This article is taken from the May 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.
The growth of Belfast during the nineteenth century was phenomenal: in 1801 the town contained around 20,000 inhabitants, but by 1901 (by which time it had achieved city status) it was nearing 350,000.
The Georgian town benefited greatly from the trade in linen rather than its manufacture (which came later), and the influence of those interested in learning and literature was much stronger than would be the case in the following century. The newspaper the Belfast News Letter, was established in 1737 (almost half a century before the The Times in London).
“The Liverpool and Manchester of this portion of the United Kingdom”
In 1788, the Belfast Society for Promoting Knowledge founded a library, which morphed into the Linen Hall Library, still in existence today. After the Union of Ireland with Great Britain following the Act of 1800, and the end of the French Wars, Belfast’s port was improved, and shipbuilding began to assume a position of great importance.
Foundries, banks, educational establishments, a museum, a chamber of commerce, and much else were set up. Soon, the town was to be called Linenopolis on account of its great number of linen mills and warehouses. By the 1880s it was the chief manufacturing and trading centre for linen in the world.
Impressive buildings need not only money and building skills, but architects to design them, and several gifted men rose to the occasion with considerable success.
One of the first was English-born Charles Lanyon (1813-89), who designed the Crumlin Road Gaol (1841-4 — influenced by Pentonville in London) and the noble Italianate Courthouse (1848-50 — now derelict) opposite. His Palm House, Botanic Gardens, Belfast (1839-40 and 1852), is an early and elegant example of curvilinear iron and glass construction, built with Richard Turner (c.1798-1881) of Dublin, predating Turner’s London collaborations with Decimus Burton (1800-81) at Regent’s Park and Kew Gardens.
Lanyon was also responsible for the Tudor Gothic Queen’s College (1846-9 — now the Lanyon Building of The Queen’s University of Belfast). In 1854 Lanyon took his pupil, William Henry Lynn (1829-1915), into partnership: the firm was responsible for such splendid buildings as the very grand Italian palazzo that is the Custom House (1854-7), and Lynn was the architect of several distinguished works of architecture both as a partner in the firm and later on his own account.
But there was another, whose work is now celebrated in W.J. Barre 1830-1867: A Vigorous Mind by Paul Harron, published by the excellent Ulster Architectural Heritage as part of the series Architects of Ulster. W.J. Barre was one of the most prolific of Ulster architects, having been responsible for several splendid buildings. These include The Ulster Hall, for which he won a competition in 1859, at a time when Belfast was being described as “the commercial metropolis of Ireland … appropriately as at once the Liverpool and Manchester of this portion of the United Kingdom”. The Hall was opened in 1862, and remains Belfast’s principal musical venue (its fine acoustic makes it admirable for concerts by the acclaimed Ulster Orchestra).
Among other important works by Barre in Belfast are the former Methodist Church, University Road (1863-5), a polychrome Lombardic-Romanesque brick job with an Italianate campanile featuring spectacular machicolations; the Albert Memorial Clock (1865-9), a Gothic design embellished with a statue of the Prince (d.1861) by Samuel Ferris Lynn (1834-76), brother of W.H. Lynn; and the robustly detailed polychrome Italian palazzo of the former linen warehouse (now Bryson House), Bedford Street (1865) .
His grandest mansion was Clanwilliam (now Danesfort) House, erected for the magnate, Samuel Barbour (1830-78), whose linen-thread manufactory was the largest in the world. Danesfort is now the US Consulate, and there is no doubt it is a real showstopper, with vigorously-carved details, pierced parapets, and no bashfulness in its eclectic invention.
What a shame Barre’s Frenchified Roxborough Castle (from 1865), outside Moy, County Tyrone, designed for James Molyneux Caulfeild (1820-92), 3rd Earl of Charlemont from 1863, was destroyed in 1922.
Barre was responsible for several churches, fine houses, commercial buildings, and other building types, but he also designed some memorials, including the very peculiar concoction (1861-2) to Captain Francis Rawdon Moira Crozier, who perished in Sir John Franklin’s ill-fated Arctic expedition to find the Northwest Passage.
Crozier was a native of Banbridge, County Down, where his memorial stands today, a Gothic confection topped with a statue of the intrepid officer. Also featured are carvings showing the Erebus and Terror stuck in the ice, scallop-shells, anchors, an Arctic otter with a salmon in its mouth, and a convolvulus to emphasise Crozer’s scientific interests.
Four flying buttresses support the central octagonal structure carrying the statue: on those buttresses are what are supposed to be polar bears, but the sculptor, Dublin-based Joseph Robinson Kirk (1821-94), seems to have had an imperfect understanding of what such creatures actually looked like, for they resemble the improbable offspring of shaggy overgrown ferrets crossed with unattractive dogs, and furthermore they ludicrously present their rear ends to Captain Crozier high above them.
Barre was a versatile designer, who worked in several styles. His Classical work is convincing, as in the handsome Methodist Church in Darling Street, Enniskillen, County Fermanagh (1863-5), with its noble Roman Corinthian pedimented front and galleried interior a smaller version of the Ulster Hall in Belfast.
But if his grander, more showy buildings were often highly competent works of architecture, so were his exquisite miniatures, of which the most perfect is the former gatelodge to Belmont Presbyterian Church, Belfast, with its beautiful polychrome brickwork (red, yellow, and blue-black) and central chimney.
Paul Harron has done the short-lived Barre justice in this well-researched volume, with many fine photographs taken specially for it by David Bunting, and the book is remarkably good value for money, given its quality. It celebrates an architect who made a massive contribution to the built fabric of Victorian Ulster.
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