City Assembly House

Published in Gems of Architecture, Issue 1 (January/February 2019), Volume 27

58 South William Street, Dublin 2

Above: The restored City Assembly House, now the headquarters of the Irish Georgian Society. (Damian Murphy)

The City Assembly House was the first purpose-built art gallery in Great Britain and Ireland. The Society of Artists in Ireland was established expressly to promote the work of Irish artists and to provide an academy for the arts. Following the success of the first exhibition, held in rented premises in 1765, two prominent members of the Society, the sculptor Simon Vierpyl (c. 1725–1810) and the gilder Richard Cranfield (1731–1809), resolved to build a dedicated Exhibition Room in fashionable South William Street.

In order to raise funds for the project, the Society solicited subscriptions of three guineas in return for free entrance to exhibitions for so long as the Society existed. The first exhibition in the top-lit octagonal Exhibition Room was held in March 1766 and surviving catalogues of this and later exhibitions give an insight into the calibre of artists who displayed works, including William Ashford (1746–1824), Jonathan Fisher (c. 1740–1809) and Thomas Roberts (1748–78).

The Society subsequently sought to raise parliamentary grants to build an academy facing directly onto the street, which, they stated, would be ‘of the greatest Advantage to the Arts and Manufacturers of this Kingdom’. By 1771 sufficient funds had been raised to complete a red-brick-faced building with a rusticated granite finish at street level and dressings of creamy Portland stone. The architect of the building may have been Oliver Grace, who exhibited ‘an elevation proposed as a front to the Exhibition Room’ with the Society of Artists in 1768.

The Society was short-lived and the last exhibition was held in 1780. Following a decade of ad hoc use, the Exhibition Room began to host meetings of Dublin Corporation, whose previous headquarters in Skinners Row had fallen into disrepair. In 1809 the Corporation acquired a 100-year lease on the premises and undertook considerable works in order to adapt it as an unofficial city hall. Wyatt windows were installed in the Exhibition Room to allow it to function as a debating chamber. The space below was fitted out to serve as a Court of Conscience, while a suite of rooms on the first floor was refurbished as meeting chambers for the City Aldermen with plasterwork by Charles Thorp (d. 1817).

Above: The restored Exhibition Room, with paintings first exhibited in 1766–80. (Irish Georgian Society)

The Court of Conscience was moved to the octagonal room when the Corporation moved to the Royal Exchange in 1852 and remained there until it was abolished in 1924: its space was then used by the Dublin Fire Brigade. From 1952 to 2003 the Old Dublin Society, working with Dublin Corporation, had a civic museum in the building. The City Assembly House is now the headquarters of the Irish Georgian Society, which has completed a phased programme of restoration, including the replacement of nineteenth-century plate glass with sash windows in keeping with the eighteenth-century character of the property and the careful repointing of the brickwork using the traditional ‘wig’ technique. The restoration of the Exhibition Room was completed in 2018. To mark the occasion, and to bring the story of the City Assembly House full circle, an exhibition reassembled paintings first displayed by the Society of Artists between 1766 and 1780.

Courtesy of the Irish Georgian Society. Series based on the NIAH’s ‘building of the month’, www.buildingsofireland.com.

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