Through a Lens: Architecture

Welcome to the Architectural Tour of the National Gallery of Ireland!

This tour, produced as part of Open House Dublin 2020, invites you to look beyond the Gallery’s collection to the walls, rooms, and routes that make up the 150-plus years of the architecture of the Gallery. 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.

This tour will begin at the Merrion Square entrance and continue to move through the spaces to finish at the Millennium Wing exit on Clare Street. This is not entirely chronological as we're working with our one-way system which navigates through various parts of the building to allow for safe social distancing. 

Outside the building - Merrion Square entrance

The Dargan Wing façade

The original National Gallery of Ireland was completed in 1864 after a decade of planning, fundraising and construction. Leinster Lawn was an important location for the founders due to its former position as the location of the Irish Industrial Exhibition in 1853. The success of this event eventually led to the establishment of the Irish Institution, which vowed to found and build a gallery for the nation. The first wing is named the Dargan Wing, after the figure whose statue still surveys the entrance to the Gallery – William Dargan.

William Dargan was one of the leading figures behind the Irish Industrial Exhibition of 1853. He sponsored the steel and glass structure which was constructed on Leinster Lawn. The exhibition attracted over one million visitors in the first six months. Unlike the Industrial Exhibitions in London, there was a gallery of pictures of European art which was hugely popular. Because of Dargan’s contribution, a fund was set up in his honour in order to establish a permanent institution for art and sciences. The Gallery is a result of this fund, along with other contributions. Dargan was honoured at the opening of the Gallery with the unveiling of this plain figure, dressed in “an unbuttoned frock coat showing his waistcoat, and creased pantaloons” - an unpretentious bronze statue standing on a base of Galway granite.

Did you know this long façade was built in three stages?

The first ‘slice’ is the original building, the second, where you see the porch and door to enter, was added when the second wing was built; the third part has no windows and minimal ornamentation, making a noted stylistic departure from the first two sections. The material remains the same throughout, ashlar granite with Portland stone dressings, which creates a continuation along the façade.

The front of the Merrion Square gallery building. © National Gallery of Ireland.
© National Gallery of Ireland. Credit

Before entering the Gallery take a look at the approach and the surrounding buildings. Does anything strike you about the look of a nearby building? 

If you walk to the left of the Gallery entrance you will see a curved screen wall connecting it with its neighbour Leinster House, from which the Royal Society of Dublin (RDS) operated. The Gallery was built upon land leased by the RDS. Part of the agreement between the Gallery and the RDS was that the façade ornamentation should match that of the Natural History Museum which was also connected to Leinster House by a colonnaded screen – creating two arms reaching out from the house and solidifying the relationship with both the arts and sciences. The Natural History Museum was designed by Frederick Clarendon and the Gallery’s façade is an exact echo of the slim rectangular block on the south side of Leinster Lawn. 

It is also possible to see the National Library of Ireland above the roofline of Leinster House. This area of the city has sometimes been called the ‘cultural cluster’ because of the array of buildings – a library, two museums and an art gallery - all situated within one block.

The façade has a neatly rusticated ground floor and a series of blind windows and niches on the upper floor. Have you noticed the names on the façade of the Gallery? On the Natural History Museum there are names of renowned geologists and scientists, while the Gallery façade has the names of ancient Greek architects, sculptors and painters: Phidias, Apelles, Myron, and Ictinus.

The courtyard entrance on Merrion Square. © National Gallery of Ireland.
© National Gallery of Ireland. Photographer: Jack Caffrey, The Pimlico Project, 2017.Credit

The Milltown Wing façade

The second wing, called the Milltown Wing was completed and opened in 1903. This wing takes its name from Countess Milltown and her generous bequest in 1897, which included paintings, sculpture, furnishings and silver. Sir Thomas Newenham Deane was asked to make a plan for an extension to the gallery in 1892. These plans were updated by his son Thomas Manly Deane.

A new portico, or porch, was added to give prominence to the entrance and has four proud columns with alternating blocks and columns, which was an unusual design for Dublin architecture. Above the columns, the architrave and cornice (the main beam and decoration resting across the columns) are set so as to tie in with the original block. On the upper floor, the façade is enhanced by three arches with circular windows and framed by decorated columns. As you pass over the threshold of the porch, take a look at the date set in the tiles: though the colourful mosaic floor in the porch states it opened in 1902 – a hopeful completion date - in the end it was completed in 1903.

Photo of 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.Credit

Inside the building

The Milltown Wing

The first section of the Gallery that we enter is the Milltown Wing. Thomas Manly Deane commissioned the series of oak and walnut doorways from Carlo Cambi, who had a studio in Siena. There are 33 doors in total with hundreds of individual and unique panels decorated with recurring motifs. The panels are filled with intertwining foliage, fruits and vases, many grotesque faces, mythical creatures, and more. It is quite rewarding to spend some time looking at them. As you walk through the rooms look out for artist’s palettes and drawing tools.

The enfilade (suite of rooms with doorways that are aligned) on the ground floor are side-lit and octagonal in shape, in order to avoid dark corners and provide more wall space for hanging. Directly above is an enfilade of square rooms, which are lit from above, the doorways of which have broken pediments, triangular shapes on top of a doorway or window; in contrast with those on the ground floor which have broken semi-circular pediments.

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 IrelandCredit

The Courtyard

Between 2011 and 2017, the Gallery completed the first three phases of its five-phase Master Development Plan (MDP). When the Gallery was reopened in 2017 after its lengthy building and conservation project, it was nominated for the European Museum of the Year Award and won the Cultural/Public Building category in the Royal Institute of Architects of Ireland (RIAI) Architectural Awards.

One new addition to the Gallery is the now-glazed, light-flooded courtyard between the original wings. This space was previously unused and had been built around throughout various developments so that light could continue to enter the ground floor galleries of the Dargan and Milltown wings. The Dargan wing wall is of rough stone, as it was not meant to be seen, unlike its exterior facades which are finished with dressed granite. The opposite wall, the Milltown Wing, is for the most part finished with white glazed bricks. As both buildings are built close to each other, due to a lack of available land, the simple and creative addition of the glazed bricks ensured that the galleries always have light reflected into them.

Magnus Modus, a sculpture by Joseph Walsh

The Joseph Walsh sculpture in the courtyard, called Magnus Modus, was commissioned and designed taking into account the architecture and the space. This sweeping wooden looped structure was created through the layering of laminated olive ash and the piece was then fixed on a Kilkenny limestone base, anchoring it deep into the floor underneath. 

The structure is stationary yet kinetic. Its place within the courtyard allows you to walk around it and view it from all angles. The light looping ribbons create beautiful shadows - interacting with the space around it. The artist Joseph Walsh said of the Magnus sculpture: "Magnus is a drawing in air, an idea – an emotion expressed through form that is serene or complex, created to engage with us in a physical and intuitive way."

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

The Dargan Wing

The Shaw Room (Room 23), ground floor

This large space was first home to the sculpture court – imagine many white marble and plaster cast statues scattered throughout. The large windows along one side would have cast dramatic light onto the figures. These windows had been closed up over time, for more wall space and other reasons, but have now been reopened and restored. This room is highly decorated with a dozen Corinthian columns and pilasters with the acanthus leaves spreading out from their capitals. There is a motif of shamrocks and wreaths encircling harps visible in the grid-like arrangement in the ceiling which encloses some of the structure and services in the building. 

The beautiful herring-bone floor is new to this room since its conservation. It was originally laid with maroon tiles like the Grand Gallery below. Incredibly, when the gallery first opened in 1864 it was fitted with over 2,000 ‘sun lights’ or gas lights which have been called ‘gasaliers.’ 

At the end of the Shaw Room there are twin curved staircases leading up to the next great room – the Grand Gallery.

The Grand Gallery (Room 44)

This large space was the culmination of the journey through the first wing of the gallery. A large, top-lit space with four smaller top-lit galleries leading off it to house smaller works of art such as miniatures, landscapes, and even early photography. The floor here is original to the wing and is tiled with Minton tiles which were well known for their thermal and audio qualities – they adequately muffled the sounds of shoes so that this large space did not become too loud, and so that it would not be heard from the room below. 

The low bench-like structure around the perimeter of the room housed the hot water pipes which heated the space. Today they house various building services. The glass roof was thoroughly modern for the 19th century and gave a relatively even light to all the paintings throughout the day. If you look up at the steel frame, wonderfully decorated with panels, you can see the return of the motif of a wreath encircling a harp.

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

The Beit Wing

The third wing, initially known as the North Wing, was built in 1968 and added to in 1990, working with the Office of Public Works (OPW) and their architects. It was later named the Beit Wing after the donation of Sir Alfred and Lady Clementine Beit in 1987 of 17 priceless paintings which included Murillo’s (1617-82) series of six paintings depicting the Prodigal Son, and Johannes Vermeer’s (1632-75) Lady Writing a Letter, with her Maid. A series of wide side-lit and top-lit rooms gave the Gallery the additional exhibition space it needed. 

A photo of the Atrium Space in the Gallery, taking in the glass skylights overhead
The AtriumCredit

The Print Gallery

Also built during this time was the Print Gallery, the lecture theatre in the basement level, and the large glass lift shaft, encircled by the oval white marble staircase. The bright, light-filled Atrium space was created by glazing the space between the new galleries, the Print Gallery and the Milltown Wing. This Atrium connects the first two wings and the Millennium Wing. The inlay in the floor is a repeat of the wreathed harp motif seen in the Dargan wing.

The foyer of the Millennium Wing on Clare Street. © National Gallery of Ireland.
© National Gallery of Ireland. Credit

The Millennium Wing

The Millennium Wing was designed by architecture firm Benson and Forsyth, who won an international architectural competition for the commission. It was opened to the public in 2002. As you enter the Millennium Wing you are immediately struck by the vastness of the space. The series of stairs lead your eye down to the exit and out to the street – the arrangement of the windows on the façade allow you to catch glimpses of the city. 

The monumental walls of the entrance space are made from a pale concrete, which adds warmth to the reflection of the sunlight streaming in from the roof lights above. The design incorporates two 200-year old Georgian buildings into the Wintergarden space which houses the café.

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

Louis le Brocquy’s monumental 14 metre tall tapestry, titled The Triumph of Cú Chulainn, does not impose; instead its brightly coloured ovals enhance the immense height of the “grand canyon of Irish interiors” - the Millennium Wing entrance. Like the Joseph Walsh Magnus Modus, it was conceived with its location in mind. You could not place it anywhere else in the Gallery, or its impact would be reduced or lost. In its review of the opening of the wing, The New York Times said of the tapestry: “Alabaster-white stone walls soar to a luminous ceiling 60 feet above. A gigantic tapestry with a sea of rainbow teardrops hangs to the side, like the building's personally tailored dream coat.” (Brian Lavery, January 31, 2002, the New York Times). The comment captures the uniqueness of the piece, within its unique setting.

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

Outside the Building - Clare Street

Millennium Wing façade

The exit to Clare Street connects the Gallery to the cityscape. The façade of the Millennium Wing incorporates the geometry of Georgian Dublin around it, taking its height from the parapets either side of it. It is clad in cream Portland stone, tying in with the original Merrion Square façade. The four distinct wings of the gallery and the spaces in between have all risen out of different eras and contexts; together they constitute the National Gallery of Ireland – a building which has lived through and captured those times.

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

You might also like: