Sculpture of the Museum Building

Obtaining stone for a building of the scale and dimensions of the Museum Building was a significant undertaking. The bulk of the masonry was to remain visible around the whole building and in the entrance and central halls so it needed to be a good quality. In contrast, most buildings on Dublin’s commercial thoroughfares employed cut stone only on the street-facing façade.

The bill of quantities drawn up for the Museum Building in 1853 detailed over 1,700 yards of Calp limestone from Rathgar for the foundations and internal walls, over 20,000 feet of Caen stone for lining the interior walls, 32,000 feet of Ballyknockan granite for the exterior and other areas, and approximately 32,000 feet of Portland stone for carved and plane exterior and interior features. In total the initial estimate for masonry, for working and carving it, and for the brickwork for the building was £2,2209, a considerable sum that comprised over 90% of the final cost.

The Museum Building’s remarkable carvings were produced by three stone carvers, James and John O’Shea, and Edward Whelan, in probably little over three years. A support team of  masons would have been responsible for blocking out stone on site prior to the stone being passed over to the more skilled stone carvers for finishing. The speed at which they could work was later remarked on at Oxford where James O’Shea, and by inference his brother James and Edward Whelan, was found to be able to carve three corbels in the same time as a normal carver could generally finish one.


A selection of the interior carved capitals
Double capital: left with Orchid and Vitis (Grapevine) leaves; right with Narcissus (Daffodil) and Humulus lupulus (Hops).

Left: Orchid and Vitis (Grapevine) leaves. Right: Narcissus (Daffodil) and Humulus lupulus (Hops).


Capitals on site at TCD, c. 1854. Photo courtesy of the Oxford Museum of Natural History


For Trinity they carved 182 metope panels (at a cost of £2/10/- each[2]), 177 external capitals (£7 to £10 each); 177 external pilasters (£2/10/- each); 38 internal capitals: 16 full (£20 each) and 22 half (£10 each); 16 corbels (10/- each); and 40 spandrels on the staircase (10/- each). The four decorative terminations on the handrails (£2 to £3 each) in Connemara Marble were probably carved by William Manderson in his Dublin workshop on Great Brunswick Street.

The carvers probably worked with sketches drawn by themselves or by either of the architects Benjamin Woodward or Thomas Newenham Deane. The capitals, which top the exterior pilasters and internal columns, conform to a common formula. The composition is divided into two halves on each of the four faces, which provides each full capital with eight repeating elements, repetition which must have made them somewhat easier to carve.  Punctuating this regular composition is a flower, or in one case, a bird, placed centrally at the top of the arrangement.

The complexity of the work varies, with capitals above the triple-arched arcade that separates the entrance hall from the central hall most complicated, as are the external decorations closest to the entrance on the north façade.  Deep undercutting would have been achieved by drilling and carving using fine chisels and points. The techniques employed at the Museum Building were much the same as those carried out centuries before by Roman stone carvers, which had been praised by Sir Thomas Deane in a lecture to the RIAI in 1851.

Externally many of the leaves depicted are concave in form rather than being flat or convex as some would have been in life.  This is probably a function of the great ease of carving out stone rather than rounding the outer sides of leaves inwards. Inspection of the carvings show little evidence of mistakes – a rare instance being that on the right-hand capital at the main entrance where a carved piece has been spliced in and continues the botanical pattern.

Carving on piers around windows are restricted to those of the upper story, the lower piers are left plain, and which faces of shafts are carved differ, as do the number of panels for each.  Above the upper windows on the long façades a rebated band of carving enhances their importance while those on the shorter façades are left undecorated. Even the style of capitals differs above window shafts on the lower story, particularly when comparing those of the west and eastern façades with those of the north and south.

The latter are largely Acanthus whereas the latter display a greater diversity of plants and some animals.

String course, Museum Building 2

The stringcourse (above), some 1.5 m above ground level, comprising 654 floral carvings in a guilloche band, runs completely around the building. Many of these are very simple, either taxonomically inaccurate flowers consisting of four or five petals in which a different inflorescence is carved, or arrays of leaves of different shapes. In one case three different flowers emerge from a mixture of leaves. Nevertheless there is some repeating of floristic styles.

Climbing successive ladders through a series of levels in the timber scaffolding, ascending a vertical face of granite ashlar, the stone carvers would have reached the plain square panels of Portland stone beneath the cornice of the new building being erected that would close off New Square from College Park (fig. 9.1).  the three men would have continued to work on these metope panels (fig. 9.2) which were probably the final carvings to be executed.

Plants and animals

In Henry Acland and John Ruskin’s slim volume on the Oxford Museum (1859) a listing of the identity of the plants depicted in spandrels, corbels and on each of the capitals above the decorative stone columns surrounding the court demonstrates a wide diversity.  This scheme was planned by John Philips, professor of geology who directed the work of the O’Sheas and Whelan who had moved to Oxford once the Trinity commission was completed.

Unfortunately no such contemporary listing of the plants or animals adorning Trinity’s Museum Building has been located, and the identifications provided here for the internal capitals have relied on personal knowledge of plant and animal taxonomy and comparison with botanical and zoological sources.  It is clear that the taxonomic fidelity of the internal capital carvings is excellent, as it is for the majority of the carvings on the exterior of the building. For example, the differences between the characteristics of the Irish or Sessile Oak (Quercus petraea) and English Oak (Quercus robur) are plain to see: the latter have longer acorns.  Externally the carvings on the capitals are taxonomically correct, but those on panels less so, being generally being more stylistic.

Although produced by the same stone carvers, the internal capitals in the Museum Building differ from their later Oxford examples in that they exhibit essentially a mix of plant species assembled in much the same manner as a flower arranger or an artist setting up a still-life composition. These assemblages would not be encountered in natural or in a greenhouse, and gives further credence to the hypothesis that the architects and stone carvers drew out each design both for their aesthetic and symmetric pattern as well as for their taxonomic composition.

All the Oxford capitals display only one species each, as do a small number of their Dublin precursors. The arrangements in the Museum Building are rather static except for one or two where tendrils display a tendency to wrap around from one face to the next.  On the capitals in the central arcade that separates the entrance and central halls they are more elaborate with a diamond undercut pattern.  The internal capitals display greater clarity than those outside but this is to be expected given their proximity to the viewer.

With rare exceptions only are animals depicted inside the building, such as the snake weaving through Acanthus in the right stair terminal that hides the freedstool behind, and the Kingfisher and four cormorants perched high above a capital on the upper story, gazing down as if considering their next meal, at a small snake, frog and newt frozen as it were, on the base of the same column.

Externally the depictions of plants are more numerous and complex than are the animals.  This is perhaps not unexpected as plants are by their very nature composed of structurally different elements: stems, leaves, flowers, and fruits all of which can be arranged in a logical pattern that to the untrained taxonomic eye might look chaotic. Convolvulus, commonly known as bindweed, with its narrow and thing twisting stems is accurately shown to the right of the main entrance and this capital shows evidence of contemporaneous repair by one of the stone carvers.

Elsewhere, tulips, lilies, daffodils, thistles, geraniums, shamrock, oak, acanthus, vines, broad-leaved ferns, poppies, thistle, and ivy all sprout from the capitals around the building.  There is some repetition, with the five eastern-most capitals on the lower storey of the south façade being of rounded lobate leaves, the only differences being in the form of the centrally-placed decorative flower. On the lower stringcourse a number of plants however are identifiable with Holly, Ivy, Poppy, Sunflowers, Oak with acorns, Lily-of-the-Valley, Shamrock and Thistle all present; the latter two often together.  There is a taxonomic distinction discernible in the arrangements of the decoration of this stringcourse on each of the façades.  The north shows both garden and wild flowers together with some stylised forms, the east and west are largely stylised, whereas the patterns on the south façade are mainly of leaves of trees and flowers are singularly lacking.

Animals, in this case solitary rather than colonial forms, are all compact entities.  Most of the larger animal carvings adorn the capitals of the north façade, particular around the centrally-placed upper story windows where squirrels are found clutching nuts, cats holding unfortunate mice in their mouths, and a monkey playfully pulls the tail of an adjacent cat.  On the lower capitals around the doorway, garden birds, most probably ravens or crows, thrushes, and blackbirds seek out berries to eat.  The stone carvers also replicate prey and quarry interactions between some animal species, and in nature, survival depends on the availability of food.

In the case of the cats, they are playing with mice, which don’t survive, but on the eastern capital at the main entrance an unfortunate nesting bird is being confronted by a lizard intent on stealing her eggs.  Elsewhere on the stringcourses chicks hatch out of eggs, imperial eagles spread their wings, and a reasonably common motif are the owls which stand erect on each façade, testament to the wisdom that will be imparted within the building.  On the south façade fewer birds are present when compared to the north, and these seem to be either larger waterfowl species such as swans, herons, or even possibly mythical birds such as the phoenix.

The panels of the shafts on the upper stories are also heavily carved with plants and animals and include doves in a typical Christian pose, perhaps heralding the future use of part of the building for the training of Anglican clerics.  Other garden birds and parrots perch in foliage which is generally rather stylised and less dramatic than that of the capitals.  This is probably due to the limitations as to how deep the stone carvers could work the panels.

While the Museum Building supports a number of non-native floral and faunal taxa, the majority of species are indeed Irish natives.  They are plants found growing wild or are representatives of cultivars in gardens such as Convolvulus, Dahlia, Impatiens, Ipomoea and Peony (Paeonia lutea). The stone carvers and architects even include plants that had considerable significance in terms of Irish identity with the inclusion of potato flowers (Solanum tuberosum) which allowed reflection on the famine of less than a decade earlier, and hops (Humulus lupulus) which were a stable ingredient of a significant Irish product. Other Irish plants commonly found in Ireland included Blackberry (Rubus fruitcosus), Hawthorn (Crataegus) and Shamrock (Trifolium repens). Likewise the birds such as the blackbirds and owls and animals such as the squirrels and mice are found in the wild in the Irish landscape or frequenting gardens, or are domesticated, as in the case of the cats and the chickens. The most obvious non-native species are exotic orchids, the American eagle, various species of parrot, the occasional old-world monkey, and the snake that inhabits the central hall.

North Facade

The entrance front (North) is flamboyant.  As was intended by the architects, students, academics and visitors would have approached the building via a path running in a north-south direction across New Square that led to the front door.  The skill of the carvers, and the elaborate naturalistic subjects that surround the entrance and decorate the triple window above would have magnetically drawn people inwards.

25279911584_3d23f5a339_o (re-scaled)

The complexity and intensity of carving is greatest around the entrance and in the triple window above, while towards the east and western ends of the north façade the complexity of the carvings decline. The number of panels per pier is not consistent throughout the façade. Towards the east and western ends of the north façade the complexity of the carvings decline.

Animals such as squirrels, cats, monkeys, exotic birds such as parrots and a flock of garden birds are largely restricted to the north façade.  Each of the superior shafts between the window openings of the upper windows carry either one, four or seven carved panels on their outer portion.  On the inner, set back panels that face outwards, a single panel often depicts meandering stems with foliage.  Two panels are outliers to this pattern carrying a simple design of geometric interlocking lines with some foliage.

As was noted by Dr Thomas Duffy,  and independently by conservation architect Paul Arnold, some metopes depict a number of Aesop’s fables (below left).

The theme is consistent with the architect’s use of north Italian sources, echoing the 12th century carvings on the doorway of Modena Cathedral and the Fontana Maggiore in Perugia of the 1270s.

The central metope (above right) on the north façade is carved with a representation of a simian pinching itself between its opposable thumb and forefinger.  Its meaning is uncertain as it seems slightly too early to be a comment on Darwinism, but may reflect the interest in live zoological collections in Dublin at the time and related research on the classification of monkeys and animal mechanics by Irish researchers. The remaining metope panels around the building are of plants with occasional animals interspersed, and all are rather simplistic and chunky in design which was probably deliberate and allowed viewers to discriminate their features from the ground.

The carvings of the lower features largely show plain foliage except towards the doorway where flowers and birds and some rare animals are incorporated into the designs.  The second capital in from the eastern end draws on an Irish and Scots motif with shamrock and thistles, while the fifth from the same end contains clear aligned circular holes produced by hand drills which were used to delineate closely arranged leaves in the lilies. The five western-most capitals show a repeating floral form.

South Facade

The south façade displays few carvings of animals other than some large birds, representing actual or mythical species on capitals and quoins, and in general there is a greater abundance of foliage than on the north façade. On four primary piers carvings are in one large elongated panel with annual growth pattern of foliage in which leaves diverge opposite to each other from a main stem in an annular pattern that runs the height of the panel.  In the other piers triple-panelled schemes are present.

The inner piers are carved with a thin panel of triangular teeth that covers only half the surface.  Great intensity and three-dimensionality occurs in these capitals of the ground floor windows compared to those on the other three façades due to the stone carvers effecting deeper and more extensive undercutting when producing the botanical patterns, amongst which are oak, poppies and thistles.  Some repetition in the eastern-most placed capitals. These are carved with Ivy but with two non-ivy flowers in centre placement.  Swans are seen on the south-east corner capital and shamrock on opposite end.

East facade

The carvings on the capitals of the ground floor window shafts of the east façade are almost identical and very stylised. Acanthus leaves decorate each of the six single capitals, and the only slight variation was undertaken in the central double capital which is centred with a large six petal flower with rounded sepals behind.  While rather plain and flat these do show considerable use of drilling techniques to extenuate the digitisation of the leaves. Ornamenting the space between the central leaf and its lateral equivalents are simple flowers including tulips and lilies.

The upper capitals are more elaborate with carvings of plants including daffodils and tulips.  The other piers of the windows show plants, and rare animals, in an annular or spiral pattern in one carved panel, of which the panel depicting seven chickens (above right) is the most striking and unusual, perhaps of the whole decorative scheme of the building. The inner piers of these windows shows carving placement not seen elsewhere, with two thin bands of botanical carvings on the outer and lateral faces.  The rounded top of the side entrance extends above the stringcourse at the level of the base of the windows which forms capital extensions either side; the style of this entrance is different to that of the west façade.

West facade

The west façade displays carved windows arches similar in style to those of the east façade. No animals decorate the upper capitals, and the outer faces of piers carry single panels with annular or sinuous growth patterns of plants. The lower capitals are decorated with simple Acanthus leaves except the two southern-most which are more drilled and resemble curly kale; these two match the style of the third most western lower capital on the north façade. The rounded top of the side entrance does not extend above upper stringcourse unlike on the east façade.

The Museum Building presents four elevations that are highly decorated, and following a short period spent examining these faces yield a rather startling conclusion that each is distinctive, while at the same time being broadly similar. A biological analogy of such a situation would be that of siblings who have a slightly different phenotype or appearance, but only such that their common parentage can be recognised.

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