When we use the term ‘Georgian Dublin’, it is shorthand for a century of often bewildering architectural, stylistic and constructional evolution under four successive monarchs. Academic and popular interest tends to focus on the fifty years from 1740 to 1790, as style veered from ‘heavy’ classicism and florid rococo to more delicate, neoclassical ideals: think Rotunda Hospital versus City Hall. The period immediately following the Act of Union in 1801 brought little major change, as development tentatively resurrected to a similar pattern, with some Regency flourishes, until recession hit in the 1820s. ‘Victorian Dublin’ has a habit piquing popular interest around 1850, even though Queen Victoria ascended to the throne in 1837. What on earth happened in the meantime? In short, the reign of King William IV.
It is curious that the long William IV period – spanning from 1820 to 1850 (though in regnal terms only from 1830-1837) – has been so overlooked as a style epoch in its own right, not least because Dublin exhibits so many of its riches, built in the boom leading up to the Great Famine. The period can be described as much as a ‘mood’ as a design phase: one of accelerating social change, early globalisation and rapid technological advancement. This brought about a wave of design influences from the four corners of the globe, but particularly the flowering of the already established Greek Revival, newer Egyptomania, Italianate, and the Gothic Revival.
What’s so much fun about all this is that the adoption of these themes in Dublin, and frankly everywhere, often resulted in madly eccentric local interpretations, some layered over each other. As one 1840s commentator put it: “The present age is distinguished from all others by having no style which can properly be called its own.”
William IV is a moody teenager with a rolling identity crisis, veering from gloomy to whimsical, aggressive to sedate, and is almost always awkward. The essential spirit of Dublin, immortalised by Strumpet City and bottled by Maurice Craig, is not lofty Georgian, it’s wilful William IV.
Favoured motifs of the period include massive pylon piers, segmental arches, emphatic channelling, divisional windows, deeply modelled joinery, senatorial ironwork, scrolling lotus flowers and anthemia. Essential materials are granite, yellow brick, cast iron and Roman cement. Colours are rich and elegant: black, biscuit, purple-brown, bottle green. Texture is oak graining, wallpaper and heavy mahogany.
William IV kicks off on Regency coattails with the buildings of architect Frederick Darley: his sober Kings Inns Library on Henrietta Street a harbinger of his 1830s granite-faced New Square ranges in Trinity College that inject a dose of Edinburgh into central Dublin. His design contemporary, Jacob Owen, architect to the Board of Works, was also a major proponent of the style. His modification to and replication of Tyrone House on Marlborough Street is an early example of the severe aesthetic, followed by superbly austere additions to the rear of the Four Courts, visible from the Luas station, finished in 1839, as well as many alterations made to the gilded interiors of the State Apartments in Dublin Castle.
1840s railway stations feature prominently: Heuston, by Sancton Wood, a deliciously camp pile perched on the western extremity of the city; Connolly, by William Deane Butler, the ultimate gawk, marooned on Amiens Street like a rejected sideboard; Broadstone, John Skipton Mulvany’s colossus and a stupendous masterstroke of monumental architecture.
Not to forget the domestic scene, many stoical ‘Georgian’ terraces conceal eccentric William IV interiors, often completed in the 1830s-1840s: Leeson Street, Belvedere Place, North Circular Road, Rathmines Road, not to mention vast tracts of stucco-iced, south Dublin. Much of the city’s merchant shop typology also dates from this time, with granite ‘platforms’ spanning former basement areas, cast-iron elements and sheet glass shopfronts all part of the language for converting Georgian ground floor parlours for the new retail world, exemplified in Dublin Civic Trust’s newly restored premises at 18 Ormond Quay Upper. Other premises were purpose-built: the old Brown Thomas on Grafton Street, now a sad façade retention for M&S, is a rare and beautiful surviving example of 1840s commercial design.
The ultimate instalment, however, is architect Isaac Farrell’s gloriously sober, 1830s former bank on Middle Abbey Street, Dublin’s latest Wetherspoon’s. William IV pulses through its veins like beer through its bar taps.
Next time you’re wandering through town, take off those Georgian-tinted glasses and devour the madness of the ‘other’ Williamite age.
Dublin Civic Trust