As Julius Bryant pointed out ‘the Newbridge Drawing Room is the only example in Ireland to survive from the 18th century of a wing added to a house for the enjoyment of art’. The art however was not just limited to that on canvas and behind gilt frames but extended to the decoration of the room. A Gesamtkunstwerk of old master pictures, ornate furniture, plush wallpaper and damask curtains, the room is crowned by a rich rococo ceiling. The story of this remarkably intact room can be brought alive by the surviving archival sources preserved by the Cobbe family.
A new room for Newbridge:
Although built by Archbishop Cobbe from around 1747, finishing Newbridge House was the project of his son and daughter-in-law, Thomas and Lady Betty Cobbe, who were given the house as their main residence after their marriage in 1755. They proceeded to decorate and fill the house with all manner of paintings, furniture and objets d’art. By the 1760s this collecting compulsion necessitated an extension, with the addition of an east-facing picture-gallery-cum-drawing-room at the rear of the house between 1763-64. The most likely architect of the extension is George Semple (fl.1700-1782). It is thought that Semple supervised the execution of a design by James Gibbs for the original house (1747-52), and certainly carried out several other commissions for Archbishop Cobbe. Following the death of James Gibbs in 1754, Semple was the best placed architect for completing Newbridge.
Richard Williams, stuccoman.
Surviving building accounts from the period of works on the extension provide rare evidence of the authorship of the drawing room ceiling, bringing to light the work of a previously unknown, but clearly skilled craftsman. On November 4th 1763 ‘Williams’ was paid £6.16s.6d (the single largest payment he would receive) for ‘the stucco’. This is the first known reference to the decorative plasterer, Richard Williams. Over the course of his employment Williams was paid a total of £26.17s.4 ½d. Although directly comparable costs are difficult to ascertain, this was a relatively good price to pay for a skilled craftsman, who on average earned approximately £30 per annum. In 1754 Nathaniel Clements paid the ‘walloon’ [Bartholomew Cramillion] £56.17s.6.d for one ceiling in the Ranger’s Lodge (McDonnell, 161), while William Brownlow paid the stuccodore James Byrne £446 for the complete cost of the stucco decoration of No. 12 Merrion Square in Dublin. (Calderon & Casey, 14) Of the other trades at Newbridge, ‘Welch the carpenter’ was paid £23.6s.11d. on November 3rd 1763; Morgan the stonecutter’s bill came to £24.8s.0d. in 1765, whereas David Sibbald was paid £18.18s.16d. for carpentry work carried out between February 1763 – June 1764.
Payments relating to plasterwork had in fact begun the previous July, when Cobbe paid ‘Knowd’s bill for Lime for the Stucco Men’. Over the next six months several more payments for lime were made, amounting to £15.1s.0d. in total, while four monthly payments of £5.13s.9d were made to ‘stuccomen’ in the months prior to Williams’ first mention in the accounts. Notwithstanding this, Richard Williams’ involvement at Newbridge seems to have begun several months in advance of his first payment in November 1763. Over a month prior to this he is mentioned at Newbridge when the Donabate parish vestry book records:
‘Richd Williams and Mrs Mary Carney was (sic) Married at New Bridge in the Parish of Donabate by the Revd Mr Cummins on Thursday the 29 of Sepr 1763’.
Mary Carney, a children’s nurse, had arrived at Newbridge in 1761, just prior to the birth of the Cobbe’s second child. Following their possibly clandestine marriage (though this seems unlikely since Cobbe was active as Church Warden at this time) both Mary and Richard continued to work in the house. This was an unusual, though not unheard of occurrence among the servant class in Georgian Ireland. Mary, or ‘Nurse Carney’ as she is referred to in the accounts, retained her position until February 1764 after which time she was discharged (presumably as her charge was now two years old). Richard continued to be employed at Newbridge until November 1764, when he received his last payment. Williams, therefore, would appear to have arrived among the troupe of ‘stucco men’ around August 1763, and went on to lead the team in producing rich, ornamental stuccowork in the principal rooms, during what was in effect his honeymoon period.
The highly ornate rococo stucco work produced by Williams provides ‘a vital counterpoint to the restraint of Palladian taste’ that at Newbridge has a chaste English quality invigorated by flourishes of an Irish-crafted interior (Craftsmanship at Newbridge House, 18th December 2020). His work, while individualistic, contains definite similarities with the ‘Dublin school’ of plasterwork. The drawing room ceiling is rich in rococo vocabulary of broad-leaf acanthus, diaperwork, bandwork, rocaille, vases, and birds, which feature most successfully in enlivening the cornice. Distinct from the work of Cramillion and other rococo statuaries, Williams’ work is one of the ‘many un-figured ceilings that went up between 1755 and 1765’ and exemplifies a transitional phase between the demise of figurative work and the rise of the more geometric work of neoclassicism.
Drawing room ceiling, details, Richard Williams and ‘stuccomen’, executed 1763-64. Courtesy of Newbridge House, Co. Dublin.
On October 2nd 1764 the Donabate parish vestry agreed that owing to the £150 spent by Thomas Cobbe ‘in very useful and ornamental improvements in & upon the Parish church’ , including erecting ‘at his own expense’ a seat ‘which he [Cobbe] hath fitted up in the Gallery’ the Cobbe family was granted sole use of this seat. In addition to work by ‘Cary the mason’ and Sibbald the carpenter (totaling only £7.5s.7d) these ‘ornamental improvements’ appear to have included work by Richard Williams.
The ceiling and walling surrounding this balcony pew feature rococo embellishments in the style of Williams work at Newbridge. Although broadly similar stylistically speaking, the two ceilings differ in requirements. The drawing room is lofty and grand unlike the church ceiling which is intimate and thus requires greater detail. Egg and dart is replaced in the church by a border of water-leaves in relief. The balcony seat sits under an awkward coved ceiling expressed as an octagon at the centre and enlivened with scallop shells. The cove is interrupted in parts by the flat rear wall and by a corner fireplace abutting from the right. Clearly, this is the commission not of a prelate but of his independently-minded son, as nowhere are archiepiscopal motifs found.
St. Patrick’s CoI Church, Donabate, ceiling details, 1764. Courtesy of Newbridge House, Co. Dublin.
On the expanse of wall left of the window is a vase of peonies and alyssum-like flowers, flanked by acanthus tufted scrolls. To the right, above the fireplace is a slanted cartouche containing the Cobbe family coat of arms. As at Newbridge, rocaille and acanthus tufted scrolls link up designs, fill otherwise blank expanses and navigate corners.
Interestingly one of the churchwardens who signed the above agreement was the carpenter David Sibbald, who was then engaged in works at Newbridge. Unlike Williams, who upon completion of works was to leave the Donabate area, no doubt in search of work elsewhere, Sibbald remained and settled, taking a lease on one of the smartest tenant houses in the vicinity. The Newbridge commission is the only documented example of Richard Williams work. We do not know anything about his origins or training, or indeed if he was local to the area. After Newbridge, Williams fades into the shadows for several years. He reappears in city directories between 1777-1783 at 20 Bow street listed as a ‘stucco-worker and painter’. It is possible that Williams continued to receive Cobbe patronage, working on their now lost townhouse on Palace Row constructed from 1768. Unfortunately, the account books for that period do not survive and Williams’ involvement there remains tentative.
Cathal Dowd Smith, Curator, Newbridge House, Co. Dublin
Julius Bryant ‘The Newbridge Drawing Room: A Picture Gallery for a Georgian Villa’ in Alastair Laing (ed.), Clerics and Connoisseurs, An Irish Art Collection through Three Centuries, (London, 2001), pp 63-72.
Loreto Calderón and Christine Casey, ‘Number 12 Merrion Square: townhouse of the Right Honourable William Brownlow’, in Nicola Figgis (ed.), Irish Architectural and Decorative Studies, Volume V (2002).
Christine Casey, Making Magnificence, (New Haven and London, 2017).
Alec Cobbe and Terry Friedman, James Gibbs in Ireland, Newbridge his villa for Charles Cobbe, Archbishop of Dublin, (Surrey, 2005).
Joseph McDonnell, ‘Bartholomew Cramillion and continental rococo’, in Christine Casey and Conor Lucey (eds.) Decorative plasterwork in Ireland and Europe Ornament and the Early Modern Interior, (Dublin, 2012)