• Friday , 20 October 2017

A snaphot of the city – W.H. Brewer’s 1890 Bird’s eye view of Dublin

H.W Brewer's 1890 Bird's Eye View of Dublin from The Graphic, June 1890.

H.W Brewer’s 1890 Bird’s Eye View of Dublin from The Graphic, June 1890.

‘… an exceedingly shabby gentleman took off his hat and making a most profound bow, addressed us as follows: “Sor! Would ye take it as a liberty if I was to look at the picture ye are making, as I am greatly interested in works of Art.” In fact the lower classes of the Irish people seem to take a genuine pleasure in Art, and we have no hesitation in saying that a vast free picture gallery in Dublin ought to be amongst the future plans for the amelioration of Ireland.’

So patronisingly concludes H.W. Brewer’s account of a visit to Dublin, which accompanied his 1890 Bird’s Eye View of the city as a supplement to the London Graphic newspaper; the same year that the National Museum and Library opened, twenty six years after the National Gallery opened and eighteen years before Dublin’s first free public art gallery, the Hugh Lane, opened its doors. Like Thackeray before him in an Irish Sketchbook (1842), Brewer nonetheless seems genuinely taken aback at the natural beauty of Dublin’s situation, quality of light, planning and architecture. Like most people, he comments on the vagaries of the weather and natural beauty before conceding, ‘But even apart from the transient glimpses of beauty, Dublin may boast of solid, tangible architectural works such as few cities can show us …’ before roll-calling the customary gems of the city; the Four Courts, the Custom House, the former Parliament and City Hall.

Brewer was a talented and prolific London-based artist who produced numerous architectural renderings of cities and buildings in the mid-late 19th century. Working for The Graphic, The Builder and the London Illustrated News, Brewer enjoyed a reputation as an excellent perspectival artist, and produced Bird’s Eye Views of Birmingham (1886), Edinburgh (1886), Liverpool (1885), Rome and London (both in 1890). His view of Dublin, made from the tower of J.J. McCarthy’s RC Church of St. Catherine’s, Meath Street (1852-1858) is very different to that of his precursors, and suggests a different, largely non-neoclassical emphasis. His choice of vantage point is perhaps explained by his accompanying commentary, in which he says he likes the ‘picturesque’ quality of the Liberties, which at this point would have been home to some of the poorest people in Dublin, many living in appalling conditions.

Detail showing Dublin Castle and the recently completed South City Markets.

Detail showing Dublin Castle and the recently completed South City Markets.

The choice of vantage point seems almost like a retreat to the old medieval stronghold of the city, the Liberties, on high ground especially around Thomas Street, once one of the principle spines in and out of Dublin. Brewer depicts the densely woven warp and weft of Thomas Street and Synod Hill in the immediate foreground of the view; houses have crow-steeped gables and mansarded roofs which lends them a very continental feel. He used a lot of artistic licence and conflated some streets and views so as to be able to include as many ecclesiastical buildings as possible. The tall spire of G.C. Ashlin and E.W. Pugin’s then yet to be completed RC church of SS Augustine & John (1862-1899), Thomas Street, stands proudly in the centre foreground, but in a location it could not possibly have been seen as he rendered it. Simlarly, his view shows St. Nicholas of Myra (1829-1834), Francis Street, standing adjacent to St. Patrick’s Cathedral to the left of the view, which it does not in reality. St Audoen’s and Christchurch also occupy pride of position in the centre-ground, whereas across the river, to the left of the view, the Four Courts is rendered in fine detail. At the very centre of the picture, behind the castellations of Dublin Castle, the tourelles of Lockwood & Mawson’s South City Markets (1878-1881) rise up like something out of a mittel-European Gothic fairytale.

Of the more recent additions to the public architecture of the city, Brewer says ‘The new Science and Art Museum in Kildare Street by Sir J [sic] Deane is an admirable modern example of the same [neoclassical] style.’ He is rather dismissive of Dublin’s ecclesiastical edifices, which he describes as being ‘… by no means equal to the secular ones in point of dignity,’ and, without really seeming to understand the nuances of the city’s housing stock, blanketly says that the city has gained a bad architectural reputation ‘… owing to the meanness of its private houses – the row after row of gloomy, heavy monotonous dwellings of the upper classes, and the shabby streets occupied by the lower classes …’

Unlike other artists, and despite being rather dismissive of Dublin’s churches in his accompanying text, Brewer chooses to place the emphasis on them in his view of the city. The perspectival manner he employs makes them seem like they are almost looming out of the city’s otherwise low-rise and gloomy fabric. In fact, there could be said to be a dark, Gothic, quality to his view, making it appear more like Edinburgh Old Town, areas of High-Victorian London or a northern European city, than Dublin. This palpable sense of foreboding or fin de siècle menace could be said to be because of Brewer’s artistic preferences, or perhaps, because of the poverty or the incipient feeling that the old (imperial) order was coming to an end.

Detail from W.H. Brewer's 1890 Bird's eye view of Dublin showing the recently completed National Museum and Library from The Graphic, June 1890.

Detail from W.H. Brewer’s 1890 Bird’s eye view of Dublin showing the recently completed National Museum and Library from The Graphic, June 1890.

In order to accentuate the buildings he has chosen to give primacy to, Brewer uses a white background in an otherwise rather dark view. Though discernible on the skyline, it is notable that the domes of Deane & Son’s brand new National Museum and Library, with Leinster House behind, are certainly not amongst those buildings accorded pride of place in the view. When the image is magnified, it is evident that they are comparatively crudely rendered. Though Brewer’s interests are clear, and include art institutions for the ‘future amelioration of Ireland,’ this lack of emphasis could, arguably, point to a broader lack of public engagement with the then new institutions following the highly contested manner in which they came into being, and who they were controlled by and perceived to be for. Though the view of an outsider, Brewer’s rendering of the city is nonetheless a valuable perspective on the city and its evolving fabric as the century drew to a close and the momentum for Home Rule gathered steam.

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