Architectural Sculpture

by Judith Hill

Buildings have traditionally drawn attention to themselves through sculptural decoration. Sculpture can give intricacy to the outline of a building, definition to the rhythm of openings; it can articulate base, string course or cornice; figures give focus and meaning. The net effect is enhanced status. Sculpture is therefore a candidate for the buildings of established institutions or for private, public and commercial buildings that jostle for notice or are making a bid for respectability. In comparison to many other European cities, the architecture of Dublin is relatively austere. The exteriors of Irish country houses are also notably plain. It is perhaps partly for this reason that very little has been written on the Irish contribution to architectural sculpture. This essay, considering a few prominent and innovative examples, will discuss the subject matter and function of sculpture; the roles played by architects and sculptors; the aesthetic relationship of architecture and sculpture; and if and how sculpture has been an integral part of the architectural vision. 

Some of the decorative possibilities of classical architectural sculpture were presented in 1680s’ Ireland in the carvings over the doors to the Royal Hospital, Kilmainham (RHK), executed by the Huguenot carver James Tabary. RHK, which introduced large-scale classicism into Ireland, was economical, but the tympanum carvings of trophies and festoons with their graceful symmetry, flowing lines and naturalistic detail set magnificent decorative standards. 

The endowing of magnificence was, according to William Chambers in his Treatise on Civil Architecture of 1759, the function of sculpture. One way to do this was to import Roman sculpture. This was done to great effect in Bellamont Forest, Co. Cavan, where busts of Roman emperors bought by Thomas Coote were displayed on carved consoles projecting from oculi built into the walls of the entrance hall, their seriousness matching the controlled architecture of Edward Lovett Pearce. 

Inheriting his wealth from a father who had been a brewer and banker, Joseph Leeson, later 1st Earl of Milltown, commissioned Richard Castle to design Russborough House, Co. Wicklow, in 1741 to consolidate his status within the Irish elite. He, too, bought Roman marbles, as well as contemporary plaster casts of antique figures, some of which were incorporated into five symmetrically placed stucco-decorated niches designed by Castle in the entrance hall. Outside, steps to both the front and rear entrances rise from lions at the base, each holding the Milltown coat of arms, to enormous antique vases at the top, objects which frame the house as one looks up towards it, and the view, as one looks away. 

The ambition of James Caulfeild, 1st Earl of Charlemont, for his much smaller villa, built over fifteen years, was to create a perfect work of art to inspire a revolution in Irish architecture. Caulfeild, returned from his nine-year grand tour with Simon Vierpyl (qv), commissioned the sculptor to make copies of antique figures, and employed him to produce sculptural decoration for the Casino [341], designed by William Chambers, set in a landscaped park facing Dublin bay at Marino. An early sketch, possibly by Charlemont, depicts a temple with altars dedicated to architecture, painting and sculpture. It would be superseded by Chambers’s ingenious, compact and impractical villa, published in his Treatise, but it is clear from the final building that the idea that the Casino would glorify artifice and the integration of art and architecture was never relinquished; it was for patron and client, both perfectionists, a shared passion. 

William Chambers [architect] and Simon Vierpyl [sculptor] The Casino, Marino, Dublin, 1758–late 1770s. © Denis Mortell Photography.

Freestanding, with an intricate outline deriving from the projections and recessions of its Greek-cross plan, its ring of columns, and four diagonal projecting plinths, the Casino is a sculptural building, the first of its kind in Ireland. Carved ornament decorates the many surfaces of the elevations. This works with the architectural design to reduce the building’s scale, which incorporates three floors into what appears to be one. The crisply executed sculptural detail was orchestrated to give articulation and interest at the base and the attic, while the figures – four attic statues of Venus and Apollo, Bacchus and Ceres, and the particularly memorable copies of antique Egyptian lions on the four projecting plinths – were integrated into the scheme. 

Proportion, for such controlled architecture, was fundamental. In reply to Charlemont’s concern in early 1771 that the attic figures would be too large, Chambers, in a letter dated 30 January 1771, argued that their size, determined by the columns, was fixed and that they would therefore appear right. But in the same letter Chambers allowed that the final design decisions could be determined by on-the-ground perception; Charlemont, he said, could put timber models of the chimney vases in place on the roof in order to judge the proportions.

This letter, part of the small surviving correspondence between the architect, who never visited the site, and the patron, reveals Chambers’s reliance on Charlemont’s judgment and the client’s close involvement in the details of the work. What is less clear is Vierpyl’s role. We know that Chambers designed the sculpture and had models made in England, which he sent, with instructions, for Vierpyl to construct with his team of English carvers. In his Treatise Chambers remarked that Vierpyl executed the building ‘with great neatness and taste’, which suggests that although the sculptor did not design the decoration, he made decisions which influenced its final appearance in the process of carving the stone (John Harris, Sir William Chambers (London, 1970), p. 43).

To incorporate figures of Roman gods and goddesses on buildings was to introduce idea and meaning into architecture. For a villa such as the Casino, figures symbolizing cultural and domestic virtues, such as art, love and wine, were the obvious choice. For public architecture, emblematic figures might be introduced to convey aspirations about the enterprises that the building facilitated and represented. The form of the figures and the objects associated with them – their attributes – had been codified by Cesare Ripa in Iconologia, first published in 1593. To the broadly educated, the language was readable, especially when the sculptures were placed against the sky, so that figure and attributes formed recognizable silhouettes. John Van Nost the younger’s (qv) figures of Fortitude – with spear and lion – and Justice – with scales and sword, set on pedestals within the great broken pediments of the two gateways framing the Bedford Tower, introduced a festive note into the sober architecture of Dublin Castle’s Upper Castle Yard. Erected in 1753, they were the first such statues in Ireland. 

In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century the House of Lords (later Bank of Ireland) [287, 404], Four Courts and the GPO would gain skyline statues symbolizing commercial and institutional integrity and a generalized national identity. But it was the Custom House, constructed between 1781 and 1791, which rose most impressively to the challenge of asserting purpose and claiming virtue with an integrated programme of sculptural decoration which met the eye at all levels. One reason why the resources were available and the theme imaginatively pursued was that John Beresford, appointed First Commissioner for the Revenue in 1780, had a mission to promote the commercial development of Ireland conceived as a commonwealth annexed to the English crown, but under a separate government. Beresford commissioned an English architect, James Gandon, to circumvent his opponents, and to be assured of a magnificent neoclassical structure that would not only facilitate but promote and inspire an expanded Irish trade. 

That this intention was present from the start is evident in Gandon’s first sketches, made in London in 1780, in which outsized royal arms, each with a centrepiece displaying the harp of Ireland, dominated the end pavilions. The rest of the programme, developed in the succeeding years, evoked riverine transport within Ireland (keystones portraying river gods [286]), far-flung destinations (north attic goddesses representing four continents, [342]), Anglo-Irish commercial concord (the pediment tableau depicting The Friendly Union of Great Britain and Ireland with Neptune driving away Famine and Despair), symbols of maritime trade (south attic figures representing Neptune, Mercury, Plenty and Industry), all presided over by a truly colossal figure of Commerce on the dome. 

Thomas Banks, Europe, Asia, Africa and America on the north attic, Custom House, Dublin. © Denis Mortell Photography

Surviving drawings (IAA) and letters suggest that the designs were developed in stages. A page of unsigned ink and pencil sketches depicts the outline of figures for Africa and America [343], noting their attributes with reference to the Iconologia. This may have been an early proposal. Three more developed sketches, possibly by the artist Paul Sandby, who was acting as an intermediary for Gandon, give a stronger feel for the three-dimensionality of the figures and the materials of their costumes and props. These were succeeded by three-dimensional models, some made by the sculptor Agostino Carlini, of which Sandby approved in a letter dated 2 February 1783. 

Africa and America, unsigned ink and pencil drawings for the north attic of Custom House, Dublin. © The Honorable Society of King’s Inns Collection, Irish Architectural Archive.

Gandon employed Carlini and Thomas Banks, neoclassical sculptors whom he knew from London, for most of the attic figures. However, he was open to Irish talent. The authors of the 1846 The Life of James Gandon wrote that it was a model of the coat of arms made by Edward Smyth (qv), a young carver employed by the contractor for the Custom House, which persuaded Gandon of Smyth’s talent for composition and execution. It demonstrated an awareness of the need to modify high-level sculpture by modelling the undersides of the heads in great detail, to the detriment of the bodies, to make them stand out dramatically when viewed from underneath. Smyth’s lively beasts have the rugged character of baroque sculpture, in contrast to the smooth neoclassical productions of Banks and Carlini. Gandon put Smyth’s inventiveness and appreciation of the grotesque to good use on the keystones, which the sculptor rendered as gods of character and power out of whose beards and hair emerge the crops and industries of their valleys. Smyth carved neoclassical festoons on either side of the keystones, integrating the heads decoratively into the architecture. 

Judging from the surviving correspondence, the architect Francis Johnston had to work harder than Gandon in 1807 to persuade his client, the Bank of Ireland, that Smyth should be preferred to London neoclassical sculptors for the execution of the sculpture that would ‘reconcile the citizens’ to the fact that the Parliament building was to be converted into a bank, suggesting that, although architects controlled a sculptor’s work, the client could have a significant influence (Patrick Lenehan, ‘Edward Smyth, Dublin’s Sculptor’, IAR Yearbook, 1989/90, 72). 

Classical orders required significant feats of carving. A report in The Builder of 1855 about the making of a granite capital for Kenure Park, Rush, Co. Dublin, reveals the existing practice which was characterized by a division of labour: the architect made a working drawing, from which an artist created a full-sized model, which was transported to the quarry, where the workmen carved the capital – a working practice that John Ruskin challenged. 

With the publication of the The Seven Lamps of Architecture in 1849 and The Stones of Venice in 1851–53, Ruskin articulated a defence of Gothic architecture which incorporated a unique extended and influential appreciation of the role, function and aesthetic possibilities of architectural sculpture. At nearly every point there was an implicit rejection of Classicism. For him, Gothic-inspired architectural sculpture should be based on nature rather than abstract forms, and should embody the carver’s thoughts and emotions, rather than follow established rules. Architecture should be decorated by sculpture (the carving of structurally significant points such as capitals) instead of acting as a framework for figures. A building would be successfully ornamented with well-placed carving rather than with perfect sculpture. Finally, sculpture should be legible, designed so that its form is clear to the viewer and able to project a perceptible meaning. Ruskin’s polemic pointed to a new stylistic authority, and to a new demotic spirit where subject matter and meaning were derived from what could be experienced at first hand, and personal expression took precedence over education and established rules. 

This was not entirely novel; the acanthus leaf and the egg were fundamental to classical ornament, and Edward Smyth understood the need to make sculpture clearly perceptible. At Adare Manor, Co. Limerick, where the 2nd Earl of Dunraven had dismissed his architect and given local mason James Connolly the responsibilities of a building contractor, exterior stone carving carried out in the 1830s and ’40s – some inspired by local medieval carving – displays the inventiveness and passion that Ruskin would advocate, although, with its fantastical and ubiquitous creatures, it bordered on the bizarre. 

This suggests that Ruskin’s ideas fell on fertile ground. In how many other places were Irish carvers, instructed to adopt a medieval idiom, looking again at local medieval work or at nature, and enjoying the opportunity for fantasy or for reproducing familiar plants and birds? As Ruskin acknowledged, the first example of a building conceived under his influence was TCD’s Museum Building, designed in a broadly Venetian Gothic style by Deane and Woodward and built between 1853 and 1857. The architects employed James and John O’Shea (qv) and English carver Mr Roe. The Builder (12 August 1854), enthusiastic about Ruskin’s ideas, recorded that the carvers were given only basic guidance – verbal instructions, a painted wooden block – and were largely left alone to realize their own designs. It is possible they were shown the capitals of the Ducal Palace in Venice, engraved in The Builder of 27 December 1851, which showed combinations of plants and animals, a feature of the Museum Building’s carvings [251]. 

The finished work strongly suggests that the carvers’ skill had been encouraged to keep pace with their imagination. The foliated pilasters and columns are boldly three-dimensional, each displaying an individual design vividly suggesting a captured moment: a bird in a bush; leaves about to unfurl. Elsewhere, growth and spontaneity are expressed by carvings spilling out beyond an established frame. Although richly detailed, the sculpture took its place, according to Ruskin’s precepts, on orderly façades or within the spatial magnificence of the domed polychromatic interior hall. 

Architectural sculpture proliferated, and in places blossomed, in the second half of the nineteenth century owing to the demand for distinguished public buildings, a growing taste for the elaborate, and Ruskin’s influence, though it was often watered down. Where post-Emancipation Catholic churches vied with the Church of Ireland, or nationalist and unionist banks competed for custom, sculptural decoration was at a premium. 

A hierarchy of suppliers emerged. At one end of the spectrum were the fine art sculptors such as Samuel Ferris Lynn (qv), who designed the spandrel figures for the Custom House in Belfast in 1856. These sculptors also carved figures for buildings: Lynn executed a vivid pediment tableau depicting Commerce and Agriculture [190] filled with eloquent three-dimensional figures for the Provincial Bank in College Street (now the Westin Hotel) in Dublin in 1868. Next in line were the versatile architectural sculptors, many of whom set up businesses in this period in response to the demand for ecclesiastical sculpture. Several came from England and worked all over Ireland from premises in Dublin. Thomas Fitzpatrick carved Lynn’s designs for the Belfast Custom House. His abundant ornamentation of warehouses and banks in the city contributes significantly to the impression of Belfast as a thriving Victorian city. The Englishman Charles Harrison (qv) was a particularly flexible architectural sculptor, working on plant-encrusted capitals for Thomas Deane on the Munster and Leinster Bank in Dame Street from 1870 to 1874 with Ruskin-inspired freedom, while carving the conventional west front sculpture of St Colman’s Cathedral in Cobh, Co. Cork. 

Classicism maintained the demand for pediment and skyline sculptures of symbolic figures. The polemical role of sculpture, also an inheritance from the eighteenth century, was evident in banks. William Caldbeck would include Celtic details, such as shamrocks and Irish Romanesque ornament, on classically proportioned buildings from the early 1860s to denote the nationalist sympathies of the National Bank. 

Ruskin’s influence was most readily seen in Gothic revival churches. On the capitals of the Catholic church at Ballingarry, Co. Limerick, designed by J.J. McCarthy in 1872, for example, a carver displayed a passion for unfurling ferns, while at Kilfinane, Co. Limerick, designed by G.C. Ashlin in 1877, the carver evoked the profusion of nature. 

At St Colman’s Cathedral in Cobh [398], designed in an early thirteenth-century French gothic style by E.W. Pugin and G.C. Ashlin, an ambitious Catholic triumphalism meant that the Ruskinian principles of confining sculpture to particular parts of the Cathedral or celebrating nature were trumped by polemics. Carved decoration, most executed by J.A. O’Connell’s firm between 1892 and 1898, covered nearly every surface and junction, making for an ornate exterior and filigreed interior, while carved scenes and statues projected the history of the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland [399]. 

The architect William Burges, who designed St Fin Barre’s Church of Ireland Cathedral, Cork [344], in 1862, proved himself to be Ruskin’s heir in the seriousness with which he treated architectural sculpture, assigning sculpture the primary role in determining the success of great architecture. Like Ruskin, Burges thought the art of architectural sculpture had been forgotten, but, unlike Ruskin, he left nothing to the carvers’ sensibility, preferring total control. 

William Burgess [architect] St Fin Barre’s Cathedral, Cork, west front, 1862–79. © Irish Architectural Archive.

Burges embraced the hierarchies of the system, employing London architectural sculptor Thomas Nicholls to develop the sculpture with plaster models, using small-scale drawings he (Burges) had made. Nicholls carved the main figures in London, while Burges entrusted Charles Harrison and later Robert MacLeod and their men with the in situ carving. Burges, in his pursuit of the most effective sculptural effects, went to a variety of sources. When Nicholls had partially made his models of the Four Evangelistic Beasts, architect and sculptor ‘repaired to the British Museum to see how the Ninevites [people of Nineveh, the ancient capital of Assyria] treated similar subjects, and the figures were finally finished from the information then obtained’ (Burges, Abstract of diaries, 1868, quoted in Lawrence and Wilson, p. 134). Some of the details derived from these various influences – exaggerated eyelids, squared edges, flatish planes – resulted in an angular, strongly defined style for the bas-reliefs. Interestingly this style seems to be more fully realized for the Four Evangelistic Beasts in the carvings by Harrison, which form the corners of a tight square around the wheel window of the west façade, than in Nicholl’s models, now incorporated into a tracing board in the lodge room of the Masonic hall in Cork. 

It was French gothic that showed Burges how to integrate architecture and sculpture. He emulated its manner of lining the door jambs of west front portals with life-size figures, making sure that the lines of the figures were arranged with ‘due regard to the lines of the building’. Inside, robust sculpture was confined to certain areas, producing a well-regulated interior, close to Ruskin’s precepts about well-placed sculpture. 

The arts and crafts movement of the late nineteenth century encouraged the idea that the crafts should have the status of art (see ‘Arts and Crafts Sculpture’). One result of this was the engaging of Michael Shortall (qv) to design carefully composed miniature relief scenes of the life of St Brendan for the capitals of Loughrea Cathedral, Co. Galway [345], built from 1897 to 1902, making art from what was usually a craftsman’s decoration. 

Michael Shortall, capitals in the nave of St Brendan’s Cathedral, Loughrea, Co. Galway, 1897-1902. Photo © Paula Murphy.

There was no designated place for sculpture in Modernism as an embellishment of structure or openings. This was substantially true too of the early twentieth-century recasting of Classicism in a stripped idiom, although here sculpture might be accommodated. One thousand pounds was allocated for sculpture for the Department of Industry and Commerce in Kildare Street, designed by J. Boyd Barrett in 1935 in a stripped classical style. The seriousness with which the Department took the message to be conveyed by both the subject and style of the sculpture can be gauged by its rejection of Boyd’s proposals for Irish Ireland iconography (representing the provinces of Ireland), and Laurence Campbell’s (qv) traditional interpretation of the idea that the sculpture might represent the function of the building. Gabriel Hayes (qv) retained that subject and won the contract for her portrayal of the story of Irish industry by depicting both crafts and industrial processes in panels whose style referenced socialist realism. Her preliminary sketches [138], substantially drawn with T-square and compass, depicting the repeating profiles, shoulders and hands of her protagonists in strong lines, were translated into angular flat planes in low relief textured by sparse incisions [139]. She also carved two enlarged, stylized keystones representing Éire and St Brendan, a gesture to the Celtic Revival (qv). 

Although Hayes’s work is compelling, the project was essentially an addendum to the history of architectural carving. The sculptures, particularly the panels, sit, in Máirín Allen’s evocative phrase, like postage stamps on the building, disconnected from the logic of the architecture. The old symbiosis was no longer desirable, and there was no indication of a new way to integrate sculpture with architecture. 

SELECTED READING Edward McParland, James Gandon, Vitruvius Hibernicus, London, 1985; Jeanne Sheehy, ‘Lively Irishmen: The Ruskinian Tradition in Ireland’, IAR, 3:4 (Winter 1986), 66–69; OPW, The Department of Industry and Commerce, Kildare Street, Dublin, 1992; Frederick O’Dwyer, The Architecture of Deane and Woodward, Cork, 1997; David Lawrence and Ann Wilson, The Cathedral of Saint Fin Barre at Cork, Dublin, 2006; Aidan O’Boyle, ‘The Milltown Collection: Reconstructing an Eighteenth-century Picture-hang’, IADS, XIII (2010), 30–59. 

The Royal Irish Academy has kindly granted permission to Sculpture Dublin to reproduce a number of texts from Sculpture 1600-2000, Volume 3 in the Royal Irish Academy’s 5-volume publication Art and Architecture of Ireland (Yale, 2014). The book, edited by Paula Murphy, comprises introductory essays, biographies and thematic essays.