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Building of the Month - December 2012

Presentation Convent, Slievekeale Road, LISDUGGAN BIG Td., Waterford, County Waterford

Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin (1812-52), the English-born architect and designer, is widely regarded as the master of the Gothic Revival, an architectural movement born in the 1740s which sought to revive medieval Gothic architecture as a challenger to the neo-Classical style prevalent at the time.  A convert to Roman Catholicism in 1835, Pugin saw his architecture as an expression of faith, and was a strong proponent of the correct revival of ancient architecture with a profound love of medieval Gothic in its purest form.  Famed for his work on the interior of the Palace of Westminster, Pugin's output was primarily ecclesiastical and included churches throughout England and as far-reaching as Australia.

Also a critic and theorist, Pugin published his first treatise, Contrasts, in 1836, an argument for the revival of the medieval Gothic style.  Later publications included The True Principles of Pointed or Christian Architecture (1841) and An Apology for the Revival of Christian Architecture in England (1843).

Pugin arrived in Ireland at the invitation of John Hyacinth Talbot MP (1794-1868) of Ballytrent House, County Wexford, who was related through marriage to Pugin's most important English client, John Talbot (1791-1852), sixteenth Earl of Shrewsbury.  Emancipation in 1829 allowed for an unparalleled spate of Catholic church building in Ireland and Pugin received commissions for a number of churches and convents, primarily in the south-east of the country, together with the great cathedrals at Enniscorthy and Killarney and, most significantly, the seminary at Maynooth.

Presentation Convent, Waterford 01 - Representative View 

Figure 1: A view of the Presentation Convent, Waterford, following its restoration in 2009 in preparation for its new guise as Waterford Health Park.  A lesser-known but important Irish work by Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin (1812-52), the convent shows numerous features issuing directly from the Pugin lexicon including slender lancet windows, stepped buttresses, wall mounted chimneys with uncapped chimney stacks, the huge smoke stack rising from the vast kitchen fireplace, and a neo-medieval turret.  Constructed of unrefined shale with limestone dressings, the masonry was left exposed as Pugin argued: We should never make a building erected to God appear better than it really is by artificial means.  These are showy worldly expedients, adapted only for those who live by splendid deception, such as theatricals, mountebanks, quacks, and the likes.

The Presentation Convent in Waterford may rank as one of Pugin's lesser known Irish works but it is an important one nonetheless (fig. 1).  It bears close comparison to his Convent of Mercy (1841-50) in Handsworth, Birmingham, which predates it by only a few years, and to his ideal monastery plans as exemplified by the later Presentation Monastery (1846-62) in Killarney, County Kerry.

In February 1841, three Waterford citizens – Robert Curtis, John Kearney and Thomas Meagher – took a lease of five and a half acres on behalf of the Presentation Order in the townland of Lisduggan Big.  The owner of the land, Sir Thomas Wyse MP (1791-1862), scion of a prominent Catholic family and whose nearby Manor of Saint John Pugin refaced in 1842, gave the lease for the specific purpose of the building of a convent.

Having accepted the commission for the convent, Pugin submitted the designs for approval in 1841 and was present when the foundation stone was laid on the 10th of June, 1842.  The principal contractor, Richard Pierce (1801-54) of Wexford, had, as clerk-of-works, overseen the construction of all of the Pugin projects in Ireland to that point.

The outbreak of Famine in 1845, however, slowed progress on site as any funds available to the Presentation sisters were diverted to the poor.  In search of premises to open an auxiliary workhouse in Waterford the Poor Law Commissioners approached the nuns in 1847 to lease their existing convent in Hennessy's Road.  This seems to have been the spur for the nuns to move into their new convent, of which they officially took possession on the 3rd of May, 1848.  While the building seems to have been complete at that date, the works to the chapel interior would have to wait for another fifteen years before it was deemed fit for consecration.  Apart from the refurbishment of one wing in 1964, Pugin's original scheme has survived largely intact (figs. 2-3).

Presentation Convent, Waterford 02 - Ground Floor Plan Presentation Convent, Waterford 03 - First Floor Plan

Figures 2-3: Reconstructed floor plans show the arrangement of the convent at the time of its sale by the Presentation Order in 2006.  Apart from the refurbishment of one wing in 1964, Pugin's original scheme survived largely intact.

On examination of reconstructed floor plans many of Pugin's standard architectural features emerge.  A complete quadrangle enclosing an internal cloister, the west and south ranges recall Mount Saint Bernard's Abbey (1839-44) in Leicestershire, a view of which was published in Pugin's Present State of Ecclesiastical Architecture in England (1843).  The distinct function of each range is clear: the entrance and "public" rooms form the west range; the chapel dominates the north; the south range includes the kitchen and refectory and, overhead, the "cells" accessed via a turret.

Noteworthy external features include the masterfully-composed western façade, not-quite symmetrical in arrangement, and the neo-medieval turret with its conical roof embellishing the south-eastern corner.  The convent is constructed of undressed variegated shale with cut-limestone detailing, both of which are from local deposits, and this style of masonry was subsequently copied throughout Waterford in institutional and public buildings.

Presentation Convent, Waterford 04 - Cloister Presentation Convent, Waterford 05 - Cloister

Figures 4-5: A complete quadrangle, the Presentation Convent is organised about a central cloister which, in turn, encloses an internal garden.  The garden, isolated from the outside world, was intended as a place of contemplation and retreat, an earthly haven and a foretaste of the peace of paradise.  While the west front of the convent impresses, Pugin demonstrates his full command of picturesque design principles in this central space, which, while surrounded by buildings, allows the impression of calm and solitude and an unearthly sense of remoteness.

Internally the cloister surrounds a miniature convent garden, the Paradisus Claustralis [Garden of Paradise] of the monastic tradition (figs. 4-5).  This is a place of great peace and architectural force, where Pugin's compositional skill in massing and volume can perhaps be best appreciated.

Presentation Convent, Waterford 06 - Boardroom 

Figure 6: In The True Principles of Pointed or Christian Architecture, published in 1841, Pugin argued that builders attempting to recreate the style of medieval workmanship should also replicate its methods.  At the Presentation Convent the internal floors are carried on stone corbels in the medieval tradition and the ceiling rafters left exposed.

The ceilings of the ground floor rooms are expressed in the medieval construction style consisting of stone corbels bearing large-span beams with a secondary structure of exposed joists (fig. 6).  There is very little superfluous ornamentation present, as befits an austere convent building, although a collection of beautiful chimneypieces in stone and plaster survives, each showing Marian motifs (figs. 7-9).

Presentation Convent, Waterford 07 - Refectory Chimneypiece Presentation Convent, Waterford 08 - Boardroom Chimneypiece Presentation Convent, Waterford 09 - Sitting Room Chimneypiece

Figures 7-9: Pugin also argued strongly against the practise of unnecessary ornamentation and the interior of the convent is austerely detailed.  Nevertheless, a collection of beautifully executed chimneypieces survives, each one reminding the occupant of the purpose of the convent as a place of worship: in the refectory room the chimneypiece is dedicated to the Holy family with the monograms of Our Lady and Saint Joseph centred on the "IHS" Christogram of Jesus Christ; the boardroom is dedicated solely to the Virgin Mary and includes as its centrepiece a miniature shrine framing The Mother and Child; the sitting room chimneypiece repeats the ever-present "MR" [Maria Regina] monogram centred on the Christogram.

Contemplative liturgical inscriptions are found throughout the convent and we know from his other works that Pugin himself often personally selected these.  They include the text to Salve Regina [Hail Holy Queen] along a fascia panel on three sides of the cloister and a rather stern extract from Psalm 84 over the kitchen fireplace, directed at the non Latin-speaking servants and stating: I have chosen to be an abject in the house of my God rather than to dwell in the tabernacles of sinners.

Sold in 2006, the convent has since 2009 been open to the public under its new guise as Waterford Health Park and a highlight of any visit is the chapel (figs. 10-11).  In contrast to the light and airy new reception area, the chapel is a dark, the walls and ceiling lined with varnished pine sheeting.  It is unlikely that Pugin would have endorsed this approach, his preference being for smooth plastered walls, brightly painted with "diaper work" or stencilling: Pugin had died long before the chapel was completed, however, and its interior has been attributed to his son Edward Welby Pugin (1834-75).  The sombre mood of the chapel, the internal equivalent of the cloister, is very beautiful and peaceful, and when light shines directly in through the stained glass windows the space is filled with colour.

Presentation Convent, Waterford 10 - Chapel Presentation Convent, Waterford 11 - Chapel

Figures 10-11: In 1861 a citywide appeal was organised by Dr. James Vincent Cleary (1828-98) to raise funds for the long-delayed completion of the chapel.  Settling on a church door collection a total of £317 3s 4d was raised, work progressed, and the consecration ceremony was carried out in September 1863 on the Feast of the Finding of the Holy Cross.  The chapel was further embellished in 1866 with the installation of vibrant stained glass windows.  The interior of the chapel has been attributed to Pugin's son Edward Welby Pugin (1834-75) and bears comparison to his contemporary chapel at Edermine House in neighbouring County Wexford.  The chapel survives remarkably intact and retains its rood screen, a late medieval feature reintroduced to Ireland by the elder Pugin.  Click here to view a photograph of the chapel from The Poole Collection (1906)

A remarkable survival is the rood screen, a late medieval feature reintroduced to Ireland by Pugin: all other examples have been removed from Pugin's Irish buildings.  Also on show are the encaustic floor tiles by Minton and Company (founded 1793) of Stoke-upon-Trent, a firm Pugin generally used to produce his tile designs: each tile bears an "MR [Maria Regina]" monogram in honour of Mary, to whom the chapel is dedicated.

Fintan Duffy has a post graduate qualification in conservation and has worked on a number of important protected structures in recent years.  He is a director of dhbArchitects, a design-driven architectural practice based in Waterford city that has received international recognition for its work in relation to protected structures.  Click here to visit the dhbArchitects website

Figures 1, 4-6, 10-11 photographed by Philip Lauterbach.  All photographs reproduced with the kind permission of dhbArchitects

FURTHER READING

Atterbury, Paul (ed.), A.W.N. Pugin: Master of the Gothic Revival (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1995)

Hill, Rosemary, God's Architect: Pugin and the Building of Romantic Britain (London: Allen Lane, 2007)

RELATED WEBSITES

Pugin Foundation: Click here to visit the Pugin Foundation website which catalogues a selection of Pugin's Irish buildings including the Presentation Convent, WaterfordThe NIAH is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites

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