Through a Lens: Family Architecture

View of the Merrion Square entrance to the National Gallery of Ireland
Jack Caffrey, The Pimlico Project, 2017. Photo © National Gallery of Ireland.

Architecture is the design of a building or space. You may even practice being an architect without knowing it. When you think of something to build and then construct it you are thinking about the architecture. Have you ever built a fort at home or used building blocks or bricks? 

In this tour of the Gallery, produced as part of Open House Dublin 2020, we will be looking at the walls and rooms that the paintings and sculptures live in. If you can't visit us in person, you can view parts of the Gallery discussed here through the Virtual Tours online. These allow you to virtually move around the spaces of the grand rooms that make up the original wing of the Gallery.

View of the Merrion Square entrance to the National Gallery of Ireland Photo © National Gallery of Ireland

Outside the building - Merrion Square entrance

The Dargan Wing façade

Let’s begin outside at the Merrion Square door to the Gallery. Did you know that the Gallery has two front doors? We will start at the older door and finish this tour at the newer one. When we get there, we will have walked through spaces that were built at different times in history. Think about how old each part is as we go.

This entrance to the Gallery has a decorated façade. The word façade might sound a little like a word you know already, a face. A façade is like the face of a building. The Gallery’s façade is made from two types of stone: a rough stone called granite and a smoother cream-coloured stone called Portland stone, named after the place it came from. 

While you are outside of the Gallery wave hello to William Dargan, who was alive between 1799 and 1867, and is looking after the entrance to the Gallery. This statue is by the artist Thomas Farrell (1827-1900) and is made from bronze, a metal that is a liquid when it is very hot and becomes solid when it cools down. The first part of the Gallery that was built is now named the Dargan Wing. This wing was named after him because he was such a big supporter of the Gallery. Why do you think some people have buildings or places named after them?

View of the Gallery's Merrion Square facade at an angle Photographer: Jack Caffrey, The Pimlico Project, 2017. Photo © National Gallery of Ireland.

Before you go into the Gallery take a look along the left side of the building and at the surrounding buildings. 

Can you see many windows in the façade? How do you think the light enters the Gallery if there are no windows? We will talk about this more inside.

The stone here is carved into different designs like leaf patterns, flowers, and even some names. Can you spot them? These are the names of a few famous Greek artists who lived a long time ago. Some were architects, painters and sculptors. Why do you think these names are here?

Have you been to the Natural History Museum? Many people call it the ‘Dead Zoo’.  It is the next-door neighbour to the Gallery across Leinster Lawn and has the same façade, only instead of artists’ names written in stone they have names of botanists and zoologists and others.

Two women passing each other in a doorway in a gallery room with gilt-framed paintings on the walls. Image © National Gallery of Ireland. Photographer: Jack Caffrey, The Pimlico Project, 2018.

Inside the building

The Milltown Wing

The Gallery has four different ‘wings’. A ‘wing’ is a group of rooms that makes different sections of the Gallery.

The first rooms we enter are part of the Milltown Wing. It is named after Countess Milltown who donated hundreds of works of art, furniture and silverware to the Gallery. It was finished in 1903. The door/porch we came in was built at the same time. As you went through the door did you notice the mosaic on the floor? A mosaic is a design made from lots of little tiles. This porch was built in 1903 but they made a little mistake in the tiles. Can you spot it?

Fantastic carved doorways

The rooms in this wing are called enfilade galleries which means a series of rooms where all the doors are in a line – can you see all the way down to the last room? As you walk through this space take a close look at the doorways. They were designed and built by an Italian man named Carlo Cambi and sent to the Gallery all the way from Siena, Italy. There are 33 highly decorated doors and every door has lots of smaller panels (or rectangles) in them. There are so many things to see in them. Look out for: 

  • Mythical creatures
  • Flowers 
  • Fruits
  • Pencils 
  • Paintbrushes
  • Funny or angry looking faces called ‘grotesque faces’

What else can you see? 

Magnus Modus Joseph Walsh, Magnus Modus. © Joseph Walsh. Commissioned by the Office of Public Works on behalf of the National Gallery of Ireland under the Per Cent for Art Scheme Photo © National Gallery of Ireland

The Courtyard

This space is called the Courtyard and is the newest part of the Gallery. It is between the two oldest wings. There are many types of materials in this space. Can you see the two older parts are built with rough stone and brick? The newly built parts have pale grey concrete walls. How many textures or materials can you count in this space?

These two wings are built very close to each other because there was not a lot of land to build on. As they were built close together, the architects added white shiny bricks to reflect sunlight into the opposite rooms on the ground floor. Can you see the white glazed bricks on one of the walls? Can you see how they make the space brighter by reflecting the light? 

Magnus Modus, a sculpture by Joseph Walsh

There is a sculpture in this space called Magnus Modus by an artist called Joseph Walsh, who works in Cork. This sculpture was designed and made specifically for this space. It is made from lots of layers of a wood called olive ash and carved into this shape. Take some time to walk around it and view it from all angles. How does this space make you feel? Do you feel big or small in it?

The Shaw Room The Shaw Room at the National Gallery of Ireland

The Dargan Wing

The Shaw Room (Room 23), ground floor

This is the Dargan Wing (named after the man we saw on the way in) and is the oldest part of the Gallery. How old do you think this part of the Gallery might be? It was opened in January 1864, which makes it over 150 years old. 

This Shaw Room is named after another famous person, George Bernard Shaw. Can you find the statue of his head in this room? Also look out for his statue later in the Millennium Wing. The Shaw Room has 12 Corinthian columns. Corinth is a place in Greece, but that doesn’t mean that the columns come from there. Corinthian is a style of decoration. If you look at the top part of the column in the Shaw Room, you will see a decorations on the ‘capital’, meaning the top. It has flowers and big leaves that are inspired by the Acanthus plant. When you see a ‘capital’ with leaves like this we usually say it is decorated in the ‘Corinthian’ style. Look out for more columns in the gallery and look at their ‘capitals’ to see if they are ‘Corinthian’ columns or not. 

This room also has hundreds of little shamrocks in the design of the ceiling decoration. Can you spot some? What other decorations do you see? 

The Grand Gallery (Room 44)

Now we go upstairs to the Grand Gallery. In the Grand Gallery, the light comes from the ceiling, which is made of glass. We call this space a ‘top-lit’ gallery because the light comes from the top. When we were downstairs in the Shaw Room, did you notice where the light came from? It came from large windows along the side of the room, so we call it a ‘side-lit’ space. 

Why do you think light is important in a gallery? Having light helps us see the paintings and artwork more clearly. But direct sunlight can damage paintings so we filter natural light with layers of glass. As you walk around the Gallery, look for where the light comes from. Is the space top-lit or side-lit? Which do you prefer? What makes you say that?

View of people in an art gallery with blue walls and gilt-framed paintings Photo: Fennell Photography

The Beit Wing

The next wing, the Beit Wing, was named after Sir Alfred and Lady Clementine Beit who donated 17 priceless paintings to the Gallery. Did you notice that the walls of the different galleries are different colours? Which one is your favourite? What makes you say that? Think about how the colour of the walls around the paintings might affect how you see them. Do certain colours make the artworks look brighter? Or darker? What colour would you paint the walls?

The Millennium Wing

The last part of this tour is the Millennium Wing. How old do you think this part of the gallery is? It was opened in 2002 and is the tallest space in the Gallery. This space is built from a light cream-coloured concrete that helps bring the light down from the large roof-lights in the ceiling.

At the bottom of the stairs you can see the statue of George Bernard Shaw that was mentioned earlier. In this wing, the café has two much older buildings, over 200 years old, that have been incorporated into the architecture of the gallery, to preserve them. Can you tell the difference? The newer parts are made from cream and smooth concrete surfaces, with lots of windows in the ceiling. The older buildings are made from brick and stone and have smaller windows.

The Triumph of Cú Chulainn, a tapestry by Louis Le Brocquy

There is another piece of art in the Millennium Wing that was made especially for this space, like the Magnus Modus sculpture in the Courtyard. It is called The Triumph of Cú Chulainn. It is a very long 14 metre tall tapestry that hangs above the main stairs in the Millennium Wing. A tapestry is made from fabric and weaved together to make different pictures or designs. This tapestry was made in France and designed by the Irish artist Louis Le Brocquy (1916-2012). Do you like this piece? What do you like about it?

Facade of Millennium Wing entrance to National Gallery of Ireland Photographer: Roy Hewson

Outside the Building - Clare Street

Millennium Wing façade

The door out to Clare Street is the Gallery exit and its façade is very different from the first one we saw at the beginning. Though it is made from one of the same materials, Portland stone. What is different about the façade? Which one do you like best? What makes you say that?

You have now walked through over 150 years of architecture, all built by different people and at different times. Think about the journey you have just made and about the different wings. Did they feel very different to you? Which part of the Gallery was your favourite? What makes you say that?

This tour was written and compiled by Aoife-Marie Buckley, National Gallery of Ireland and Trinity College Dublin Doctoral Fellow.

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