In praise of the decorative ‘Irish’ lobby - Patricia McCarthy
Posted by IGS
The following article is taken from the 2016 edition of the Irish Georgian Society Review, our annual members' magazine.
It might seem surprising that even as short an essay as this might be devoted to such a mundane space. Lobbies are, after all, generally small spaces that connect with rooms or apartments, through which we pass when visiting country houses, often without a second glance. In our eagerness to see the more ‘important’ rooms, these spaces are sometimes not given the attention they deserve. However, it should be stated at the outset that this is not about just any lobby: it is about a particularly Irish architectural feature that can be found in a number of Irish houses, not always in the country. It can be defined as a lobby that is usually located on the first floor; is not a landing, is self-contained, usually top- lit (often via an opening in the ceiling by a lantern in the floor above), and from which access is gained to bedrooms and other rooms. It could be called a vestibule or even an ante-room. The late John Cornforth, architectural editor of Country Life, described it as ‘one of the happiest features in Irish country houses, and Maurice Craig mentions ‘these architecturally-treated upstairs central lobbies’. They come in different shapes - rectangular, octagonal, square, round, oval; they can be large or small, but they are often highly decorative spaces. It is interesting to look at some of them.
Bellamont Forest, Co Cavan
Bedroom lobby at Bellamont Forest, Co Cavan (courtesy of Ganly Walters)
First used at Bellamont Forest, Co. Cavan (c.1728) by Sir Edward Lovett Pearce, this form of lobby was taken up by his successor Richard Castle at Hazelwood, Co. Sligo (1731), Russborough (1741), Bellinter, Co. Meath (c.1750), in unexecuted plans for Headfort, Co. Meath (c. 1750) and in an early plan for Castle Coole, Co. Fermanagh (c. 1730). There is one at Edermine, Co. Wexford (c. 1839), and at Mount Henry, Co. Laois, and probably in many other houses. A visitor to Hazelwood shortly after it was built described the ‘Octagon Lobby, from each side of which a door opens into a Bed Chamber. This Octagon is Illuminated by a large Lanthorn in the Roof in the midst of the Octagon is a Well, with a Ballastrade around, which gives Light to the Stairs’. At Castle Coole, the lobby is a spacious rectangular room, two storeys high and lit by an oval skylight. It is interesting to note that this house, with this distinctively Irish feature, was designed by the English architect, James Wyatt in 1790.
William Ashford (1746-1824) Mount Kennedy, Co Wicklow, 1785; oil on canvas. (Yale Centre for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection)
The same architect drew up plans for Mount Kennedy, Co. Wicklow in the 1770s, which were modified in the 1780s when the house was finally being built under the supervision of Thomas Cooley. While it is on a Cooley plan of 1781, whose was the original idea of the spacious octagonal lobby with its circular lantern? At Vernon Mount, Co. Cork (now, sadly, lost), seven doors leading off the lobby were painted as trompe l’oeil niches in monochrome with statues and urns, by the Cork artist Nathaniel Grogan, and the lobby itself surrounded by eight Corinthian columns.
Lobby of Vernon Mount with Nathaniel Grogan painted door panels (Courtesy of the Irish Architectural Archive)
At Bellinter there is a dramatic entrance opening from the staircase to the lobby - a semi-circular arch, supported by two entablatures each, in turn supported by two Corinthian columns and pilasters. Compared to other lobbies, the layers of architectural detail here tend to be heavy and overstated. Russborough’s spacious lobby is lit by an elegantly-decorated oval lantern: the Ionic columns at each end of it were a later insertion to stabilise the roof. The only description to hand of this lobby being used is an account by Lady Louisa Conolly, in which she refers to the space as a ‘saloon’ at Bellamont Forest, when Lord Colooney, the only son of the earl of Bellamont, died in 1786. His body was laid out ‘in the saloon in the attic story for three days...the Saloon, which is supported by pillars and lighted by a cupola, and hung with black cloth; as also the cupola which was lighted with tapers and constantly attended by upper servants, appointed to succeed each other night and day.’ This room, however, is the spacious rectangular first-floor lobby, where doors to the bedrooms and to the staircases are located, quite similar to Russborough. A screen of columns at each end of the space supports the oval lantern that is enriched with decorative plasterwork.
Thomas Penrose, Lobby to the Bed Chambers at Lucan for Ag. Vesey, April 1776. (Courtesy of National Library of Ireland, AD1593, Lucan House Collection)
Thomas Penrose’s drawing for Lucan House in Dublin demonstrates how attractive these lobbies can be. Also in Dublin, the approach to the lobby in the Provost’s House at Trinity College (begun 1759) is a theatrical experience - from the first landing of the octagonal main staircase, the Corinthian order of the lobby can be seen, as can the wrought-iron balustrade by Timothy Turner around the opening in the floor above, the Ionic order on that (second) floor and finally, the lantern itself with its decoration of carved floral wreaths. As the highest of the architectural orders, the Corinthian indicates the importance of the first floor; and the visitors’ arrival at the Saloon, the most important room in the house. The architect of the house is unknown, but it is attributed to either John Smyth or Henry Keene. Apart from its use for the Bellamont wake, the purpose of these spaces is so far unknown. For visitors they were simply a means of getting from one space to another. At Trinity College when Provost Francis Andrews entertained, the lobby was an integral part of the processional route. But in most houses it must have been seen only by overnight visitors. Nonetheless, these interesting spaces are worth our attention, if only to wonder why so much money was spent in creating and decorating them if their only purpose was to provide light. But perhaps that was the point of them.