IRISH LINEN: ARCHITECTURAL DETAILS AROUND BELFAST
As my father is an architectural historian, I was always encouraged as a child to look up and take an interest in the buildings around me, and it's still something I do whatever city I am exploring. Here are some beautiful sculptural references to the linen industry that decorate the city of Belfast, some more hidden than others.
MURAL INSIDE BELFAST CITY HALL
By Belfast born artist John Luke, who in his early days coincidently worked at the York Street Flax Spinning Company. He was commissioned in 1951 to paint this architectural panel representing the history of the city to mark the ‘Festival of Britain’ by the Council for Encouragement of Music and Arts (today’s Arts Council). It depicts a busy and bustling port filled with tradesmen and workers with important reference to both the shipyards and the linen industry. When linen production was still a cottage industry the whole family was involved and everyone had their own role, as the picture shows there's the man on the loom, the woman spinning and the children helping out where they can (although here shown playing on the bleaching green). The colours are bright, the mood optimistic and the landscape Luke's typical flowing rhythmical lines, he shows Belfast with energy and for this I adore him. His technique is precise and his style whimsical and romantic. Like a wonderful palette of sweets it’s a treat for the eyes. Having been to many special events and balls in the City Hall I always remember give it a glance.
THE LINEN HALL LIBRARY
Exactly the place where you’ll find my father’s book ‘BELFAST - An Illustrated Architectural Guide’ which highlights most of the details I am drawing attention to here. It’s the most comprehensive historical coverage of our city’s architecture to date and is of value to local readers and visitors alike (not to mention a handbook for every architecture student). The library was once in the White Linen Hall, which is now our City Hall, and moved into this 1864 warehouse which was previously used to store linen and where it still is today. Designed by our city's prized architect Sir Charles Lanyon, note the elegant drapes of fabric framing the entrance, beautifully carved, simple yet symbolic. It has a theatrical drama to it, like curtains being drawn back to reveal an important passage.
CITY HALL PEDIMENT
This dramatic pediment over the main entrance of our City Hall depicts Hibernia encouraging and promoting the arts accompanied by Minerva, Industry, Labour and Liberty who are holding appropriate instruments. There’s a seated figure of a woman at a spinning wheel and another of ‘Industry’ as a classical female figure carrying a roll of finished linen. The site now occupied by Belfast City Hall was once the home of the White Linen Hall, an important international Linen Exchange in the 19th century.
CITY HALL STAINED GLASS
In the ‘Lady McCullough Window’ on the first floor landing there’s a girl at a spinning wheel as well as the ‘Women’s Window’ features mills. This window is dedicated to the memory of Lady McCullagh, the wife of Lord Mayor Sir Crawford McCullagh and subsequent Lady Mayoress of Belfast. Her portrait is in the centre of the artwork and she is surrounded by images of the charitable organisations that she was involved with. It was designed and created by DJ Braniff for Glass Designers & Factors LTD.
ST. ANNE’S CATHEDRAL
The cathedral itself is so impressive you could almost miss these fantastic details at the top of their pillars. In amongst a sea of religious imagery there are exquisitely carved stone capitals celebrating the city’s industries, 1927. One column alone is dedicated to linen manufacture, featuring 4 scenes; pulling flax, a woman spinning, weaving and buying and selling. Coincidently St. Anne's Cathedral occupied the site of Belfast's second Linen Hall.
ALFRED STREET WAREHOUSE FRONT
Running down the back of the city hall are numerous streets lined with old linen warehouses and mills. They are beautiful, bold, imposing and elegant but few with elaborate decoration. The carvings seen on this particular one with the words ‘PURE FLAX’ are divine and carry the essence of one century into another. The winged gargoyles and scrolls giving it a very regal look, and the stylised flax flower in the centre an emblem of the city.
SCOTTISH PROVIDENT BUILDING
A magnificent sandstone giant of a building siding with the City Hall, adorned in Renaissance and Baroque style ornaments. On the 1st floor and still visible from the street are a set of labels symbolising the leading industries of Belfast at that time, 1902, - printing, weaving, ship building and rope making. The scene features a spinning wheel in the middle with drapes of linen held out the either sides framing the picture. Two chubby cherubs stride forth with pride, both taking the fabric with them over their shoulders as they march as it flows romantically and whimsically around them at the bottom.
A palatial landmark building built in 1888 in Victorian Belfast opposite the city hall, it was at one time the most upmarket department store in the province. Known for their luxury goods and lavish designs that were despatched to all corners of the world, an astonishing estimated third of all parcels leaving the city came from here. They were famed for their linen emporium, which coincidently is where we got the inspiration for our antiques sections name. In some old advertisements they prefer to themselves as ‘The Royal Irish Linen Warehouse’, but it was a warehouse not for storing but for showing goods off to the wealthiest people around. Consisting of 6 floors the upper ones were in sandstone with numerous little Donatello like children carrying flax, Irish Linen and shields. Note the carved panel featuring the initials R and C for the owners, with a statuesque boy child figure in the middle raising his arms. What appears to be linen fabric flanks out to either side almost like wings from behind him. It is quite similar to the one on the Linen Hall Library in style.
TEN SQUARE HOTEL
Located a few metres away from the City Hall this super-chic boutique hotel occupies a grade 1 listed linen warehouse formally called Yorkshire House, built 1862. Adorning the exterior are 12 exquisitely carved and painted stone heads from academia, history and mythology, each protruding from their own porthole. The faces of Newton, Humboldt, Jacquard, Peace, Flora, Stevenson, Moore, Watt, Michelangelo, Columbus, Washington, Mercury, Minerva, Shakespeare, Schiller and Homer. It really is a very elegant exterior on a finely proportioned and coloured building. My favourite have to be Moore because of his lavish bow and Flora as she is so pretty and feminine.
As an ending note there are a variety of wonderful tours, contemporary or historical, that are frequently organised by PLACE (Planning Landscape Architecture Community Environment). If you keep an eye on their website - http://www.placeni.org - you might find yourself a walk on Belfast’s hidden courtyards, our lost department stores or Art Deco buildings and if you’re really lucky you might get one from Daniel Jewesbury specifically on carved heads.
(Photos taken by KL Design Ireland ...on a very wet and windy day)