Frank McDonald reflects on the future for the Georgians as they mark their diamond jubilee with an exhibition of art first displayed at the City Assembly House in the 18th century
The Irish Georgian Society, long a fixture in conservationist quarters, is celebrating its diamond jubilee this year with a quite exceptional exhibition of 18th-century Irish paintings to mark the completion of its restoration of the City Assembly House in Dublin’s South William Street.
The exhibition will feature works by among others; Thomas Roberts, Jonathan Fisher, James Forrester, Robert Healy, Raphael Mengs, and Hugh Douglas Hamilton, in the same room in which they were first displayed between 1766 and 1780 by the Society of Artists in Ireland. Indeed, it is claimed to be the first purpose-built public art gallery in these islands.
Recently restored and named the Knight of Glin Exhibition Room in memory of the society’s former president Desmond FitzGerald, the 29th Knight of Glin (Fig 4), this octagonal space was in a distressed state when the building was acquired by the IGS from Dublin City Council; it had been used for years as a rather poor and unloved Civic Museum.
Curated by Ruth Kenny, formerly assistant curator of British Art from 1750 to 1830 at Tate Britain, the exhibition draws together more than seventy works loaned by national institutions and private collectors, to show that Georgian Dublin was ‘a hive of creativity’ populated by landscape artists, portraitists, history painters, sculptors, printers and draughtsmen.
‘Exhibiting Art In Georgian Ireland’, ‘will be one of 2018’s great cultural events in Ireland, and should not be missed’, the IGS said. A scholarly catalogue for the exhibition has been edited by Ruth Kenny and art historian William Laffan, author of Abbey Leix: An Irish Home and Its Demesne as well as Russborough: A Great Irish House, its Families and Collections. The City Assembly House is the latest in a long series of important 18th-century buildings to be restored by the society (Fig 2). These works included reinstatement of the 1766 octagonal room and the provision of a wheelchair lift, providing universal access to the building, with the aim of placing it ‘once again … at the centre of Dublin’s cultural life.’
The Irish Georgian Society was founded in 1958 by the Hon. Desmond Guinness (Fig 3) and his then wife Mariga (Fig 5) to protect endangered buildings of architectural merit in Ireland. Many fine houses were saved through their own enthusiasm and commitment as well as the dedication of members and supporters to the conservation cause over the past sixty years. Notable successes include conserving the Conolly Folly (Fig 10), in Co Kildare, visible from both Carton House and Castletown House, and saving the latter (Fig 11) after Desmond Guinness bought it and 120 acres of parkland, with the help of numerous enthusiastic volunteers in the early years, before passing it to the Castletown Foundation and, latterly, the State.
Early 18th-century Damer House, in the courtyard of Roscrea Castle, was also saved from being demolished by North Tipperary County Council to provide a car park – for tourists! Also thanks to the society’s fund-raising efforts in Ireland and abroad, Doneraile Court in Co Cork was spared from becoming a ruin, as so many other great houses did.
The IGS has played a significant role in changing public perceptions of Ireland’s architectural heritage
Perhaps inevitably, the biggest battles were fought in Dublin, over the ESB’s controversial plans to demolish sixteen late-Georgian houses on Fitzwilliam Street, the Green Property Company’s assault on Hume Street, and Matt Gallagher’s proposed destruction of the south side of Mountjoy Square; Mariga bought one of the threatened houses there, to little avail.
Desmond and Mariga split up acrimoniously, and this divided their friends into factions for a time; at one stage, she was living in a near-derelict courthouse in Glenarm, Co Antrim, before taking up residence – against Desmond’s wishes – in Leixlip Castle, Co Kildare. After her untimely death in 1989, from a heart attack, she was interred under the Conolly Folly. This was an inspired choice by Mariga’s friend Desmond FitzGerald, the Knight of Glin, who succeeded her former husband as President of the Irish Georgian Society in 1990; he wore two hats, one as a champion of our architectural heritage and the other as Christie’s representative in Ireland, organising big house auctions. The Irish Georgian Society’s current President is David Davies. A former banker, Davies succeeded Patrick Guinness – Desmond’s only son – who held the fort for five years, after FitzGerald’s death from cancer in 2011. Davies brought considerable experience to the role having restored Abbey Leix House in Co Laois: served as founding chairman of the Irish Heritage Trust and is now President of Wexford Festival Trust, which runs the annual opera festival.
As an international businessman, Davies is very useful to the IGS for his connections with high net worth individuals, particularly in Britain and the United States, and he mixes with the wealthiest of them at regular ‘gala dinners’, organised by IGS chapters in London, New York, Chicago and other places, to raise funds for projects such as the City Assembly House.
Equally appropriate is the society’s new chairman, southside Dublin barrister Michael Wall, who is a qualified architect and planner with an MBA from the Smurfit Business School at UCD. He is also a former member of An Bord Pleanála and is also a member of the planning advisory committee of NAMA, the State’s ‘bad bank’, and chair of Wide Open Opera. Donough Cahill, who has post-graduate qualifications in building conservation and heritage management, is the Society’s Executive Director. His job is to ‘oversee the strategic and day-to-day operations of the IGS’, working with its standing committees and its all-important chapters abroad.
But there is a sense that the Irish Georgian Society has become rather too polite as it reaches the equivalent of pensionable age, and that this is related to the need to raise funding from the corporate sector. Gone are the days when it was very adventurous in intervening directly to save threatened historic buildings by manning the barricades, as it were. Some might say the IGS has come full circle with the restoration of the City Assembly House as its own headquarters and with other bodies such as the Irish Heritage Trust and the Irish Landmark Trust, as well as the Office of Public Works, looking after historic properties. Indeed, Castletown House and the Casino in Marino, to name but two of the thirty national historic properties, the latest being Annes Grove, in Cork, in the OPW’s care.
The Irish Heritage Trust was set up by Bertie Ahern’s boom-time government on foot of Prof Terence Doorley’s 2003 report, A future for Irish historic houses? with the objective of taking charge of endangered stately homes. For many years since its establishment in 2006, the only property it had in its portfolio was the Smith-Barry’s Fota House in Cork. More recently, the trust was given Strokestown Park House in Co Roscommon, even though local businessman Jim Callery, who funded its restoration and an Irish Famine museum in the outbuildings, is still chipping in for its upkeep. Last year it took over responsibilty for Johnstown Castle, in Co Wexford.
The Irish Landmark Trust, on the other hand, has concentrated on acquiring quirky historic buildings, including cottages, gate lodges, follies, coastguard stations and even the multi-storey Wicklow Head Lighthouse, restoring them for use as very attractive holiday lettings, and now has an impressive portfolio of thirty-two properties, both north and south of the border.
So what is to be the future of the Irish Georgian Society, if it is not to rest on its laurels? Certainly, it has played a significant role in changing public perceptions of Ireland’s architectural heritage; indeed, very few people would still cling to the blinkered view that Georgian Dublin or Limerick are merely relics of the ‘800 years of oppression’ that should be cleared away. Of course, the society will continue to publish its highly-valued journal, Irish Architectural and Decorative Studies, which appears annually, as well as its Desmond Guinness Scholarship, awarded (also annually) to young academics carrying out original research on the work of Irish architects, artists and craftspeople at home and abroad, between 1600 and 1900.
Hopefully, it will also continue with its intermittent Irish Georgian Society Conservation Awards, for which this writer has served as a juror for many years, enjoying tours of often-inspirational restoration projects all over Ireland, organised by Marion Cashman and the late Mary Bryan, who drew up the City Assembly House conservation plan before her untimely death.
The South William Street building may have been vacant for several years, but it was never in danger of falling down. Indeed, with the future of Georgian Dublin largely secure from random demolitions, the society now needs to involve itself much more actively in protecting urban scale and the character of Dublin city, particularly against ill-considered proposals for modern buildings.
‘Exhibiting Art in Georgian Ireland’, City Assembly House, Dublin 15 June -27 July.
Frank McDonald is a former Environment Editor of The Irish Times. He is an honorary member of RIAI and an Honorary Fellow of RIBA.