Category Archives: History

Pictures at an Exhibition

Part One: 12 Henrietta Street

A couple of weeks ago I styled the poster for the Opera Theatre Company’s upcoming production of Don Giovanni. Starring David Kempster, Kip Carroll shot the photos, and the location was number 12 Henrietta Street.


The Heritage Council describes Henrietta Street as “one of the first and finest planned Georgian streets in Dublin” and it served as a blueprint for much of Georgian Dublin as we now know it.

Number 12 was built in 1730 on a street so grand that, by 1792, it housed one archbishop; two bishops; four peers and four MPs.

Photo: William Murphy

Photo: William Murphy

Following the enactment of the Act of Union in 1801, (ie: The dissolution of the Irish Parliament) many of the politically significant residents of Dublin would move to London to take their seats in the new Parliament of Great Britain and Ireland. The socially significant went with.

Whole streets of grand Georgian dwellings were left in the hands of agents. House prices plummeted and the slum landlords cashed in, at a time when famine-stricken families were arriving into the city in droves, looking for work and a place to live.

By the 1890s many houses on Henrietta Street had been bought by the Lord Mayor of Dublin, Alderman Joseph M. Meade.

Under his direction the houses were divided up into the maximum possible number of tenement rooms.

The 1901 census records 11 separate dwellings within number 12, occupied by 73 people, ranging in ages from 1 to 76. These were for the most part semi-skilled and skilled workers: Carpenters, Iron Roofers, French Polishers and Upholsterers, Bridle Stitchers, one ex-Lancashire Fusilier, one 70-year old Nurse.


The house still bears the scars of the many divisions and sub-divisions required to provide accommodation to so many people.

Much of the restoration has involved stripping back those modifications, and allowing the bones of the house to be seen again.

Photo: Leona Lee Cully

Photo: Leona Lee Cully

Ian Lumley, the owner, and Built Environment & Heritage Officer for An Taisce, Ireland’s National Trust, rents out the house to film crews and for photo shoots and that money then gets ploughed back in to restoration. As it stands – made safe but still some distance from its original beauty – it is a very lovely, very photogenic space.


Photo: Ian Lumley

Photo: Ian Lumley

Beauty only goes so far, though. Sanitation was non-existent. Those stunning high ceilings and huge windows make the place a bitch to heat, the house becomes damp, maybe you lose a few roof tiles in a storm and, without constant maintenance, a building like this starts to crumble.

In 1913 seven people were killed when two tenement houses on Church Street collapsed.

In 1963 two people were killed when a four-storey house collapsed on Bolton Street. Ten days later another two people died when two buildings on Fenian Street collapsed. The solution?

Headline from Irish Independent, July 1963

Headline from Irish Independent, July 1963

And now here we are in 2015. Plus ca change, plus ca la meme chose.



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Filed under Architecture, Dublin looking pretty, History

The Gate’s Ghosts

The Dublin Gate Theatre Studio was founded by Hilton Edwards and Mícheál Mac Liammoir in 1928 with a showing of Ibsen’s Peer Gynt at the Peacock Theatre and moved to its present home, part of the Georgian era Rotunda Hospital complex, opening with Goethe’s Faust in 1930.

A common thread (pun intended) in all the work I do is the disconnect between a final, polished product that the public sees, and the work that goes into creating that illusion and the places in which that work is done. ‘Behind the scenes’ can be a pretty ramshackle place.

The Gate is no exception: While the public areas are very elegant and the new extension is swoon inducingly lovely, other parts of the theatre are exhausted. But this is where the ghosts live and everyday treasures are created or unearthed.

I once found a small mirror in the back of a cupboard in a disused convent. It was rectangular, with a thin gold coloured frame and it still had a Woolworth’s price tag on the back. I can barely remember the film I was working on, but I remember wondering who had owned and hidden the mirror. Was she pretty? Did she miss that part of her life, a time when her vanity seemed natural, not a sin?

The Gate, like most theatres, has its ghosts. Apparently there’s one called The Grey Lady who is a benevolent presence, although I’d still rather not meet her.

Other ghosts take more tangible form in the corridor that leads from Wardrobe to a fire escape that overlooks one of the Rotunda Hospital car parks.

Many of these posters haven’t been archived. These are the originals and the only copies. To try to remove them would damage them, to leave them where they are is damaging them.  If you look closely you can see that they’ve been painted around or as below, have had electrical work superimposed.

There are plans to reproduce them however and hopefully that will happen sooner rather than later.

While the transience of live performance can seem terribly romantic the memory of these productions is worth preserving, however imperfectly.

Credits: Photo 1 from Scott Tallon Walker Architects

Photo 2 from

Photo 3 from Ian Grundy‘s Flickr Photostream. (Many thanks Ian)

All other photos by me.

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Filed under Dublin looking pretty, History, Illustration, Poster Art, Theatre

>The Subversive Stitch by Rozsika Parker

I only read recently of the death of Rozsika Parker, and having intended to review The Subversive Stitch for months am finally galvanized into doing so.In a glowing obituary in The Guardian Ruthie Petrie describes Parker as

“A feminist, art historian, psychotherapist and writer. In all her work is a stitching-together of the themes that occupied her: women’s struggle for recognition within the art establishment; a challenging of the division between fine art and the decorative arts; the tensions, sometimes productive, sometimes destructive, in women’s creative work.”

The Subversive Stitch was first published in 1984, and was revised and re-issued to coincide with the V&A’s Quilt exhibition (see below). This revision has incorporated a new introduction which covers, briefly, the work of Louise Bourgeois, Tracey Emin – of whom Parker clearly does not approve – and others.

It is, without doubt, a Feminist History and with all due respect to the Sisters, it is within this framework that I find it flawed.

Parker is brilliant on the particularly bonkers brand of misogyny peddled by the Church. For instance, during the Middle Ages St. Margaret was one of the most popular of all the saints and martyrs as the patron saint of childbirth. She was thrown into a dungeon for refusing to denounce Christianity and was swallowed by the devil in the form of a dragon. She escaped because her crucifix caused the dragon’s belly to explode. Having inspired 5,000 pagans to convert she was beheaded. Her last request to God was that pregnant women who prayed to her should be granted an easy birth and a healthy child.

St. Margaret gets medieval on a dragon's ass. It's a metaphor for childbirth. (Detail of a panel from a burse held in the V&A Museum, made in England 1320-40)

St. Margaret gets medieval on a dragon’s ass. It’s a metaphor for childbirth. (Detail of a panel from a burse held in the V&A Museum, made in England 1320-40)


 However, because God has cursed women to bring forth their children in pain (Genesis 3:16) the depiction of any intercession, whether by midwives or by patron saints was prohibited. An interesting anomaly developed where a sanitized version of St. Margaret’s story existed in writing, while embroiderers continued to decorate priests’ chasubles with the kick-ass Margaret they and other uneducated churchgoers knew.

By the mid-nineteenth century – during the Victorians’ Gothic revival – St. Margaret had been diluted into an unrecognisably meek version of herself.

St Margaret & the Dragon, having mellowed with age

St Margaret & the Dragon, having mellowed with age

Parker also describes the evolution of embroidery from Guild-protected professional work to work that was done at home, for love or out of duty rather than for money. This change occurred during the Renaissance when, as is the case now, it was a luxury to have a stay-at-home wife. And if she could produce luscious bedding, curtains, wall hangings et cetera, then so much the better:

“Embroidery combined the humility of needlework with rich stitchery. It connoted opulence and obedience. It ensured that women spent long hours at home, retired in private, yet it made a public statement about the household’s position and economic standing”

She explores the changing fashions in embroidery from representations of biblical or mythological scenes in the Middle Ages; to the Elizabethan riot of flora and fauna; through Seventeenth Century samplers which emphasised the technical skill of the seamstress rather than the breadth of their imagination, and on via the Industrial Revolution, when pastoral scenes were at their most popular and biblical scenes saw a revival.

There is a fascinating story to be told about and through embroidery. The problem I have with the book is that it is Feminism first, and history second. Parker has grouped her chapters thematically so just as you’re getting to grips with womens’ position in Guilds (sometimes in charge, sometimes not), she will introduce some example of paternalistic Victorian perfidy. Usually she refers back to her original point, but it can be at least a chapter before she does so. Often too in this later expanding on a stridently made original point the facts reveal a far more ambiguous truth.

This combined with a justifiable anger has affected her ability to marshal the facts.

More paternalistic Victorian perfidy! Typical!

More paternalistic Victorian perfidy! Typical!

A simple narrative history would allow her readers to come to their own conclusions – namely that history (or rather herstory) sucked – without feeling we were on the receiving end of a rant.

I feel guilty criticising The Subversive Stitch because Roszika Parker has passed on, and I was taught not to speak ill of the dead. Also her generation of feminists really made my lot look good  a difference in this world.

The Subversive Stitch is an important but ultimately difficult read. One perhaps for the academics and gender studies crowd rather than the practitioners (no offence).

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Filed under Embroidery, Feminism, History, Reading

The Ship Moored For A Long Time

Is it a little tasteless to blog ones honeymoon? Yes, I suppose it is. So here goes: Lopud is a very small island off the coast of Dubrovnik, Croatia. It has an area of roughly 5 sq km, with a population of just under 400. There are no cars on the island, and we were there at the very end of the season. The night we arrived there was a storm. In short, it was perfect.

Most of the hotels, restaurants and private houses are slung out along the bay that faces toward Dubrovnik, with the island rising to a wooded hill before sloping down again on the far side to Sunj Bay, a large sandy beach.

Just beyond the pier where the Dubrovnik ferry arrives is a 15th century Franciscan monastery – the church still in use – and there are tiny little churches no bigger than shrines really tucked in between the houses.

Apparently at one stage Lopud had between 22 and 36 churches. During the Fifteenth century it was the regional headquarters of the Republic of Dubrovnik with its own shipyard and a fleet of about 80 ships.

What I found most lovely and then most intriguing about Lopud though is a fragment of their more recent history. In the 1920’s and ‘30’s Lopud became very popular as an up market holiday destination. The Glavovic family (who still have a hotel on the island) commissioned Serbian architect Nikola Dobrovic to build a hotel.

 Old Postcard showing the bay at Lopud

Old Postcard showing the bay at Lopud


Vintage advertisement in Hotel Glavovic, translates as: "Speedboat 'Maro' available for individual and joint excursions"

Vintage advertisement in Hotel Glavovic, translates as: “Speedboat ‘Maro’ available for individual and joint excursions”


Nikola Dobrovic subsequently became one of former Yugoslavia’s most well known Modernist architects, going on to design the Army Headquarters in Belgrade (From where the levelling of Vukovar, siege of Sarajevo and random bombardment of Dubrovnik were ordered.)

*Click here for a fascinating article on the Army Headquarters and its destruction by NATO*

In the 1930’s Dobrovic had only one or two projects to his name so it is a testament to the Glavovic’s taste not only that they recognised his talent but that the end result, The Grand Hotel, is considered to be one of the best buildings of his career.

 Old postcard showing Grand Hotel, Lopud

Old postcard showing Grand Hotel, Lopud


Like a great deal of Croatian property the Grand Hotel has had quite a chequered history since it was first built and is derelict at the moment, but its beauty is still apparent. The hotel looks out onto the sea and was built to represent “The ship moored for a long time”.



It was made entirely of reinforced concrete, inside and out, but there is enormous warmth in this material or maybe it’s the curves that lend it its humanity. Either way, I find it Modernism at its most seductive.

And it wasn’t just a pretty face. In 1939 it was able to generate its own electricity, and the excess electricity produced was used to light up the whole town.

Also dating from this period, and in the same style, is his memorial to Czech poet Viktor Dyk who had died on the island in 1931. Construction of this monument was financed by a donation of Czechoslovakian government, and will hopefully soon be renovated by the Czech Embassy in Croatia.



During the Second World War Croatia sided with the Nazis, and under the authority of the Italians the Grand Hotel was used as an internment camp for Croatian Jews.

Through a combination of the goodwill of the people of Lopud and deliberate bureaucratic foot-dragging on the part of the Italians most of the Jewish refugees survived.

After the War the Communists, led by Tito, came to power and nationalised many of the hotels on Lopud including the Grand Hotel.



In 1990 a Property Restitution law was passed, to restore nationalised properties to their former owners. However, various shenanigans were to follow that ensured the Grand Hotel stood idle for a few more years.



In 1998 the Dubrovačka Bank, who held the Lopud hotels as part of their portfolio, was involved in a financial scandal that threatened the entire Croatian banking system, implicating senior politicians, police and Miroslav Kutle, a businessman and media tycoon previously convicted for embezzlement.

In 2001 the hotels were forced into bankruptcy, a move designed to benefit Baroness Francesca Von Habsburg. Von Habsburg has previous on Lopud: In 1997 she secured a concession over the Franciscan monastery. The contract obliged her to restore the church, cloister and citadel but to date she has not invested a single penny.

Finally in 2005 Atlanska Plovidba, a shipping line and travel agency, purchased Grand Hotel, and according to their website “Renovation shall commence in the very near future”. At present workers from Bosnia are staying, well, squatting in the Grand Hotel while building another hotel further up the bay. You can see their clothes hanging in the windows and balconies, and in the mornings we’d hear them from our hotel room as they went to work, then we’d turn over for another snooze.  For the rest of the day the place is as silent as the tomb.



Thanks to Vlasta and Ljubo Glavovic for their fantastic food and conversation, and click here to see La Villa, the hotel we stayed in.


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Filed under Architecture, Croatia, History, Modernism, Nikola Dobrovic

>Quilts Exhibition at the V&A


Rajah Quilt, Made by convicts on board HMS Rajah, 1841, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

Rajah Quilt, Made by convicts on board HMS Rajah, 1841, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra


While trapped in London during April’s volcanic ash “Travel Chaos”, I went to see the V&A’s fantastic Quilts exhibition. The place was jammed with ladies of a certain age, all giving the impression they were rocking twin-set and pearls even if they weren’t doing so literally. I wonder did the V&A make a deal with Britain’s Womens’ Institutes?

What struck me about the quilts on show was how valuable they ought to be as pieces of socio-economic history, and what a shame it is womens’ crafts have been assigned only an emotional value. For one thing, you can tell an enormous amount about the wealth of the maker. Quilts are generally made with scraps of fabric that the household would have left over from the making of clothing and other soft furnishings. Thus if a quilt is made of scraps of silk you can assume that the household it came from was fairly wealthy.

The stories attached to each quilt reflect family connections, social aspirations and political affiliations as well as more typical rites of passage such as marriages, births and deaths.

It is the intertwining of the personal and the political that makes the exhibition so intriguing. Take the quilt below, which shows King George III reviewing the troops, dated 1803-1805. Not only is it a fabulous piece of propaganda, it is also a record of its maker’s thwarted ambitions.


George III reviewing the troops (detail), Unknown maker, 1803-1805. Museum no. T.9-1962.

George III reviewing the troops (detail), Unknown maker, 1803-1805. Museum no. T.9-1962.


From V&A curator Sue Prichard’s blog:

“Perhaps more intriguing … is the image of a feisty young woman who has stitched her portrait into several of the most pertinent scenes. Who is this woman – so bold, so brave, and so insolent as to stitch herself into history? Why didn’t she simply sign and date the piece like so many before and indeed afterwards? This is not a typical stitcher, content to sit by the fireside gossiping with her companions. This woman, a red haired beauty, has aspirations; her passions aflame with a desire to experience the wider world, a man’s world…”


"I was there! I was there, look!"

“I was there! I was there, look!”


So, inspired by the exhibition, I’ve started work on a patchwork quilt. It is decidedly apolitical and a little unambitious in comparison to the fantastic work in the V&A. It consists of scraps of old shirt cotton, Irish Linen and silk in an Art Deco-ish style. I will not be signing it; I will not be embroidering a self-portrait; I am content for it to exist as a warm and sentimental thing.


Oh, and many many thanks to Catherine and Gonzo O’Neill for the booze ‘n’ bed for the night, and to Aengus and Linda McMahon for same. X


Duvet Days Reading:

“The Woman Who Shot Mussolini” by Frances Stonor Saunders.

Saunders’ writing is initially a little flowery, but this is a cracking story about the Honourable Violet Gibson, daughter of Lord Ashbourne, Lord Chancellor of Ireland, who attempted to assassinate Benito Mussolini in 1926 and was condemned without trial to a lunatic asylum where she died in 1956.

Click here to buy

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Filed under Embroidery, History, Quilts, V and A Museum