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18th century Cork

John Butts View of Cork c. 1755 (Detail showning Custom House Key, now the Crawford Art Gallery).

John Butts View of Cork
c. 1755 (Detail showing Custom House Quay, now the Crawford Art Gallery). Presented by the McCarthy Family 2005
The architectural character of Cork changed considerably during the course of the nineteenth century, and so few buildings from the eighteenth century survive in anything like their original condition. The considerable wealth generated through the export of agricultural produce resulted in the construction of a number of great houses in the Cork area and the almost complete transformation of the city centre. The attractive Dutch character of Cork's narrow streets and quays effectively disappeared and was replaced by the more severe and self-consciously character of new banks, post offices and a new Neo-classical custom house, constructed in 1814.

Visual representations of the Old Custom House are rare. In the latter half of the eithteenth century, John Butts, a talented local genre and landscape artist, painted a large panoramic view of Cork city, as seen from an elevated position to the north of the river. The cityscape depicted in the painting is actually an amalgamation of two separtated viewpoints and it is a measure of Grogan's talent as a landscape painter that he had managed to weld them together in a convincing way. The 1724 Custom House appears almost in the centre of the painting, surrounded by sailing vessels, as described by Charles Smith in his account of 1730, (quoted in 'The Architect of the Old Custom House' ). One of the two 'handsome piazzas' described by Smith can be seen in front of the Custom House, the attractive facade of Richard Sainthill's Queen Anne house can be discerned above the masts of the ships. This house, and the Custom House, are the only two quayside buildings depicted in the painting which survive to the present day.

Grogan's painting conveys well the distinctvie Dutch character of the city at that time. Red-brick houses line the quays, their ornate gable fronts facing the river. The painting shows the old custom house facing onto the large enclosed quay, or piazza, where tradition has it, contraband tobacco was burned by customs officers. That piazza became in the nineteenth century the site of a concert hall called the Athenaeum, built in the mid-nineteeth century. The Athenaeum was an elegant colonnaded building of considerable charm. The later became known as the Theatre Royal or 'the Opera House'.

The wide channel beside the Custom House, refered to by Smith as a 'canal', was known then as King's Quay. As Croker described, it was arched over during the nineteenth century and renamed Nelson Place. It is now known as Emmet Place. The Journal of the Cork Historical and Archaelogical Society in 1892 contains a note by R. Day which mentions the filling-in of the quay. The note itself probably dates from an earlier part of the nineteenth century, as it refers to the Royal Cork Institution, which occupied the Custom House from 1832 to 1850:

'The present Library of the Royal Cork Institution was the long room of the Old Custom House, and the foundation stones of the wall separating the yard from Nelson Place was a dock, prior to the building of Patrick's Bridge'
Eighteenth-century maps of Cork show a bowling green just to the south of the Custom House. Bowling was a popular sport at the time (it is interesting to note that in 1723 the bowling green beside the custom house of New York city became that city's first pubic park). The names of laneways around thre present-day Crawford Gallery evoke the period: Bowling Green Alley, Drawbridge Street, Half-moon Street and French Church Street - named after French Huguenots who settled in Cork following the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685.

Lavitt' Quay, opposite the Custom House, was named after Joseph Lavitt (or Lavitte), a Huguenot merchant who came to Cork in 1690 and made a fortune refining sugar and supplying spirits to the Williamite army in Ireland. Richard Sainthill recalled how Lavitt was so unashamed of this source of wealth that he had a small gilded key suspended by silver chains from the richly stuccoed ceiling of his dining room. However, Lavit's business concerns were not restricted to sugar and whiskey; he started Cork's first paper mill at Glanmire and was responsible for the reclamation and development of the quay which bears his name - the presently-named Lavitt's Quay is a little further upstream. Downstream was Seven Ovens Quay, named after its Dutch owner Theodore Vansenhoven. Amsterdam's Meer Dyke reappeared in Cork as the Mardyke riverside walk, yet another reflection of the strong Dutch influence in Cork at that time, and it is not surprising that the closest parallels for Grogan's own style of painting are also to be found in Holland. These influences on Cork's art and architecture stemmed from the close mercantile contacts which existed between Amsterdam and Cork in the eighteenth century.

As the size of cargo ships increased, and new quays were constructed to accommodate them further down the river, the position of the Old Custom House became unsuitable. When a new Custom House was built after 1810, the old building fell into disuse for a considerable period. Several Cork philanthropic and educational bodies, such as the Royal Cork Institution and the Cork Mechanics Institute, applied to the government for the use of the building, but it was not until 1832 that the RCI was finally able to move its considerable library, scientific instruments and collection of sculpture casts into the old builiding. For the following two decades, the Old Custom House became the centre of art and science education in the city. However, withthe founding of Queens College Cork in 1849, the RCI's useful life was effectively brought to an end, and the Old Custom House that same year was re-opened as a Government School of Design, one of a large number of such schools which were established throughout England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales at this tiime. In 1884, a large extension was added to the School of Design, which was then renamed the Crawford School of Art. This extension, and the original Custom House, now form the Crawford Art Gallery.


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