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Behind the Facade

Cathal Moore

The Building Site in Eighteenth-Century Ireland, by Arthur Gibney (Livia Hurley and Edward McParland, editors), Four Courts Press, 295pp, €35.00, ISBN: 978-1846826382

The published literature related to the building practice, techniques and building materials available in Ireland in the eighteenth century is not extensive. The late author, Arthur Gibney, of The Building Site in Eighteenth-Century Ireland completed his thesis “Studies in Eighteenth-Century Building History” for his doctorate from the University of Dublin in 1997. He had hoped to publish the work but unfortunately his death in 2006 prevented him doing so and the task has now been completed by Livia Hurley and Edward McParland as editors. They have performed a considerable service to the field of Irish architectural history by opening up Gibney’s research to a wider audience.

Gibney brings to the work his experience as a practising architect as well as a historian. The opportunity he had to examine exposed structural building fabric in important public and domestic buildings, such as the Royal Hospital Kilmainham, Dublin Castle, 13 Henrietta Street, Mornington House (Merrion Street), Castletown Cox, Co Kilkenny and Castletown, Co Kildare inform his observations and amplify his text. His professional experience on projects for the Old Library, Trinity College and on Dr Steevens’s Hospital, among others, also enlightened him. The book is organised by individual chapters on specific trades, with related skills such as carpentry and joinery treated together. The first two chapters provide an introduction to the organisation and measurement of building projects from 1670 to the end of the eighteenth century and the nature of building contracts for the period.

The early part of the period in Ireland, from 1670, when Gibney’s survey begins, is heavily influenced by two factors. The aftermath of the fire of London in 1666 changed what had been largely medieval building practices before the fire by introducing building regulations for the rebuilding of London designed to ensure that such a disaster was not repeated, and these building regulations were adopted in Ireland too, modernising construction methods. The second factor was the influx into Ireland of Protestant artisans, encouraged to settle in the country because of the scarcity of competent native craftsmen who could interpret the new forms of classical ornament and the use of new building materials. As Gibney observes, the establishment of a separate guild of joiners, wainscotters and ceilers (ceiling-makers) in Dublin in 1700 provides evidence for the growing opportunities for craftsmen to execute interior architecture based on the introduction of classical forms. The organisation and management of building projects evolved in the period. Thomas Burgh, architect of the Old Library, Trinity College, appears to have had a casual management style with relatively little documentation produced by way of instruction to craftsmen. On the other hand, Sir Edward Lovett Pearce (architect of the Parliament House), working a little later and Richard Castle (architect of Leinster House) appear to have much more formalised and carefully regulated procedures, based upon Gibney’s review of the documentation for their projects. There was also a “remarkable” stability in labour costs from the 1670s to the mid-1760s. However, the last four decades of the eighteenth century show a continuous increase in construction costs, with gaps arising between the rates paid to different trades.

The stability in prices and unit rates for each trade until the mid-1760s supported the measured contract as the preferred form of agreement for state and institutional building projects throughout the century and a lucid description of the varied form of contracts is given in the text. In the measured contract each trade was paid for measured quantities for work based on agreed rates. Until the later decades of the eighteenth century very few drawings survive for the constructional aspect of building projects. Gibney notes that the arrival of highly trained architects such as James Gandon (architect of the Customs House) and Thomas Cooley (architect of City Hall) introduced a more professional approach, which is reflected later in, for example, the drawings produced for Francis Johnston’s Cash Office for the Bank of Ireland in Dublin in 1802. The lump sum or “in gross” contract developed with the growth of the speculative housing market and the rise in costs and the desire to obtain predictable estimates for projects. Gibney provides examples of craftsmen such as Michael Stapleton and Charles Thorpe acting as builders of town houses.

The establishment of an Academy of Drawing and Design in Shaw’s Court off Dame Street in 1750 contributed towards a high quality of architectural practice and the interpretation of stylistic formulas and Gibney makes a strong case for the artistic and social status of craftsmen such as carvers. However, he also notes that measures manuals probably compensated for artisans’ lack of training in basic mathematics. Technical manuals such as Francis Price’s The British Carpenter, first published in London in 1733, with a sixth edition published in Dublin in 1768 dealt with the design of structural components. Gibney shows how Irish and English carpentry traditions diverge in the period, with houses in Dublin built with roof structures substituting masonry supports for timber trusses. Also in Ireland there is a preference for long-spanning joists running in clear spans between structural walls, abandoning the use of framed floors. The description of these aspects of construction are accompanied by helpful drawings to illustrate the text. William Pain’s pattern book The Builder’s Companion (London 1758) was used by carpenters for the design and construction of buildings. Carpenters were still active as designers/builders well beyond the arrival of Thomas Cooley and James Gandon.

Economics and changes in architectural taste changed the dynamics of the respective responsibilities of joiners and carpenters. By the 1730s, under the influence of the Palladians Sir Edward Lovett Pearce and Richard Castle, interiors were designed with less panelling, timber cornices gave way to plaster cornices and the use of decorative plaster generally. Carpenters expanded their output to include the making of sash windows and wainscot, to the expense of joiners, who increasingly acted as subcontractors to the carpentry trade. By the 1720s, importation of timber for use in Ireland greatly exceeded exports. Gibney states that in 1600 over 12.5 per cent of the country was covered in forests, but by the end of the eighteenth century this had been reduced to 2 per cent. The use of Irish oak for roof construction soon became uneconomic and in general Irish building projects relied extensively on imported timber from northern Europe.

The fluid boundaries between the work of separate trades which is a common feature of the period is reflected in the relationship between the trades responsible for walling, bricklaying and stone-cutting. In 1670 a royal charter established the Dublin Bricklayers’ and Plasterers’ Guild, influenced by the promotion of the use of brick and masonry rather than timber construction after the Fire of London in 1666. Gibney describes the relative costs involved, showing that the use of brickwork was costlier. Common (or rough) masons were usually employed in the building of structural walls of uncoursed rubble and the text acts as a guide to the sources of supply of stone in the period. Stone could also be imported, for example from the Isle of Portland, in Dorset. As in other trades, expertise was passed from father to son, the Darley family featured in many cut-stone building projects, providing stone and assembling it. Susan Roundtree has concluded from the records for import and the evidence of local manufacture that the brick used in the eighteenth century in Dublin was primarily of local origin. The increase in the supply of imported brick in the later years of the century can be attributed to the increase in building activity and the removal by legislation of local brickfields. The text quotes the architect and master builder George Semple, in his A Treatise on the Art of Building in Water (Dublin 1776) describing the innovative methods he used in the reconstruction of Essex Bridge in 1753-5. Calp stone, which underlies the Dublin area, was ideal as a walling stone and could be easily broken with the mason’s hammer. By the 1740s Dublin calp was replaced by granite as the principal local stone used for ashlar and decorative facings. Portland stone became more commonly used for ashlar facings and entablatures from the example set by the Parliament House. Portland stone, with a fine grain, was particularly suitable for the execution of columns and capitals designed by Pearce, Cooley and Gandon. However, Gibney speculates that the use of a local granite in combination with imported Portland stone for the Parliament House may have been a concession to patriotic feeling on the use of native materials. The Casino in Marino, designed by Sir William Chambers was the first building in Dublin entirely faced with Portland Stone, prefiguring the Royal Exchange and Newcomen’s Bank

The recurring employment of several generations of the same family in contracts for slating and plumbing (for the use of lead) is a feature, as in other trades. The Heatley family are shown by Gibney, for example to have worked at the Royal Hospital Kilmainham and Trinity College from the 1670s until the 1740s. Transportation costs and the location of quarries near seaports or a navigable river governed the source of supply of slates. The text provides technical information on the implications for roof construction of the use of larger slates and the ultimate outcome by the nineteenth century of few classical buildings built with rood pitches higher than 35 degrees. Transportation costs and the proximity of expanding markets were also relevant in the development of glass production and the methods of producing cylinder and crown glass are described. The movement away from casement to sash windows, which first make their appearance in Ireland from the 1680s results in the three-pane wide window becoming commonplace by the 1720s.

The author provides much detail on the various components and technical aspects of plasterwork and stuccowork. Gibney’s work has been recently much amplified by published work by Christine Casey and Conor Lucey on native and non-native craftsmen. With respect to the use of cast ornament the text records that Joseph Rose sent eight packing cases from his London workshop in 1795, containing moulds and casts for the capitals and frieze of the saloon at Castlecoole, Co Fermanagh. In 1670 the Guild of St Luke was formed to represent the three separate trades of cutlers, painter-stainers and stationers. After the 1750s Dublin directories differentiate between “house painters” (artisans engaged in building contracts) and “herald painters” (individuals commissioned to execute signs, escutcheons, banners and illuminated parchment). From the 1660s changes in the architectural treatment of wall and ceiling surfaces increased the scope of painting contracts. Plasterers competed with members of the Guild of St Luke to paint plaster surfaces and on June 24th, 1677 a petition from the guild requested new regulations from the Dublin City Assembly to control encroachment by plasterers in painting contracts and to restrict plasterers to painting internal plaster surfaces with distempers and not in oil, with a limited choice of colours. Michael Stapleton is described as a stucco plasterer and painter in the Dublin directories, thus reflecting contemporary Irish practice.

The publication benefits greatly from a revised and enlarged bibliography, reflecting research conducted since Gibney wrote his thesis. A useful glossary of technical terms is also provided.


Cathal Moore is an adviser and art and architectural historian. He formerly worked as a regional curator for the National Trust and as head of historic buildings for Historic Royal Palaces.



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