church in Church Street and All Saints’ Church, Grangegorman, to celebrate the Eucharist and to preach on Sunday morning, I stayed on the north side of Dublin for the afternoon and visited the Casino in Marino, off Malahide Road.

This is one of the finest 18th century neoclassical buildings in Europe and was designed by the Scottish architect Sir William Chambers for the Irish patriot and patron of the arts James Caulfeild (1728-1799), 1st Earl of Charlemont.

The name Casino means “small house,” but this is deceptive for the building has 16 finely decorated rooms and is endlessly rich in its subtlety and design. Charlemont had already named his estate on the coast three miles from the centre of Dublin after the town of Marino in Lazio. But the name Casino is a diminutive form of the Italian casa (“house”), and in the 18th century casino had none of today’s connotations of gambling.

Charlemont was born in Dublin in 1728, and in 1734 succeeded his father as 4th Viscount Charlemont. In his teens and early adult years, Charlemont was known for his love of classical art and culture, and he spent nine years on the Grand Tour in Italy, Greece, Turkey and Egypt. During the Grand Tour, he became friends with Giovanni Piransi, who dedicated the first four-volume edition of Antichitá Romane to his Irish friend, Regni Hiberniae Patricio in 1756.

On his return to Dublin, Charlemont commissioned Chambers to remodel his main residence, Marino House, to design his Dublin town house, Charlemont House, now the Hugh Lane Art Gallery in Parnell Square, and to designed the unique neoclassical garden pavilion building that is the Casino at Marino.

A cultivated and literary man, Charlemont was the first President of the Royal Irish Academy and an early member of the Royal Dublin Society. He was made Earl of Charlemont in 1763, and was one of the original Knights of the Order of Saint Patrick.

Charlemont took a leading part in the formation of the Irish Volunteers and was president of the Volunteer Convention in Dublin in 1783. Honours and titles failed to silence his support for the demands for Irish independence, and he was identified politically with Henry Flood, Henry Grattan and the patriotic and liberal factions in the Irish Parliament. He died on 4 August 1799.

During his grand tour of Europe, Charlemont befriended Sir William Chambers (1723-1796), the London-based Scottish-Swedish architect whose best-known works are Somerset House on The Strand in London, and the pagoda at Kew.

Chambers was born in Gothenburg, Sweden, the son of a Scottish merchant. He worked with the Swedish East India Company and made three visits to China before returning to Europe. He studied architecture in Paris, spent five years in Italy, and moved to London in 1755.

Chambers was the major rival of Adam in British neoclassical architectural designs and concentrated his talents on building houses for the nobility. When he died in London in 1796, he was buried in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey.

Charlemont commissioned Chambers to remodel some rooms within his main residence, Marino House, and to design his Dublin town house, Charlemont House, and the Casino in Marino.

Originally the Casino was linked to Marino House by a tunnel, although this has been blocked off due to building works in the area. The Casino was neglected for many after the Charlemont Estate was sold in 1881. Marino House was demolished in the 1920s, the estate was broken up and developed for housing, and the Casino, which was the only part of the great estate to survive, passed into state ownership in 1930, after the passage of an Act of Parliament.

The Casino was built between 1755 and 1775, and is a perfect example of Chambers’s work – although he never visited Ireland to see its completion. It is an expression of the earliest influences from Paris and Rome on Chambers, and in The Treatise on Civil Architecture (1791) he said it was derived from an un-executed design for “one of the end pavilions of a considerable disposition made soon after my return from Italy ... for Harewood House.”

The doorway on the entrance façade ... the actual entrance door is half the height of the outside door, and only two panels open as the entrance (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

From a distance, the Casino looks deceptively simple. But as you approach it, the rich decorations and differences in the façade treatment become apparent. The Casino is only 50 feet square to the outer columns, and from the outside it looks like a single-room structure, with a large panelled door on the north elevation and a single large window on each of the other elevations. But this is an illusion, for the Casino actually has 16 rooms on three floors.

The plan takes the form of a Greek Cross, with a pair of columns framing each projecting elevation. Outside, the façades are richly adorned with sculptural ornaments and decorative carvings. The statues of Apollo, Venus, Bacchus and Ceres were designed by Giovanni Cipriani in 1768.

The main façades are the north and south, with the entrance on the north side. These are dominated by the solid attic storey, statues and urns. But the decoration is functional – the urns contain chimneys, while the outermost columns contain the down pipes from the gutters so as not to spoil the elevations.

The doorway on the entrance façade rises almost to the height of the columns, emphasising the monumental proportions of the building. However, as you enter the Casino you find the actual entrance door is half the height of the outside door, and only two of the panels in the door open as the entrance.

The glass in the windows is subtly curved, disguising the partitioning inside so a single window serves several separate rooms (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

The panes of glass in the windows are subtly curved, disguising the partitioning that allows what looks like a single window to serve several separate rooms. These changes in scale from the exterior into the interior allow the Casino to contain many more rooms than appear possible from outside.

There are many other tricks throughout the building that help to preserve the simplicity of design. Four of the columns surrounding the building are hollow and, with a length of chain dangling in each, allow rainwater to drain down. The Roman funerary urns on the roof, designed by James Gandon, are used as chimneys.

Unfortunately, the four lions at the corners never became the fountains that Chambers intended (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

Inside, the basement level has a kitchen and associated rooms, the main floor has reception rooms, and the top has with a state bedroom and servants rooms. Throughout the building, there are fine plaster-work ceilings and elaborate hardwood parquet floors.

The Casino has been carefully restored by the Office of Public Works in recent years, and is normally open to the public seven days a week.

After an hour-long guided tour of the Casino, we returned to the city centre for a late lunch in the Falafel Lounge, a vegetrian Lebanese restaurant at 63 Dame Street, before spending the rest of the afternoon in the city centre.

I had some photographs to take in Merrion Square and then in Leeson Park to complete a power point for a presentation in Kilcoole later this week on Sir Thomas Myles. But in between, there was time to stroll through Merrion Square and the grounds of Trinity College Dublin in the summer sunshine.

The Casino has been carefully restored by the Office of Public Works in recent years (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

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