Architecture of the Museum Building


The Museum Building of Trinity College Dublin (1853-7), by Cork architects Deane, Son & Woodward, is a seminal work of Ruskinian Gothic architecture, influencing a generation of British and Irish architects, and revolutionising Victorian architectural taste. Central to the architects’ design was a radical endorsement of the creative power of individual human happiness.

Adopting an aesthetic precept first articulated in The Seven Lamps of Architecture of 1849 by England’s pre-eminent art critic John Ruskin, the architects encouraged the freedom of their workmen in designing and executing the building’s external and internal carvings.

Ruskin worked out his ideas more fully in the second volume of The Stones of Venice, published in 1853, when the construction of the building began, in a famous chapter entitled The Nature of Gothic. Described by William Morris, who republished a lavishly decorated edition of it in 1892 as ‘one of the very few necessary and inevitable utterances of the century’.

 For the lesson which Ruskin here teaches us is that art is the expression of man’s pleasure in labour; that it is possible for man to rejoice in his work, for, strange as it may seem to us to-day, there have been times when he did rejoice in it.

(William Morris (ed.), The Nature of Gothic, preface, i-ii).

Even as the Museum Building was being built the Dublin press recognised it as the first experiment in British and Ireland of Ruskin’s radical views – a clear demonstration of the ‘the desireableness of employing the minds of the workmen’.

This experiment’, wrote the reviewer in the Dublin Express, ‘proves the general correctness of [Ruskin’s] views, and, moreover, has resulted far better than even the most sanguine advocates of this system had allowed themselves to expect.’



Ruskin had stated clearly in The Stones of Venice that he did not approve of Renaissance style rustication: ‘Do not think that nature rusticates her foundations. Smooth sheets of rock, glistening like sea waves, and that ring under the hammer like a brazen bell,—that is her preparation for first stories’. The bold undulating profile of the Museum Building’s base nevertheless gives the impression of strength and relates loosely to those on the 15th century palazzi on the Grand Canal. The particular arrangement of mouldings however derive from the plinth of San Zaccharia (published by Cicognara, above), where it is repeated twice for extra emphasis. It also appears in Ruskin’s Stones of Venice I, plate X, no. 19 and no. 20. Stones of Venice III, plate V (Byzantine bases), nos 6-11.

String course, Museum Building 2

String course

The convex stringcourse (above), featuring a guilloche motif with 654 flower carvings, is one of the more remarkable features of the Museum Building façade. There are a number of Venetian exemplars. The Palazzo Contarini Polignac has a flower guilloche though the flowers are not varied. A better precedent is that on the Palazzo Pisani Moretta, the elevation of which was published by Cicognara, along with several details including this one. The original carving on the façade of the Pisani Moretta has weathered considerably and is now hard to see from a passing boat.


Cicognara_1840 (2)

Importantly, Cicognara shows the unique design of each flower. Another potential source, also with floral variety, is the guilloche on the plinth of the outer courtyard of the Scuola San Giovanni.  Beyond Venice, there is the façade of Santa Maria de Miracoli, Brescia, a detail of which formed part of the illustrated lectures given by R. N. Wornum to the Government schools of design in the late 1840s and early 1850s from a cast in Marlborough House.


The original design for the Museum Building tympanum, as published in The Builder of 12 August 1854, featured an elaborate ironwork fanlight of a common Venetian type, with distinct similarities to the tympanum over one of the doorways of the Palazzo Ducale overlooking the Prigione, as illustrated by Venetian art historian Leopoldo Cicognara in Le fabbriche più cospicue di Venezia,1815-1820 (top right).

Although the outer detail of the archivolt would remain the same, at some point after 1854 Woodward altered the design in favour of a heraldic device over a grid-like diaper pattern in Caen stone, probably derived from Ruskin’s view of a door tympanum in Campo di Santa Margarita in his Examples of the Architecture of Venice (1851). The orthogonal grid is replaced with a diaper pattern and the flowers for shamrocks.


The original design of the door itself was a very plain four-panel arrangement, published in The Builder of 12 August 1854. It seems unlikely that Deane & Woodward ever intended to execute something so bland, but had yet to formulate an appropriate design.The executed design, with its distinctive lobed panels, is derived from George Edmund Street’s engraving of the door of Sant’Anastasia, Verona, in his Brick and Marble in the Middle Ages (1855). From the west portal of the church, it has a strong graphic quality that clearly appealed to the architects. Street makes the following comment on it: ‘The wooden framework of this door, of which I give a detail, is very curious; it is of deal, coeval with the doorway , and the framework is external, not internal.’


Elevation of Travellers Club


The distinctive fenestral architecture of the Museum Building derives from the influence of the rear elevation of Charles Barry’s Travellers’ Club (1828-32) (above), as established by Edward McParland. The rhythmic grouping of the bays, with a trio at the centre, appears in other British designs, probably also inspired by Barry, such as that by E. B. Lamb of an Italianate villa, published in an early edition of the Builder in 1843. For ornament Woodward reputedly acknowledged a debt to The Builder’s 1851 view of the Casa Visetti, an enriched façade on the narrow Rio de la Fava, which has a singular arrangement of doorway and flanking round-headed windows. Of all the engravings of Venice published in The Builder in 1851, that of the Casa Visetti (below) is the only one to show the busily decorated pilaster used so extensively by Woodward around his exterior.

Casa Visetti

However, The Builder was not the only publication to feature a detailed drawing of this façade as the Casa Visetti had been published a year earlier by Waring and Macquoid. They also provided detailed views of the enriched round-arched window ornament of Bolognese palaces (largely of terracotta) – the Casa dei Caracci, the Palazzo del Podestà, the Palazzo dell’Arte dei Drappieri, and the Palazzo Felicini. The Palazzo Bevilacqua, the most notable example, has a comparable double register of enriched pilasters on the windows of the upper floor.

In addition to the Bolognese precursors, minor cities such as Pavia, Como, Piacenza, Brescia, Cremona, and Ferrara – represented in the work of Hope, Waring and Macquoid, and later Street – demonstrate a weighty solidity that is absent from the Venetian palazzi and offer the kind of window enrichment lacking in the medieval and Renaissance palazzi of Florence and Rome. The form of the pilasters flanking the windows on the upper storey of the Museum Building (divided into seven on the north front, and varied to four and one elsewhere) echo those on the doorway of San Michele, Pavia, published by Hope (1835) and, in more detail, by Knight (1842). Ruskin regarded it as one of the two most important churches in Lombardy (the other being Sant’Ambrogio, Milan). The distinctive bases of these pilasters – an ovolo moulding without a fillet, deeply undercut to create strong black shadows, are found on the small church of Santa Maria della Spina in Pisa, which is among the plates published by Waring and Macquoid (1850).

The treatment of the window archivolts is more Venetian. The use of nailhead ornament on the ground floor archivolts echoes that on the lower arcade of the Palazzo Ducale, while the semi-circular rope mouldings on the upper windows is found on the deeply moulded archway on the courtyard side of the entrance to the Palazzo Ducale – as well as on several Gothic doorways and windows elsewhere in the city.

The emphatic first-floor sill course comprises several mouldings to give the necessary visual support to the weight decorative scheme at this level, is similar to the one on San Zaccharia, Venice.

The alterations to the Museum windows, which saw the insertion of carved Gothic relieving arches of Portland stone over the round-headed openings, follow the style of von Gartner’s Bavarian state library. Richardson refers to Florentine precedents and Waring and Macquoid’s engraving of the Palazzo Nicolini, Florence (1850) was a ready published exemplar. Ruskin published something similar in the Stone of Venice (vol. 1), plate V showing the Broletto at Como. The device had been resurrected also by Friedrich von Gartner in his Staatsbibliothek in Munich (1827-43) and his Damenstiftsgebaude, Munich (1835-9). It appeared too on Owen Jones’s oriental houses at no. 8 and no. 24 Kensington Palace Gardens (1845-49), unusually precocious works for their date. No. 8 has the cusped outer arches seen on the Museum Building. Whatever the exact source, the builders in Dublin went to great lengths to make the change, making their carved variation considerably richer than the examples above. The list of alterations show that it took stonecutters 42 days to carve out the granite ashlar to allow this inlay of Portland stone over the upper windows, and 23 days of labourers altering and preparing the scaffolding.

Roundel Adrian Lantry, edited

Roundels of marble

The Museum Building exterior was executed largely in a Renaissance palette – what Ruskin would refer to as ‘winter…colourless as it was cold’, relieved only by roundels of inlaid Irish marble.[9] As already well-established by others, these derive from several Venetian exemplars, such as the Palazzo Dario and the Casa Contarini on the Grand Canal. Ruskin regarded these buildings highly, but also saw them as examples of the decline of Venetian Gothic. Notably, he was scathing about the use of inlaid marble in roundels, writing of the

‘peculiar feebleness and want of soul in the conception of their ornament, which mark them as belonging to a period decline; as well as the absurd mode of introduction of their pieces of coloured marble: these, instead of being simply and naturally inserted in the masonry, are placed in small circular or oblong frames of sculpture, like mirrors or pictures, and are represented as suspended by ribands against the wall; a pair of wings being generally fastened on to the circular tablets, as if to relieve the ribands and knots from their weight, and the whole series tied under the chin of a little cherub at the top, who is nailed against the façade like a hawk on a barn door.

Ruskin notes a decline in the use of coloured marble in Venetian architecture between the Byzantine period and Gothic:

…the principal difference in general form and treatment between the Byzantine and Gothic palaces was the contraction of the marble facing into the narrow spaces between the windows, leaving large fields of brick wall perfectly bare. The reason for this appears to have been, that the Gothic builders were no longer satisfied with the faint and delicate hues of the veined marble; they wished for some more forcible and piquant mode of decoration, corresponding more completely with the gradually advancing splendour of chivalric costume and heraldic device.

Unsurprisingly, these ribands, knots and cherubs (which can no longer be seen on the Venetian originals) were not replicated by Deane and Woodward.

Venetian dentils

The term ‘Venetian dentil’ was first used in the 1830s by Robert Willis, as acknowledged by Ruskin.[6] It was a sort of alternating chamfer, described in the Dublin press of 1855 as ‘interlacing bands of bevelled notchwork’, and features prominently on the perimeters of the roundels of coloured marble on the ground floor of the Museum Building, and around some interior arches. However, the usually cited source for these roundels – the illustrations of the Ca’ Dario in Ruskin’s Stones of Venice (Vol. 1, 1851) and the Builder (1851) – do not have this type of frame. Ruskin illustrated the feature in a rectilinear window surround from the Ca’ Foscari in the Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849), from where Woodward may have adopted it, and in Fig. LVIII in The Stones of Venice vol. I, and in the roundel of Plate XIV in the same volume. It also features very extensively on the façade of the Ca’ d’Oro in a rectilinear fashion. The first-floor wall roundels have a variation on the above dentil, which incorporates an inner and outer band, derived from Stones of Venice, vol. 1, Plate IX, no. 16.

The double alternating line of dentils under the eaves, set on separate planes above and below a concave moulding, is a confident and well-executed feature of the façade. A similar arrangement of dentils appears around the arches on the elevation of San Marco, but on the Museum Building they are considerably amplified in scale to make them visible from the ground. The most likely source is Ruskin’s Stones of Venice vol. I, plate IX, detail no. 13, which gives an isometric and section view of them. See also vol. II, plate VII, no. 10.

The Venetian dentil is a particular application (consequent on the incrusted character of Venetian architecture) of the general idea of dentil, which had been originally given by the Greeks, and realised both by them and by the Byzantines in many laborious forms, long before there was need of them for arch armor; and the lower half of Plate IX. will give some idea of the conditions which occur in the Romanesque of Venice, distinctly derived from the classical dentil; and of the gradual transition to the more convenient and simple type, the running-hand dentil, which afterwards became the characteristic of Venetian Gothic. No. 13 is the common dentiled cornice, which occurs repeatedly in St. Mark’s; and, as late as the thirteenth century, a reduplication of it, forming the abaci of the capitals of the Piazzetta shafts.


The twisting shafts on the corners of the Museum Building are not illustrated at all in the Stones of Venice and those that appear in the illustration of the Palazzo dei Pergoli Intalgiati in vol. IX of The Builder (1851) are of a simpler type, more akin to a vertical rope-moulding. Instead, the feature appears on the window shafts of Giotto’s campanile in Florence, which combine both concave and convex elements, illustrated in plate IX of the Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849), but a more likely source is the Palazzo Ducale, which has somewhat similar shafts – though the prominent shaft rings were omitted in Dublin. The most notable difference in Dublin is the lesser angle of the spiral and the extra width of the convex element. This makes the shafts look more reposed, avoiding the tightly wound and taut appearance of those on the Palazzo Ducale.

One detail on the angle-shafts suggests that at least one of the architects may have already visited Venice in person. This is the manner in which the rope moulding below the eaves dips in around the base of the capital as it rounds the corners of the building. It is a curiously subtle feature, which appears only on the Ca’ d’Oro, but which is too minor a detail to render effectively in an engraving. It is almost impossible to see on the Ca’ d’Oro without standing at the base of the building and looking up.

Web image Exterior naturalistic carving F (re-scaled)

Museum Building cornice


The richly carved cornice moulding is boldly expressed and emphatically divides the floors of the building. Ruskin devotes a whole chapter to cornice mouldings and capitals, which he termed ‘the crowning members of the wall and shaft.’ The architects seem to have taken their cue from the acanthus leaf cornice from San Giovanni e Paolo, Venice, as illustrated in Ruskin’s Examples of the Architecture of Venice (1851).

Eaves brackets

The source for Deane and Woodward was almost certainly the south elevation of Charles Barry’s Travellers’ Club (1829) (above right). The brackets are a distinctive and complicated type, with an elaborate tongue-like element; at the Museum Building the motif is doubled up to support an eaves which is both high and deep. In this way, the visual impact is as powerful as the eaves in the Reform Club, which takes its bold form from the Palazzo Strozzi in Florence. However the detailing remains here emphatically that of the Veneto – specifically that of Vicenza, where it probably originated on the town hall or Basilica, the upper part of which remained unmodified by Palladio. There are several examples on the town’s main thoroughfare, the Corso Andrea Palladio, and also the Contra Porti, which Barry would have seen while studying the buildings there during his Grand Tour of 1817-20.[14] Barry’s rendering of the detail was in turn published in plate 9 of W. H. Leeds 1839 book on the Travellers’ Club.[15]

IMG_9887 (3)

Eaves moulding

The eaves moulding, which appears nowhere in Ruskin, is particularly curious and features two motifs that are widespread in Deane and Woodward’s work – firstly, a semi-circular pattern on the S and E faces, and secondly, an angular zigzag pattern on the N and W faces. The transition between them at the corners is an awkward one and it is hard to account for the decision to use to separate motifs other than a wilful pursuit of variety. The semi-circular motif, forming a subtle series of crescent-shaped shadows, was used again to ornament the transverse timber roof beams inside the building, while both motifs reappear in stone in the atrium of the Oxford Museum, around the doorway and window impost cornices of St Ann’s Diocesan School, Molesworth Street (1857-8, demolished), and around the doorway and in the interior of Glandore House, Co. Dublin (1858-9).

Something similar appears on the Duomo at Verona, above the first arch, as seen in Knight (1842), though the parallel is too vague to be convincing. Another possible source is George Lewis’s Illustrations of Kilpeck Church, Herefordshire (1842), one of the most detailed studies to be published of a single Romanesque church in these years. One reviewer, in the Gentleman’s Magazine, decided that the ornate south doorway was ‘a fine specimen of Lombardic decoration; doubtless, the workmanship of a foreigner from Pisa, or some other portion of Italy, indulging in the taste of his time for grotesque and extraordinary sculptures.’ A further potential source is George Edmund Street’s Brick and Marble in the Middle Ages (1855), which shows a similar detail on the broletto of Brescia. The detail was later used extensively by Victor Laloux on his Neo-Byzantine Basilica of St Martin, Tours (1886-1924).

The mouldings on the chimney stacks, in contrast, are a more conventional chevron motif, ubiquitous on the eaves of Grand Canal palazzi (e.g. Palazzo Giustinian, Palazzo Barbaro and Palazzo Loredan, and countless others), and repeated by the architects as a full eaves moulding on the Oxford Museum where it appears with stunted ogee-shaped corbels or eaves brackets – again, the latter of Venetian type. On the Museum Building chimneys, the motif is inflated in size to make it more visible from the ground and is supported by simple concave corbels (the less common Venetian type, as seen at the Ca Forsetti).


Hall by Ray Keaveney

Inner hall

There is a remarkable tonal shift in materials from the cool exterior to the richly hued marble interior, which has a much stronger Eastern and Islamic resonance. The impact of this has been somewhat lost due to the greying of the Caen stone that lines the walls, which formerly contrasted with the coloured Irish marble supporting the galleries, as seen by the late watercolour attributed to Henry Hill. As already noted by other writers, the polychromatic marble and banded arches are likely derived from the Mosque of Cordoba, while the shallow saucer domes have clear Byzantine precedents in Hagia Sophia and San Marco, Venice. But the origin of the double-domed space is less obvious. The more natural arrangement, as at Hagia Sophia, is to have a central dome flanked by two half domes, or a sequence of domes entered from one end as at San Marco, Venice. As O’Dwyer and others have already remarked, the original plan was by the college architect John McCurdy, which was modified by the Board and by Deane and Woodward (much to McCurdy’s annoyance), so it’s possible its evolution was due to practical considerations. However, if we are to look for exemplars, then perhaps the architects saw Henry Gally Knight’s engraving (1840) of the Islamic inspired San Giovanni degli Eremiti in Palermo, which includes a cross section of its double-domed nave.

The bases of the columns, with their chamfered fillets and carved spurs, are close to those illustrated by Ruskin in Plates X and XII, vol. I of the Stones of Venice, and earlier by Cicognara for the Palazzo Pisani Morretta.

Freddie O’Dwyer has cited the inspiration of the hall of the baths in the Alhambra, an idea supported by the Islamic ventilation openings on the walls. Engravings of these were published by Cork architect James Cavanah Murphy in his Arabian Antiquities of Spain 1815 and by Owen Jones and Jules Goury’s in their volumes of chromolithographs of the Alhambra which appeared 1836-1845. By the 1850s interest in Eastern influences further increased with Jones’s Grammar of Ornament (1856), while David Urquhart’s book The Pillars of Hercules (1850) inspired a new enthusiasm for bath houses in Ireland in the mid-to-late 1850s.

The latter influence is worth further consideration. It inspired the hydro-therapist Richard Barter to build the first Victorian Turkish bath at Blarney in 1856, sparking off what would become a popular Victorian trend in Britain and on the continent. One of the largest and most architecturally exotic Turkish baths opened in 1859 at Lincoln Place, Dublin, almost within sight of the Museum Building, while a chief proponent of the movement was Edward Haughton, senior moderator in natural sciences at Trinity College, who in 1860 became manager of the William Dargan’s large new bathhouse at Bray. It is tempting to see his or even Barter’s (given the Deanes’ cork connections) influence at play in the decision to create a space so much in the Islamic architectural tradition, where concerns of ventilation and heating are put into action in so visually striking a manner. The clean enamelled surface of the domes’ brickwork suggests an attempt to limit the effects of condensation from rising humidity, while the drafts of air funnelled through the building reflect contemporary attempts to engineer the flow of hot and cold air.

Blending well with these eastern influences is the central arcade between the outer and inner hall which is of Italian derivation. The chevron pattern of inlaid coloured marble recalls Ruskin’s illustration of the archivolt of San Donato in Murano (Stones of Venice, Vol. 2, Plate 5, 1853), a church which had also appeared in Henry Gally Knight (1842). Indeed the detail also appears extensively in the inlaid floor of the same church. This kind of triangular geometry is also reminiscent of the Cosmati work published by Matthew Digby Wyatt, but a more convincing source is San Marco, Venice, which had already inspired the paving of the Friedenskirche, Potsdam (1845-8). Variations on the pattern also appear in the paving of SS Mary and Nicholas, Wiltshire, by T. H. Wyatt, laid down in 1849, and on the inlaid marble pulpit of William Butterfield’s All Saints, London (1849-59). It later appears in the baptistery of St Francis, Nottinghill (1861), by J. F. Bentley and in the paved floor of Pearson’s St Augustine, Kilburn (1871-78).

Although the overall conception of the inner hall was clearly in place early on, Freddie O’Dwyer has noted that the design evolved as the building rose. In a letter of 4 May 1855 to the Rev. Dr Sadleir, the chairman of the building committee, Thomas Newenham Deane described the evolution of their thinking on the finish for the interior. He said that his own original proposal had been to use lower quality Caen stone of small size throughout the inner hall, while the Board of the University had countered that he should use the best quality on the lower storey only and leave the upper for further consideration – putting plastered rubble masonry in as a short-term option. He now recommended, in a tone of confident self-assurance, that they use the best quality stone throughout.

Similarly, he wished to change the material of the arches of the gallery. ‘I suppose it was economy that suggested to our minds the use of brick’. (The original bill of quantities specifies enamelled brick.) For him it was a matter of adopting consistency in quality of materials. ‘I now think it may (perhaps) look incongruous, in contrast, with marble columns and richly carved capitals, and as the general beauty of the whole exceeds our own expectation, I hope this subject for criticism will not be permitted, and that the extra expenditure will be sanctioned.’ Cockburn & Son then quoted for the upper storey, but confusion followed as to whether the intention was to go all the way up to the enamelled brickwork (which it did), and a second quote had to be submitted after extra stone had already been ordered.

In addition to changes to the walls, a list of alterations dated 1857 show that Benjamin Woodward altered the design of the floor of the inner hall and corridors from plain flags to a lively tessellated pavement of coloured stone at an extra cost of £129, further enriched the corbels of the pilasters supporting the central arch between the two domes, which are very visible features on entering, and changed the stone in the arches of the galleries from Caen to Portland stone.

The decorative treatment of the domes requires some explanation, as this too changed during the course of building work. It is clear from the recorded alterations of materials listed in the surviving papers that the existing diaper-patterned brickwork (in white, blue, red, green and black) was not part of the original design. The bill of quantities specifies that 9 inch hexagonal hollow bricks were to be used for the domes.  In the mid-1840s a Mr Prosser of Birmingham was manufacturing hexagonal bricks described as being of ‘great durability’, regarded by one observer as ‘better than stone’.

He had also contributed a chapter on that subject to Edward Dobson’s Rudimentary Treaty on the Manufacture of Brick and Tiles (1850). In addition a recent government report on the cost of materials in new sanitation works in London had found that hollow bricks were both cheaper and stronger than conventional stock brick. For architects seeking a cost-effective and structurally sound way to build a dome, the hollow hexagonal brick was the perfect new material to try out.

The change to rectangular brick may have been suggested by a change of inspiration. Enamelled brickwork was not common in the 1850s. It had come into the public consciousness through recent excavations of Babylonian and Assyrian ruins, which had produced a number of beautiful specimens, some of which had found their way into the Museum of Practical Geology in London and had been analysed for their chemical make up. In tandem with this was increasing awareness of the medieval mosques and tombs of Persia with with their intensly coloured domes of geometrically patterned enamelled brick. The closest example to the Museum Building is the lozenge pattern on the tomb of Sheikh Safi al Din in Ardabil, which has a similar colour palette of azure blue, white and black. These patterns depend on the stepped relationship between each brick, which would be impossible to achieve with a hexagonal shape.

There is no Byzantine intermediary for this pattern (as far as this author can tell) indicating that the designers must have directly consulted Iranian sources via engravings. There were several engraved sources on Persian architecture in the 1872 Trinity College library catalogue which may have been there in the 1850s, including the early engravings in the work of Chevalier Chardin, and more usefully the multi-volume the studies of architect Xavier Pascal Coste and painter Eugéne Flandin on Middle Eastern architecture, published 1839-54. As Eddie McParland has noted, both Thomas Deane and Benjamin Woodward applied for reader’s tickets prior to starting their work in Trinity. Nevertheless these engravings are monochrome and it was not until 1867 that Coste and Flandin published a fuller treatment of Persian architecture in colour.

The colour of the brickwork has bled out considerably in the last 160 years or so. We now need to reimagine its vibrant effect against the brilliant whiteness of the Caen stone, which itself has become a clouded grey. While the early watercolour of the interior attributed to Henry Hill captures something of this boldness of colour in the hall, unfortunately the domes themselves are omitted. Part of our work has been to try to recover the appearance of the enamelled brick coating. This has been helped by Patrick Wyse Jackson’s discovery of several undamaged samples of the original glaze during recent repairs to the domes. These show that each brick was faced with an underlying white glaze, which was left exposed on the white bricks, but painted over with a secondary glaze on all the others.

The white glaze is the best surviving element and has either fallen off completely or remained intact, where the other colours, have largely bled out into the surrounding brickwork. Interestingly the loss of enamel on glazed bricks had already made the news when construction was starting on the Museum Building. The polychromatic Italianate water tower recently completed at Rugby, Warwickshire, had blue and white glazed bricks around the top. A surveyor in 1853 reported that ‘they were chipping off, and showed every symptom of soon becoming the colour of ordinary bricks. He was ‘anxious to save other towns, who might feel disposed to follow the example of Rugby, from falling into the same error’. Deane and Woodward may have thought they were safe using the bricks on the interior only.


Besides the domes, the most prominent feature of the entrance hall is the magisterial imperial staircase reaching the galleries and museums on each side of the building. The architects’ later staircase at Kilkenny Castle (1860) is derived from the Palazzo Stern in Venice, but the Museum Building staircase has no obvious Italian precursor.  In plan it resembles the great staircase at Versailles (1674-78) by Francois d’Orsay, destroyed in 1752 but well-known through engravings. The inner hall of the museum is similarly entered through a triple arched arcade. A more contemporary precursor of this type was Charles Barry’s initial design for Bridgewater House, London, published in the Builder in 1848 (though it was removed in an altered design the following year).

Whatever about the plan, in style the Museum Building staircase is thoroughly medieval: the stone parapet wall, the external articulation of the steps, and the beautifully wide semi-elliptical arches upon which each flight rests. For these features there are European exemplars from Italy, Croatia, and Spain among others. Its distinctive ornament – the carved triangular panels which give external expression to the tread ends – is less common.  This can be traced directly to Catalan prototypes in Barcelona and the surrounding region, and principally that at the Palau de la Generalitat de Catalunya in Barcelona, a more elaborate example of the same type. This was seen by J. B. Waring on his travels through Spain in 1847-48, which he entered from the sea via the port there.

However, he did not publish a good illustration making it uncertain where Woodward may have seen it. We can only speculate that it was via an unpublished sketch communicated to him privately by Waring or some other architect familiar with the region. It is notable that Spanish influence also appears in the distinctive ceiling in the outer hall where there are timber joists with concave arches between them – a common Catalonian device. As Waring noted: ‘The ceilings at Barcelona, and generally as yet (to Saragossa), are formed by wooden joists and brick arches between.’

Venice reasserts itself in the several different types of ornamental timber brackets around the interior. A possible source for the complicated type in the outer hall is an engraving of the Casa Bembo in Pietro Selvatica, Sulla Architettura e sulla Scultura in Venezia (1847). The house is a fairly obscure one, mentioned only briefly by Ruskin in his Venetian index, who called it ‘not a whit more interesting than many others of similar date and design.’


Section of the Freeman Library by MVD from a scan by BIM and Scan


Lecture theatres

The seven ground floor lecture rooms, now much subdivided, have cone-funnelled ceiling ventilation and are ornamented with elaborately carved trusses, slightly curved, and split in the middle where they are re-enforced with iron. The notches on the vertical members are of the type illustrated by Ruskin in The Stones of Venice vol. 3, fig. LVI, which he described as a form of dogtooth ornament ‘produced by oblique cuts slightly curved’ and ‘of great importance in northern architecture’ – he cites the organic and fantastic quality of this detail on the cathedral of  Rouen, Lisieux, and Bourges.

Web changing use E Geological Museum 1857-1953

The old Geology Museum prior to its division in the 1950s


The large first-floor geology and engineering museums, to east and west respectively, were identical spaces running the width of the building, measuring 84 ft long, 38 ft wide and 28 ft high,and lit brightly by windows on three sides and a long central roof light. They were destroyed when intermediary floors were inserted c. 1950, but in both cases the impressive Queen-post roof structure survives, supported by richly carved timber brackets based on those in the nave of San Stefano Venice (for which no engraved source has yet been identified). The brackets extend from an architrave with two rows of billet mouldings, while tie beams are edged with rope mouldings and were originally painted winding with blue tendrils against a red background (as per a surviving sample on the geology side, visible in the above photo) – a decorative decision probably inspired by those in San Stefano.

A plan of the building published in in 1855 has a margin of dotted lines around both spaces, suggesting the architects intended to insert galleries. Surviving photographs of the interiors indicate these were never executed, though the idea certainly had parallels in the contemporary Natural History Museum and the Old Library in Trinity, as well as the recently completed Museum of Practical Geology in Jermyn Street, London. A gallery was inserted, however, into the ground floor lecture room on the north east corner, now the Freeman Library, where none is indicated in the original plan.


This is not intended as an exhaustive list of sources for the Museum Building, but it will hopefully add something to the material already compiled by others. What is increasingly apparent is the remarkably eclectic nature of the design, the sometimes tentative approach of the architects, and their willingness to rethink materials as work progressed, and finally their insistence on quality over economy. The surviving correspondence in the college muniments shows they were buoyed and emboldened by the initial results, a confidence surely built upon the support of the university Board and the competence of builder Gilbert Cockburn.

But that confidence was also built upon the change of direction within the architectural literature, without which the ‘combination’, as outlined by Shaw and Waring, could hardly have achieved so fluid and assured a result. But Woodward’s artistic sensibility was clearly crucial. In other hands the superabundant carving could have looked overloaded, the diverse architectural detailing crazy, and the polychromy garish. Luckily the success of the experiment won the praise of Ruskin and set the firm – and the architecture of Dublin and Oxford – off on an entirely new architectural path.

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