25 May 2021
100 years ago today, on May 25th 1921, during the final stage of the Anglo-Irish war, the Dublin brigade of the IRA set light to the Custom House resulting in a devastating fire and loss of life. Restored by the Office of Public Works in the 1920s, the building underwent a second major programme of conservation in the 1980s, completed in 1991. Today scaffolding again rises along the river front to enable cleaning and repair of the pediment statuary following a steam clean of the façade by the OPW. The CRAFTVALUE team was permitted access to the site to view the newly cleaned statuary and carving.
An impromptu video filmed on the scaffolding complete with street noise communicates more clearly than still images the materiality of the sculpted surfaces. Viewing the bejeweled oxen heads, hide swags, riverine heads, and allegorical figures at close quarters illuminates the assembly process of the sculpted elements, the tooling of the stone surfaces, and the sheer virtuosity displayed by Edward Smyth and his assistant Benjamin Schrowder. It also reveals the presence of an incomplete element in the frieze which casts light on the carving process.
James Gandon was 40 years old when he arrived in Dublin and had only one building of significant scale to his name, the County Hall at Nottingham, now demolished. The Custom House presented major challenges in terms of its immense size and waterlogged site. Edward McParland has brilliantly analysed the sources and formal arrangements of the design and has noted the singularity of the building’s sculptural richness in Gandon’s work. If only we could now access the building records in the National Archives at Kew cited in McParland’s footnotes, which contain information on the building contracts and construction process including the importation of scaffolding poles from England, reportedly because poles of sufficient length could not be procured in Ireland. The reopening of the Kew Archives and lifting of travel restrictions will provide an opportunity to revisit these records.
Though faced in granite and Portland stone the fabric of the Custom House contains brick and calp or local Dublin limestone. The brick contract was awarded to John Semple whose son and grandson were responsible for the remarkable series of Gothic Revival churches in Dublin and beyond, including Monkstown Church and the Black Church. The stone contractor was Henry Darley, a member of the foremost building dynasty of 18th century Dublin whose second wife was the widow of the carpenter and master builder Robert Ball. Among Darley’s men was the stone carver Edward Smyth whose designs for the ornaments of the dome so impressed Gandon that he engaged him to carve the heraldic sculpture over the pavilions and the figures of the pediment designed by the London based sculptor Agostino Carlini.
The friendly union of Britannia and Hibernia at the centre of the pediment, flanked by Neptune, tritons, ships, and wind-swept calamity are deeply undercut with exaggerated heads and facial expressions designed to read fluently from below.
The triton and spear held aloft contain copper while the cap of liberty is composed of lead.
The lions and unicorns of the pavilions are foreshortened in a similar manner and were criticised by contemporaries as being more head than body. Seepage from the copper alloy in the unicorn horn has caused these mythical creatures to ‘cry’.
While much of the surface tooling of the pediment sculpture has been erased by weathering, lower down on the frieze and collars of the columns the original tool marks can still be clearly read, a standard method of texturing the background to throw ornaments into greater relief.
Intriguingly, on the west return of the portico is what appears to be an unfinished partial swag, blocked out in a rough state unlike the simulated swags of animal hide across the front of the frieze. Is this the result of a later intervention?
By contrast the east return is an uncarved block though this too may reflect later alteration. The answer is provided by the conservation stone mason, Henry Snell, who explains that these partial swags were damaged in the fire of 1921 and chiseled off to a rough state. Did Smyth finish the carvings in situ or complete them on the bench? Did he and Gandon stand below and discuss the frieze? For the return frieze allows only a short section of the swag with no opportunity for a supporting device like the ox horn from which the swags are otherwise suspended. For centuries architects and masons jointly deliberated on the effects of roofline sculpture. Of the carvings at Blenheim David Green concluded ‘To read through their accounts is to gather the impression that for months on end the Strongs [master masons]and their labourers spent half their time hauling urns or models of urns and trophies and finials some seventy feet to the roof tops and then lowering them again while various knowing persons shook their heads’. James Gandon wrote of his indebtedness to the masons and carvers at the Custom House and commented amusingly on deliberations about the timber raft foundations. The site was visited by members of the College faculty, one of whom proclaimed the use of Fir a mistake, advice politely ignored. ‘When I was informed of this,’ Gandon wrote, ‘I requested my informant, when next he should meet the Doctor, to present my compliments, and to say that Doctors differed…’.
The sculpture of the Dublin Custom House, according to Fraser Murray exhibits a ‘profusion and quality of carving unsurpassed in any contemporary British building’ while Matthew Craske has considered the building, together with Somerset House as a ‘hybrid between a patriotic street monument and a public building’. Dubliners and visitors to the capital can enjoy the newly cleaned building externally and later this year may visit the interior. The Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage in conjunction with the OPW and the support of Fáilte Ireland are currently carrying out a refurbishment of the Custom House Visitor Centre, with the installation of new exhibition and interpretation displays. The Visitor Centre will cover not only the 1921 attack and fire but also the history of this remarkable building. Unfortunately, due to Covid restrictions its opening has been delayed until later in 2021
For an account of the building’s history and construction in the context of the city, see History Ireland, Dublin Custom House podcast https://www.historyireland.com/hedge-schools/
We are most grateful to the Office of Public Works for facilitating this work. Special thanks to Terri Sweeney Meade, Audrey Farrell, John Larissy, and John Cahill.
Edward McParland, James Gandon: Vitruvius Hibernicus (London, Zwemmer, 1985).
David Green, Grinling Gibbons, his work as a carver and statuary, 1648-1721 (London, Country Life, 1964).
Thomas J. Mulvany, The life of James Gandon Esq…. (Dublin, Hodges & Smith, 1846) https://books.google.ie/books?id=TLEEAAAAYAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false.
Murray Fraser, ‘Public building and colonial policy in Dublin, 1760-1800’, Architectural History, vol.28 (1985) pp. 102-123.
Matthew Craske, ‘Sculpture and its sister arts: the problem of the relationship between sculptors and architects in Georgian England’, CRAFTVALUE: craftsmanship and its conservation in the architecture of Britain and Ireland 1660-1760’, Trinity College Dublin, 30th October 2020.