Recrafting Parliament

Andrew Tierney


Digital reconstruction of the fenestration in the south front of the Irish Parliament. © CRAFTVALUE

The Irish House of Commons was an extraordinarily precocious space, the centrepiece of a complex suite of intersecting public and private spaces that vied in scale and complexity with the ancient Roman temple complexes, bath houses, and fora that had intrigued architects from the time of the Renaissance. Like the decayed buildings that inspired it, the Irish parliament house stands today as an incomplete and partial expression of its original form, having been subjected to several phases of remodelling and a major change of use when converted to a bank after the Act of Union. The construction of Francis Johnston’s new banking hall after 1800 saw the destruction of both the Court of Requests (a large rectangular hall on the south side of the building), a smaller lobby behind it, and the octagonal House of Commons, all of which formed the central axis of the parliament complex. It is worth bearing in mind that the internal fabric of the House of Commons had already been destroyed in a fire of 1792 and had been reconstructed on a circular plan without the full reconstitution of the dome.

In the summer of 2020 CRAFTVALUE initiated its plan to digitally reconstruct the interior of the lost House of Commons. The reason for this was threefold. Firstly, the task of reconstructing the building offered an opportunity to highlight the quality craftsmanship in stone, timber, and plaster that defined the high-end building trade of early eighteenth century Ireland and to explore the techniques employed to model the surfaces of these lavish interiors. Secondly, the parliament house was a seminal building of the Palladian revival in both Britain and Ireland, and the masterpiece of Sir Edward Lovett Pearce, whose early death in the 1733 cut short one of the most promising architectural careers of the age. Thirdly, the project brought to prominence (as Pearce’s draughtsman and assistant) the German architect Richard Castle, whose remarkable series of country houses saw the spread of high quality craftsmanship throughout the country.

Clockwise from left: Francis Wheatley, The Irish House of Commons, 1780. Courtesy of Lotherton Hall, Leeds Museums and Galleries; Unexecuted cross section drawing for the House of Commons by Edward Lovett Pearce. Victoria and Albert Museum; section by Rowland Omer of 1767 published in Gilbert’s History of Dublin (1896).

The principal sources for this reconstruction are Pearce’s own architectural designs in the Elton Hall collection, now in the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, a survey of 1767 by Rowland Omer, showing a plan of the parliament and cross sections of the House of Commons and House of Lords, and the painting by Francis Wheatley of 1780 commemorating a speech by Henry Grattan. It is remarkable that so few views of this important interior survive and several Victorian attempts to re-imagine the space (using partly invented detailing) have considerably confused matters.

Pearce’s plan and cross-section is not as executed but offers several clues to his thinking during the design process and to changes or simplifications which may have been made subsequent to his death. For example, his dome is of a more complex design, with each alternating bay of the octagon stepped back, breaking up the entablature in a baroque manner. While Omer shows the dome in its simpler executed form, he seems to have distorted its proportions to make the coffers more legible in cross-section, making Pearce’s drawing a useful guide as to the original profile. One important feature which Pearce does not include in his drawing are the compound columns at the angles of the Octagon, an architectural solecism imposed by the structural demands of the dome rendered clearly in both Omer and Wheatley.

Pearce’s surviving design for the House of Commons show some features omitted by Omer, such as the roof trusses that supported the dome. These equate quite well with a late eighteenth-century survey by James Gandon in the NLI made to add additional support, which shows a series of 32 ft radial beams spanning the interior around a central king post, which supported the 50 ft wide internal coffered dome. He also gives us the number of rafters and purlins in each bay and the dimensions of the timbers. As Arthur Gibney has shown the king-post construction that appears in Pearce’s drawings for the roof structure of the colonnade surrounding the forecourt is of the type favoured by Palladio and represents a new departure in roof design in early eighteenth century Ireland.

Another key issue is the arrangement of the windows around the room, which was necessarily dictated by the structures surrounding the octagon. Pearce shows an asymmetrical arrangement in the bays flanking the Venetian window on the north side, with long windows to the north west and small high windows to the north east. Omer, on the other hand, presents a more symmetrical treatment, with high windows only flanking the Venetian window, and an indication of longer windows to east and west. But was this an attempt on his part of ‘tidy up’ the room for artistic purposes? The question remains unresolved.

A view of the coffering and panelled niches in the House of Lords. © CRAFTVALUE

The surviving fabric of the House of Lords, with its oak panelling and plaster coffered ceilings, gives us a good idea of the kinds of materials and finishes used in the lost House of Commons. However a number of challenges remain. The Wheatley painting shows that the panelling, columns, and entablature were finished in shades of white, contrasting with the green stuccoed walls around the gallery, which may indicate that a cheaper timber was used in the House of Commons. This is supported by the fact that building accounts record the use of oak in the House of Lords only. On the other hand, the panelled niches of the gallery, visible only in Omer’s view, seem to be of the same style and construction as those in the House of Lords and have particularly beautiful fanned elements catching the light in the hemispherical surface under the arches (see above). But were they also in oak?

The green walls and upholstery, recorded in both documentary sources and Wheatley’s painting, were part of a unified colour scheme that answered the red colour scheme in the House of Lords (the latter no longer in evidence).

A rendering of the House of Commons in evening light. © CRAFTVALUE

The original treatment of the floor is problematic. The black and white paving found in the House of Lords, so common a treatment in the early eighteenth century, seems more likely. The only source is Wheatley which shows a simple beige carpet. This seems an unlikely finish for so grand a space and may have been laid down later in response to acoustical problems.

There are lots of interesting details for which the Wheatley painting is the only surviving source. The studded green baize door on the east side of the room suggests an attempt to contain and dampen the sound. The benches, with their green deep-buttoned upholstery, must have helped in this regard, though the acoustics were known to be poor despite Pearce’s stated aim of providing good sound in his interior. The panelled construction of the bench backs is apparent from glimpses between the seated figures, though how these panels were organised is less clear.

A view of the digitally reconstructed gallery showing the ironwork as it appears in Wheatley’s painting of 1780. © CRAFTVALUE

The bowed ironwork in the gallery with its light foliated ornament seems to be a product of the mid to late eighteenth century, departing substantially from the two treatments proposed by Pearce comprising very simple barley-sugar balusters between the columns or a broad heavy balustrade supporting the columns. The elaborately canopied Speaker’s Chair, which was covered in ‘four yards of green cloth’ according to the accounts, and trimmed with gold, is known only from Wheatley’s painting. To whom its design should be attributed is unclear as it does not equate to the very grand but uncanopied chair in Pearce’s initial design for the room.

Other furnishing that were lost in the fire include James Barry’s Baptism of the King of Cashel by Saint Patrick. This likely hung on the south side of the room, facing the speaker’s chair, which was the only wall-space without windows. The composition of the painting is known from an oil sketch by Barry made after its destruction, which is now in the collection of the National Gallery of Ireland.

The work of recrafting the House of Commons will continue as part of the CRAFTVALUE project (2019-23), so please check back to the website for updates. We plan to extend our research on lost interiors in conjunction with the National Trust as part of a new AHRC-IRC funded digital humanities network (3D CRAFT) focused on Clandon Park in Surrey, which suffered a devastating fire in 2015. For further information on our House of Commons project take a look at our short film Recrafting Parliament made for AMPS 2020 at the University of Canterbury.

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