A Visual Window to an Ecclesiastical World – Exhibition of Church of Ireland Architectural Drawings

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An exhibition of the Church of Ireland’s historical architectural drawings – entitled A Visual Window to an Ecclesiastical World – will be launched by the Archbishop of Armagh, the Most Revd Dr Richard Clarke, next Tuesday evening (7th May) at the Architecture Gallery, in the Irish Architectural Archive, 45 Merrion Square, Dublin.  Admission is free and the exhibition will be open to the public Tuesday to Friday (10am-5pm) until Friday, 30th August.  The exhibition is curated by Dr Michael O’Neill FSA and draws on his extensive research into the Church’s architectural history, which has included the digitization of over 8,000 drawings to safeguard them for future generations.

The Church of Ireland’s churches, cathedrals and glebe houses have made an indelible impression on the Irish landscape. Spires, towers and pinnacles punctuate the skyline while in subtler ways the residential aesthetic of the glebe houses provide visual indicators of the former pre-eminence of the Church of Ireland – the Established or state Church until 1871.

Whilst many of the churches no longer function as places of worship, and the surviving glebe houses have either passed to private ownership, or have simply disappeared, an extensive collection of almost 9,000 original drawings (plans, elevations, sections and details) continues to document this ecclesiastical world, providing an important resource for understanding the architectural, liturgical, social and cultural development of the Church of Ireland through the centuries. The collection also covers many churches and indeed rectories which are still in use and occupied by the Church.

Created for the most part under the auspices of the Ecclesiastical Commissioners (1833 onwards), which had succeeded the Board of First Fruits (founded in 1711), the materials were initially accumulated in the diocesan registries to which they related, while others passed directly into the custody of the Representative Church Body (RCB), the charitable trust created after Disestablishment in the 1870s. Over the decades, these have been carefully accessioned and arranged in the RCB Library, founded in 1931, which is the Church of Ireland’s record repository.

There are 860 drawings of the cathedrals of Christ Church and St Patrick’s in Dublin as well as the diocesan cathedral of St Canice’s in Kilkenny, while a further 300 drawings are of glebe houses, but the majority (some 7,600 drawings) show varying aspects of the parish churches throughout the island. Some are the work of distinguished architects such as John Semple, James Pain, Joseph Welland, William Farrell, William Atkins, Lanyon, Lynn & Lanyon, J. Rawson Carroll, and W.J. Barre and are beautiful artworks in their own right, as well as in utility.

However, being outsize and clearly working drawings, many of which were in fact drawn on tracing paper, they are also fragile and cumbersome to handle. To reduce the wear and tear, but also to showcase them to a wider audience, the drawings have been systematically digitized and catalogued in the Library, and are now freely available to view online at https://archdrawing.ireland.anglican.org

A Visual Window to an Ecclesiastical World is arranged chronologically and thematically, aiming to guide the viewer through a representative selection of the overall collection and literally open a window to the past, telling the story of who designed these buildings – why and when they were built (or rebuilt). Dr Michael O’Neill FSA has digitized and catalogued the entire collection.  This is one of the Church of Ireland’s events commemorating the 150th anniversary of Disestablishment, and represents a most positive collaboration between the RCB Library and the Irish Architectural Archive which will house the exhibition between May and August, with a series of lectures planned for Heritage Week later in the year.

Dr Michael Webb says: ‘As Chairman of the Irish Architectural Archive and as Chairman of the RCB Library and Archives Committee it is a particular pleasure to bring both organizations together for this exhibition.  The Architectural Archive has the national collection of architectural drawings and is custodian of over 500,000 drawings of buildings from all over Ireland.  The RCB Library has a unique collection of almost 9,000 drawings of churches, and rectories.  It is wonderful to be able to display a selection of these drawings in the gallery which was specially designed for architectural drawings.’

Dr Susan Hood, Librarian and Archivist at the RCB Library, says: ‘This exhibition showcases in public for the first time some of the original drawings making up the collection at the RCB Library. It also marks the culmination of over eight years of hard work by Dr Michael O’Neill to catalogue and digitize the entire collection making it available for a worldwide audience through the Church of Ireland website. This painstaking and dedicated work (generously supported with church and other funding) demonstrates the Library’s capacity to digitize and share its unique holdings – literally opening a window to the past!’