The Staircase at Damer House

Andrew Tierney

15 December 2021

Damer House, Roscrea, Co. Tipperary, has one of the finest early eighteenth-century staircases in Ireland. It is all that survives of a stair hall that must once have been entirely wainscoted, as would have been the practice at this time. Constructed of red pine, its unusual, wainscoted soffit, beautifully and ostentatiously crafted under a cut string, was designed to disguise the carriage piece that supports the weight of the flights. As such it is an early example of the string being cut on top and bottom as a means of expressing the form of the steps. Its elegant swan-neck ramp was a feature prevalent in early eighteenth-century Ireland and required a high degree of skill on the part of the joiners and carvers, as did the outward sweep at the bottom of the handrail. Most notable of all is the fine carving of the Corinthian column newel posts, brackets and frieze, all characteristic features of staircases of this period, which were more heavily enriched than their mahogany successors. (Though the older type did linger into the mid-eighteenth century).

Similar high-quality work can be seen at Ballinlough Castle, Co. Westmeath, Cashel Palace, Co. Tipperary, the Red House, Youghal, and elsewhere. Robert O’Byrne has written several interesting blog posts on these houses and their staircases, which will be familiar to many readers, so I won’t elaborate on them too much here. One of the few documented examples is that in the library of Trinity College Dublin, which according to a contract in the college muniments was crafted by carpenters Charles Brooking and William Maple in the period 1723-5.[1] This is very close to the date ascribed to Damer House on the basis of John Damer’s purchase of Roscrea town in 1722 and the two staircases have several features in common.[2] Indeed it is not unlikely that the Damer staircase was made in Dublin and later fabricated on site.

The main staircase in the Old Library, Trinity College Dublin. Photo: Andrew Tierney

Damer House and its staircase were rescued from demolition by the Irish Georgian Society in the early 1970s, who restored it under the direction of architect Brian Molloy. By then the house was suffering from wet and dry rot, which luckily did not affect the staircase. However, the treads, risers, and carriage piece of the stairs did need to be treated for woodworm infestation.[3] Although the house opened to the public in 1977, the restoration of the staircase was not completed until 1981. A lot of paint was removed in the restoration which exposed the original pine to view. While this allows us an admirable view of the woodwork, and the rich patina of three hundred years, it is possible that it originally had a painted finish. The fact that a relatively cheap timber such as pine was chosen rather than oak is suggestive. The comparable staircase in the library of Trinity College was, with the exception only of the deal treads, made of oak and was varnished only.

In the 1750s Isaac Ware commented in his A Complete Body of Architecture that the increasingly widespread use of paint had seen oak superseded by cheaper timbers: ‘…it is all one what is the wood when it is covered with paint, so that deal being cheap and working easy, has taken the place of all the others in general in this respect.’ [4]  He also commented that ‘carvers used to have oak for their material, but at present we are got into a slighter way of working, and deal answers the purpose.’[5] Cheap imported Scandinavian or Baltic pine may have made this an attractive option for John Damer. But the look of high-quality wood finishes still mattered. William Salmon, in his trade manual Palladio Londinesis of 1734, listed various paint colours designed to imitate real wood, including ‘Wainscot, or Oak Colour’, ‘Mahogany Colour’, ‘Cedar Colour’, and ‘Wallnut-tree Colour’ all prepared by the Widow Emerton who sold them at between 5 and 6 pence a pound with advice on how they should be applied.[4] However, the savings offered by the use of cheap timber were clearly being snapped up by painters, who Salmon complained were charging four times the costs of Widow Emerton’s paint for what he regarded as unskilled labour.

In a 1971 report for the Georgian Society the Damer House staircase was described by architect Austin Dunphy ‘in virtually perfect condition, needing only very minor repairs.’[6] A quick glance at a photo of the staircase prior to restoration suggests it was indeed then still largely intact, but it is deceptive.

The Damer House staircase prior to restoration. Courtesy of the Irish Architectural Archive.

Closer inspection revealed that many of the balusters had been replaced (perhaps in the 19th century) with plainer versions that had been turned but not carved. They lacked the fluting and bulb of carved foliage at the centre. Given that the house was once used as a barracks, such extensive wear and tear is hardly surprising. The joiner responsible for this challenging restoration project was James Foley of Ballina-Killaloe, Co. Tipperary. Foley’s contribution to the existing staircase was therefore substantial and it is recorded that he replaced some forty balusters in all.[7] So seamless a restoration is a testament to his skill, which required turning, carving and joinery.

Even the sequence of repairs was difficult. The top of the balusters are subtly nailed into the rail from one side, penetrating it at a 45 degree angle which must have required each baluster to be reinserted in sequence from bottom to top to leave space to drive in the nails. An additional element keeps the balusters in place. In profile the rail mouldings and foliated ornament are carved from a single piece of wood, except for the beading along its base, which is nailed on.

A detail of the moldings of the handrail on the staircase at Damer House. Photo: Andrew Tierney.

This feature, paralleled exactly in the TCD staircase, was designed to overlap and secure the bannisters, while also hiding the joins. While nails were used to attach the balusters to the handrail, pegs were used to secure the rail to the newels. In identical fashion to the Old Library at Trinity, the cap of the newel is fabricated from multiple sections that were pieced together to conceal the joints beneath, an approach not seen on some of the other stairs of the period, such as the Red House, Youghal, where the cap is carved from a single block (see below).

Luckily, the more intricate carving on the handrail, brackets and landing frieze were better preserved and required less intervention. Nails played their part here too. At first glance the elaborate acanthus frieze appears to be carved in relief, but the dark shadows indicate that it is fully pierced openwork, which sits forward of the panel behind it.

The carved frieze on the staircase at Damer House

The symmetrical design of the frieze has a cartouche at its centre, with twisted cornucopia, filled with husks of corn and pea pods. Below it, the architrave is made of eight separate horizonal sections, which are nailed to the landing joist. Three of these are narrow moldings with carved enrichments. As at Trinity, the carved tread-end brackets and nosing above them are on detachable pieces designed to conceal the dovetail joints that attach the balusters to the steps.

The cut string on the staircase at Damer House

This is visible on the upper flight where in the course of repair work the joint has moved outwards leaving a visible hole.

Openings in the steps at Damer House showing the point where the dovetail joints of the balusters meet the tread. Photo: Andrew Tierney.

The carving of each bracket is the same, being a typical acanthus design, but incorporating a head of corn. The foliated raking cornice that runs along the centre of the string, beautifully carved to counter the angle of the stairs, and the stepped trim under it, are also light detachable elements, likely done in a workshop and later fitted in place by the joiner. More remarkable is the outermost foliated molding under the step, which was carved directly onto the edge of the long zig-zag board of the cut string, which serves to cap the soffit panelling.

The most unique part of the staircase is the manner in which the wainscoted hall (or what’s left of it) meets the staircase. It is hard to find a parallel for such a treatment and one wonders how so complicated yet ultimately sumptuous an effect was conceived. Three irregularities suggest it may be the result of a craftsman or craftsmen experimenting on site rather than an architect. Firstly, the boldly modelled cornice that forms the extraordinary meeting point between stair soffit and wall is the same as that between wall and ceiling (both are visible in the above photo), except that it has been flipped upside down. Rather than a error, I would suggest this reflects a creative flair borne of the practical ingenuity that comes with long familiarity with such moldings. Secondly, amidst the expressive concertina-like compression of the wainscoting, one barely notices the lack of alignment with the wainscoting below, which is forced to join its lively rhythm. The effect is thoroughly organic. Thirdly, the cut of the lower edge of the string is slightly out-of-sync with the upper, suggesting the craftsman making the wainscoting was whistling to his own tune. However, this may have been a by-product of the wainscoting itself, which required more space than the relatively narrow dimensions of the actual steps allowed. Given that the staircase is largely viewed at an angle the discrepancy is hardly noticeable, and even adds a subtle sense of movement to the flight.

A strange feature of the staircase, which does not seem to be the result of repair, is the fact that the top blocks on the upper balusters not as high as the lower. What is the reason for this anomaly? It may be the result of the handling of the newel in relation to the sudden jump in the levels in a staircase with a dogleg plan (and resulting half-landing) between the last step of the lower flight and the first step of the upper flight, which occupy the same point of space on a horizontal axis but are quite far apart on the vertical axis.

The railing needs to navigate this while remaining visually coherent with both the balusters and the columns on the half landing. The joiner has chosen to make a feature of the double newel on the half landing by keeping them the same height. If we look at a comparable example, from the Red House at Youghal, we will see that the joiners approached the issue by raising the second newel to the level of the first step of the second flight.

This required a rather awkward short ramp on the half landing. Another approach, employed successfully at Cashel Palace, is to increase the height of the first newel and then dip the railing back down in between (to avoid an asymmetric arrangement of balusters across the landing). Did the joiners foresee this issue or were they finding practical solutions as they went? I would suggest that the comparatively long upper blocks on the lower flight were designed to provide room for cutting back in the upper section. The disparity is not particularly noticeable as one climbs the stairs and it avoids the awkward junction seen at Youghal.

The final point of interest, common to most grand Irish staircases of this period, is the swan neck ramp – a wonderful carpenter’s sleight of hand. Although it looks as if the rail is bending into a S-shaped curved, this is not actually the case. It is cut into this shape, as is apparent from the direction of the grain which remains constant along the same axis within the ‘bend’. This required a block of wood wide enough to accommodate the ‘bend’ at one end, which must have left quite a bit of waste. An alternative method for curving a handrail was to actually bend the timber by steaming it, which was achieved using narrow strips of wood, which were then by laminated together as can be seen on the staircase at Felbrigg Hall, Norfolk (below), which was recently visited by the Craftvalue team.  

The OPW’s recent restoration of the exterior stonework at Damer (a soft sandstone now much decayed) is much to be commended in helping to protect this fine house and its staircase for another generation, while also promoting the craft skills and apprenticeships so integral to conserving architecture of this period. Long may it remain alongside the other treasures of the historic town of Roscrea.

Acknowledgements

My thanks to my colleague Melanie Hayes for sharing her archival work on the TCD muniments. Also to Donough Cahill and Emmeline Henderson of the IGS and staff in the IAA for their assistance with source material. Finally to Mairtín D’Alton, Flora O’Mahony and Gunther Wolters of the OPW for kindly facilitating access to Damer House while conservation work was going on.


[1] TCD MUN P2 49 1c.

[2] For an account of John Damer, see Robert O’Byrne’s 2013 blog on Damer House https://theirishaesthete.com/tag/damer-house/

[3] Letter of Michael D. O’Leary of Biotex LTD to John Stewart dated 9th July 1974. Appended to John Stewart, Report on the The Damer House, Roscrea, Co. Tipperary. Roscrea Heritage Society, 1994.

[4] Isaac Ware, A Complete Body of Architecture. London: J. Osborne and J. Shipton, 1756, pp 74-75.

[5] William Salmon, Palladio Londinensis: or, the London Art of Building. pp 60-61.

[6 Salmon, Ibid., p. 59.

[7] Austin Dumphy ‘The Damer House, Roscrea’, Quarterly Bulletin of the Irish Georgian Society 14:3 (July-September 1971), 29-31.

[8]The Damer House. Gallery of Irish Arts and Craftsmanship. Undated catalogue. Irish Architectural Archive.


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