Georgian Dublin, Art and Architecture of

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Georgian Dublin, Art and Architecture of

The term Georgian Dublin is used to describe the physical attributes of the capital city during the reign of the four Georges (1714–1830), a golden age in the architectural history of Dublin. The city's population more than tripled in these years, and the urban area expanded even more dramatically, a process linked to the beginnings of outer suburbs and the social decline of the medieval core. But Georgian Dublin's claim to fame rests on the quality and quantity of urban building, both public and private, that occurred in this period. Thanks to the city's later stagnation, most of the building stock survived intact, if dilapidated, into the twentieth century. However, a very large part of it had been swept away by the 1970s, when its historical significance began to be appreciated.

The architectural distinction of Georgian Dublin rests on four elements: a small number of architecturally sophisticated public buildings, a rather larger number of private palazzi, a series of speculative terrace (or row-house) developments of high architectural quality, and the strategic decisions of a precocious planning agency.

The first of the great public buildings was the new Parliament house in College Green, erected circa 1730. It was designed by a young Irish architect who had trained in London, Edward Lovett Pearce (d. 1733). The other keynote public buildings—the Lying-in Hospital, the Royal Exchange, the Public Theatre and Provost's House in Trinity College, the new Custom House, the new Four Courts, the House of Lords, and the King's Inns—were all designed by English- or German-born architects. But the rules of architecture were presumed to be universal, informed by the wisdom of "the ancients." Designing a major building did not require local knowledge, and Sir William Chambers, perhaps the greatest architect associated with eighteenth-century Dublin, never visited the city. His protégé James Gandon (d. 1823), however, came and stayed. Gandon was responsible, among much else, for the riverside icons, the Custom House (completed c. 1790), and the Four Courts (completed c. 1800).

The gentleman-architects mixed public and private commissions. Richard Castle (d. 1751), designer of the Lying-in Hospital, is more famous for Leinster House, the largest of the several dozen aristocratic houses that were constructed in the eastern half of the city. Their cut-stone and sometimes austere exteriors belied the sumptuous plasterwork and marble-work of the interiors; the staircases and public rooms in these houses were designed for entertainment and conspicuous display. Fitting and furnishing these houses required the services of dozens of crafts and sustained an army of craftsmen.

The era of constructing massive detached houses was drawing to a close by the 1770s, by which time speculative brick-faced terrace-building for an upper-class and professional clientele had become far more important. Most, but not all, of the speculative building occurred on green-field sites to the northeast and southeast of the commercial city, on the Gardiner and Fitzwilliam estates. The former property had been assembled by Luke Gardiner I (d. 1755), a highly successful functionary and banker who, despite a low public profile, became one of the most powerful figures in Irish politics. Two northside aristocratic streets were his creation, Henrietta and Sackville (later O'Connell), and his method of urban development—tight proprietorial control over the appearance and social character of the principal houses—set the precedent for activity elsewhere, most obviously on the Fitzwilliam (later Pembroke) estate, which began with the laying out of Merrion Square in the 1760s and culminated in the boulevards of Balls-bridge half a century later.

The Wide Streets Commission was established as a parliamentary committee in 1757 and remained in existence for almost a century. Its initial remit was to gouge out a new street north of Dublin Castle; it evolved to become a citywide planning agency. Its principal achievements were the widening and reconstruction of Dame and Sackville Streets, the development of new streets to the south of the new Carlisle (later O'Connell) Bridge, and the completion of quays along the Liffey. Its moment of greatest activity—the 1780s and early 1790s—coincided with the preeminence of John Beresford (d. 1805), the driving force behind the Custom House project and much else. As important to the creation of Georgian Dublin as the marquis of Pombal had been in the reconstruction of eighteenth-century Lisbon, Beresford combined cultural enlightenment with political reaction. He was the epitome of the landed gentry whose burgeoning rent rolls and parliamentary ambitions had funded the architectural splendor of the city.

The gentry's fashion for wintering in Dublin faded away after the union, and the demand for high-quality housing changed markedly. However, the rise of the professions and the expansion of the middle classes insured that the classical idioms, the terrace houses and brick facades, the fanlights and the marble chimney-pieces, were replicated on a more modest scale in the nineteenth-century city.

SEE ALSO Arts: Early Modern Literature and the Arts from 1500 to 1800; Country Houses and the Arts


Craig, M. J. Dublin, 1660–1860: A Social and Architectural History. 1952. New edition, 1992.

Dickson, David, ed. The Gorgeous Mask: Dublin, 1700–1860. 1987.

McParland, Edward. James Gandon: Vitruvius Hibernicus. 1985.

McParland, Edward. Public Architecture in Ireland, 1680–1760. 2001.

O'Brien, Jennifer, and Desmond Guinness. Dublin: A Grand Tour. 1994.

David Dickson

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