The view before us shows elegantly dressed men and women gathered in circular groups across the Ballroom floor in anticipation of a dance, while those not involved can be seen lining either side of the Hall's walls – the ladies seated while some men engage them in conversation. The proceedings are overseen by the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland and his wife visible at the end of the hall. Above them in the balcony further spectators are visible. As Brendan Rooney has commented, the provision of such entertainment was an important way of maintaining support for the government among influential Dublin society, although some viceroys proved more willing hosts than others. (B. Rooney, A Time and a Place, Two Centuries of Irish Social Life, NGI, 2006, p.25)
Mairéad Dunlevy, an Irish costume expert, wrote concerning the present work, ‘court regulations dictated much on the dress styles and on the hair ornaments worn by ladies, the latter being of white plumes, lappets and jewellery. Custom, however, often allowed an easing of these official restrictions; indeed the 1840s would seem to have been a particularly indulgent period as is obvious from this picture where some unmarried ladies signal their position through wearing only fresh flowers and jewellery in their hair. The more conventional maidens are seen wearing two ostrich feathers behind the left ear, while their mothers wear three plumes. Lappets, or ribbons of lace, were worn on the head also. Although these should have been worn by all women it frequently transpired that, again, they were only worn by matrons. Regulations on the court dress worn by gentlemen was strict on the fabric and style of the suit but allowed expression in a fancy waistcoat. Other gentlemen – officers of arms and office holders – wore court uniforms which indicated their position’ (quoted in Gorry Gallery, exh. cat., 1990).
St Patrick’s Hall had long been a key location for the political, military and social elite in Ireland (B. Rooney, Creating History, Stories of Ireland in Art, 2016, p.179) Previously known as the State Ball-Room, it was renamed St Patrick`s Hall after the institution of the Knights of St Patrick there in 1783.This was initiated by the Lord Leiutenant of Ireland (representative of the King); George Nugent-Temple-Grenville, 3rd Earl Temple (later 1st Marquess of Buckingham). A significant development in the decorative scheme of the Hall came about when in 1787 the Temple commissioned Vincenzo Waldré to remodel the room. Seeking to elevate the Order of St Patrick to the status of the Order of the Garter and the Scottish Order of the Thistle, he wanted an appropriately opulent premises (B. Rooney, op. cit.).
Waldré was a native of Faenza, Italy and had previously worked on the the painted decoration of the Music Room at Stowe House, Buckinghamshire, the family seat of Earl Temple. Waldré thus arrived in Dublin in 1788 and began his designs for the great ceiling (a sketch of which is in the Royal Dublin Society); today it remains the most important painted ceiling to survive in Ireland from the 18th century. It was to occupy Waldré for many years and remained uncompleted at his death. Waldré’s wife, Mary, described that the completion of the project was ‘the object of his constant desire’. It was finally completed by an unknown hand in the early 19th century. It consists of three panels which were painted on canvas at ground level and then hoisted up into position. As Dr Myles Campbell, Researcher, Dublin Castle has described them: ‘The panel at the west end of the Hall represents Christianity being introduced into Ireland by St Patrick. The panel at the opposite, east end of the Hall marks the beginnings of Anglo-Norman rule in Ireland and illustrates the surrender of the Irish chieftains to King Henry II in 1171. The central panel features female figures representing Britannia, in violet, and Hibernia, in green. They are shown coming together around the reigning king from the 1780s, George III, who is seated on the throne.’ Interestingly, one obvious difference between Waldré’s initial design and the final version is that originally Britannia and Hibernia link hands behind the King; their hands are clearly separate in the finished painting, completed after the Act of Union in 1800.
The present work offers a distorted and unreliable view of these panels, suggesting the artist painted the scene from memory. However, other facts can be gleamed from observing the painting. It was clearly painted after Waldré’s decorating scheme yet more precisely, OPW Papers in the National Archives Ireland reveal the Hall as decorated again in 1826. This was mostly cosmetic but a clear change revealed is that the Hall’s window curtains, which were on the south wall (the left wall as you look at the present painting), were removed after 1826 and substituted for painted panels, clearly visible in the present work and thus placing it firmly after 1826. As Dr Campbell writes: ‘The next clearly identifiable phase of work came in 1857 when the Hall was remodelled by the Lord Lieutenant George Howard, 7th Earl of Carlisle. His scheme replaced the panels visible along the side walls of the Hall in the Davis view with oval mirrors running along the north side of the Hall and long curtains running along the south side. A print published in The Illustrated London News records this change (see fig. 1). The painting is thus certainly painted between 1826 and 1857. According to Dr Campbell, given the dress of the figures depicted, as well as the style and colour scheme of the interior, the painting likely shows the Hall between 1835 and 1850.
Aside from the Illustrated London News print (fig. 1) of St Patrick’s Hall and a painting by John Keyse Sherwin from 1783 (Sketch for The Installation Banquet of the Knights of Saint Patrick, National Gallery of Ireland Collection), the Davis work is the only other depiction of St Patrick’s Hall in the 18th and 19th centuries and thus a valuable historical record. Although lacking in academic prowess, it is perhaps the most engaging example by presenting such a social occasion and by possessing a naive charm which nevertheless has a clear sense of colour and design. That any further information to the identity of the painter continues to remain elusive - whether indeed it is a male or female artist - and why it was painted makes it all the more intriguing. It provides a fascinating and rare glimpse of Irish history, and all the more poignant when considering the timing of its possible context.
We are very grateful to Dr Myles Campbell, Collections, Research & Interpretation, Dublin Castle, for his kind assistance with the cataloguing of the present work.
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