An interview with Peter Pearson, December 2020.
What is the value of collections of architectural fragments, as interpretive tools, in education and the preservation of built heritage? What can the detached and often fragmentary state of these crafted objects tell us about the materials and processes involved in their making?
In December 2020 CRAFTVALUE’s Andrew Tierney and Melanie Hayes interviewed historian and collector Peter Pearson at his ‘Dublin Fragments’ exhibition at the Irish Georgian Society’s City Assembly House in Dublin. This not only presented another opportunity to visit the exhibition, which had regretfully closed only weeks after its launch in February 2020, due to the pandemic, but also the chance to capture Pearson’s insightful – and often colourful- account of creating this important collection of architectural fragments and its significance in terms of preservation of eighteenth-century craftsmanship.
Architectural fragment collections play an important role in fostering awareness of historical preservation. The Pearson collection documents a period of loss and destruction of architectural heritage in Ireland. It contains fragments from lost buildings such as Turvey House, Donabate (built late 17th and 18th century, demol. 1987) , Johnstown Kennedy, Rathcoole Co. Dublin (built late 18th Century, demol. 1989) and Corballis House, at Dublin Airport (built c. 1835), which was demolished in 2007 to make way for Terminal 2. Structural and decorative elements are preserved from Eyrecourt Castle Co. Galway (built c.1665), which was sold in the 1920s and the interiors subsequently removed, including the elaborate timber staircase, which was purchased by William Randolph Hearst and is now stored at the Detroit Institute of Arts; from Kilmacurragh Co. Wicklow (built c.1697-1705), which suffered accidental loss and eventual ruin following two devastating fires in 1978 & 1982; and from countless Georgian terraces around St Stephen’s Green, Eccles Street and the north quays, where fragments of the now lost interiors were rescued prior to redevelopment in the last century.
This broad-ranging collection facilitates a second-life value for these fragments, and forms an important reference collection, a three-dimensional library of sorts for conservation architects, craft practitioners and historians. A carved timber window jamb from Eyrecourt, for example, exposes both an early exploration of classical ornament, and structural innovations in late seventeenth-century building craft, whereas timber tread-ends from a range of eighteenth- century staircases chart developments in style, materials, and technique. The fraught and often time sensitive nature of the process of assembling the collection is also revealed. We learn of Pearson’s role in the broader the campaign to preserve Dublin’s architectural heritage, alongside activists like Jeremy Williams and Frank McDonald. The emergency, 11th hour nature of the rescue process and its unrepeatable character comes to the fore in Pearson’s account of scaling scaffolding, hatchet in hand to remove and rescue part of a plaster cornice, or making a motorbike get-away with a wrought iron fanlight in tow.
Eyrecourt, Co. Galway
The fragmentary nature of these crafted objects, detached from their original context provides a valuable ‘tool’ which allows us to closely examine artefacts that are usually out of reach or hidden from view. From carver’s marks on timber boards to the wooden armatures or supports encased in hand-modelled stucco-work, close scrutiny of the layered material composition of these objects offers an altered perspective, as perhaps last experienced by the original creator, which can reveal previously unseen aspects of the object, as well as insights into the craftspeople and processes behind its creation.
Finally the collective nature of the collection, and the close examination of a range of artefacts – where no two are the same – allows us to explore the broader value of craft production, to assess the skill and significance of the individual building element and to consider the place of these fragments, both physically and aesthetically within the architectural work as a whole.
Melanie Hayes & Andrew Tierney
Our thanks to the Irish Georgian Society for facilitating the visit to the City Assembly House in December 2020; to Peter Pearson for his time and generosity in sharing his insights in this interview; and to the Irish Architectural Archive and South Dublin Libraries for providing photographs of many of these lost buildings.
- Erika Hanna Modern Dublin: urban change and the Irish past, 1957-1973 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013).
- Kevin Kearns, Georgian Dublin: Ireland’s Imperilled Architectural Heritage (Newton Abbott, 1983).
- Andrew Kincaid, Postcolonial Dublin: Imperial Legacies and the Built Environment, (London, 2006).
- Frank McDonald, The Destruction of Dublin (Dublin, 1985).
- Peter Pearson, ‘From the Ashes’, Irish Arts Review, Vol 29, No 3, 2012.