Then and Now: The Chapel Royal at Dublin Castle

This post was suggested by my finding the British Library’s beautiful engraving of the Chapel Royal at Dublin Castle, on Flickr Commons. This picture dates to 1816, and shows the newly rebuilt Gothic chapel, designed by Francis Johnston, which replaced a 17th-century chapel that had been located on the same site, but which had become unsafe.

A coloured engraving depicting a large, Gothic-style chapel, with a tall rose window in its front wall. Its door is slightly open. The chapel is set in a wide street, with a long row of other buildings leading away to its right; on its left is an outer wall with a gate. A number of people can be seen in the street, dressed in early 19th-century styles. Some stand in small groups talking, while some are driving by in carriages. Four men in military uniform, on horseback, can be seen talking in the street at the front of the chapel. A row of soldiers can be seen drilling in the street to the right.
The title at the base of the picture reads “Castle of Dublin. Dedicated by permission, to his Excellence the Right Honble Charles Earl Whitworth, G. C. B, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland and Grand Master of the Order of Saint Patrick. In the centre is seen the New Castle Chapel, on the Right; the Treasury; to the Left, the Entrance to the Ordnance Office, and Avenue Leading to Ship Street. (Source.)

The Dublin Castle website has some images of the chapel’s beautiful interiors, here, as well as lots more information on the castle itself, which was originally built in the 13th century.

The modern-day castle chapel can be seen on Google Street view, here:

The modern chapel is also visible in this walking tour of Dublin Castle (taken in summer of 2019):

An intriguing aspect of the British Library’s image of the chapel emerges when you look at it side by side with the modern-day views. The 1816 image is an engraving based on a painting (now seemingly lost?) by the Irish artist Thomas Sautelle Roberts. It may not be possible to see the chapel from the painter’s original vantage point, as modern buildings are in the way, but judging by the size of the human figures in the foreground, the scale of the building has been slightly exaggerated.

The heads of the people in the engraving only come up to the base of the two front windows, which in real life appear to be low enough for a human to look through.

Why might the artist have represented the chapel as being so much bigger than it actually was?

It’s possible that Roberts, the painter, simply misjudged the scale of the building when he created the finished picture, probably working from sketches taken on site. However, it seems more likely that the picture has a subtle political message to portray.

A 2017 article by Judith Hill notes that Roberts had previously been employed by Lord Hardwicke, the first Viceroy of the Union, to create propaganda images – “a series of watercolours depicting the building of a new military road through County Wexford, the heart of the 1798 rebellion… Evidently the two were alive to the potential power of both art and architecture” (188). In her article, Hill describes the history of the chapel and the circumstances under which it was built, and argues that “Ireland’s political position within the Union was ambiguous [and] the rebuilt chapel projected both unionist and imperialist gestures, and that, culturally, it was an expression of Britishness”.

If the chapel itself was meant as a physical manifestation of British authority – both political and cultural – then the depiction of the building as being so much larger than it really was, in a piece dedicated to the Lord Lieutenant, conveys an intriguing political message! It seems surprising that the difference in scale went unnoticed, given that this is a very attractive and popular image – but to the best of my knowledge, nobody has ever commented on it!

Below is a brief 19th-century description of the chapel and its surroundings, from the 1898 book Picturesque Dublin, Old and New, by Frances A. Gerard (actually the pseudonym of Geraldine Fitzgerald).

Works Cited

Gerard, Frances. A. (Geraldine Fitzgerald). Picturesque Dublin, Old and New … With Ninety-One Illustrations by Rose Barton, Etc. Hutchinson & Co, 1898.

Hill, Judith. ‘Architecture in the Aftermath of Union: Building the Viceregal Chapel in Dublin Castle, 1801–15’. Architectural History, vol. 60, Cambridge University Press, ed 2017, pp. 183–217. Cambridge University Press, doi:10.1017/arh.2017.6.

R Havell & Son, printmaker. CASTLE OF DUBLIN.: Dedicated by Permission to His Excy the Right Honble CHARLES EARL WHITWORTH, G.C.B.Lord Lieut of Ireland and Grand Master of the Order of St Patrick. / T.S. Roberts Delt ; Engraved by R. Havell & Son. Published 1816 by James Del Vechio, Westmorland Street, Dublin, 1816, 1816.


4 Comments Add yours

  1. Chris says:

    Love the side by side compariison.


    1. Karen Wade says:

      Thanks Chris! I got some expert design advice on that one! 😉


  2. Calmgrove says:

    I take exaggerated proportions as a historical given before photography became common in the mid 19th century. Some discrepancy may be down to people being of smaller stature in earlier centuries, but most is due to artists attempting to ‘big up’ what they depicted. That was done in two main ways: either by making human figures diminutive (as here) or by proportionately increasing scale, frequently vertical scale.

    Such artistic exaggeration became common from the 17th century onwards, especially in mythological landscape paintings, and then later in the late 1700s on into the 1800s because of the Romantic movement expressing itself in a love of nature.

    That’s not of course to deny the probable political impulse involved in this painting, as you point out!


    1. Karen Wade says:

      That’s really interesting – I hadn’t realized that the scale was a known convention! My art history knowledge leaves a lot to be desired! 😁
      I must seek out a few more examples of Irish government buildings around this time, and see if the extreme proportions here are part of a trend – from what you say, it seems likely.

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s