Therapy for the Mind – Edward McParland on the Armagh Robinson Library
The tradition of applying classic lettering to buildings is old. The Pantheon in Rome bears a (misleading) inscription to Agrippa. My favorite inscription, for its emphasis, is on the facade of San Giovanni in Laterano – “omnium urbis et orbis ecclesiarum mater et caput” (mother and head of all the churches in the city and in the world).
The inscription on the façade of the Armagh Robinson Library, in Greek, implies a more engaging welcome: it offers readers therapy for the mind.
Last year the library celebrated the 250th anniversary of its founding by Archbishop Richard Robinson.
Robinson’s contribution to Armagh is traditionally compared to Augustus of Rome’s legendary transformation from a city of brick to a city of marble. Anthony Malcomson’s biography of Robinson, emphasizing his self-interest and how little his patronage cost him personally, is more critical. But Robinson certainly increased the reach of the city by removing the Archbishop’s palace from Drogheda; he founded the Armagh Observatory; he left money in his will for the foundation of a university in the city. And in 1771 he founded – modeled on Archbishops Marsh in Dublin and Bolton in Cashel – what is now the Armagh Robinson Library.
If Robinson hadn’t ordered his papers and correspondence destroyed, we might have learned more about his colored brother.
His architect for the building was Thomas Cooley, who was then erecting the spectacular Royal Exchange (now City Hall) in Dublin.
But Robinson had little time, it seems, for such references to fashionable Roman architecture. He kept Cooley on a leash in the commonplace buildings they were both involved in.
The current library is a distinguished and beautifully detailed building, but this is largely due to the extension and alterations made in 1845 to Cooley’s original building. This last work was to plans by Dublin architect Robert Law Monsarrat, who died in his late twenties.
If Robinson hadn’t ordered his papers and correspondence destroyed, we might have known more about his colorful brother, the amateur architect Sir Thomas, whom Malcomson calls “the mad Palladian”.
The wing he added to Castle Howard in Yorkshire when he was commissioned to complete Vanbrugh’s sublime building can reasonably be described as tactless.
There is a terrible story about his importunation of Britain’s leading Palladian, Lord Burlington. His unwelcome visits to Burlington House in Piccadilly earned him frequent tips that Lord B was not at home.
Undeterred, Sir Thomas would ask admission to enter the room to see the clock or to watch the pet monkey in the hope that his lordship might appear. Eventually the porter at the door was instructed to tell him that Lord Burlington was out, the clock had stopped, and the monkey was dead.
Whatever his other eccentricities, Thomas’s books form one of the richest architectural libraries in the country.
The Robinsons came from Rookby (later gentrified as Rokeby) in Yorkshire where Sir Thomas had designed one of the most interesting small Palladian houses in England. When knighted as a baron, the Archbishop takes the title of Rokeby of Armagh. And the private house he built at Co Louth he called Rokeby Hall. (Velazquez’s famous Rokeby Venus in the National Gallery, London once hung in the Yorkshire house, but after the house was sold by the impecunious and spendthrift Sir Thomas).
Thomas (“an empty and specious man, and a great pest to people of high rank”) was a picturesque figure who probably embarrassed the archbishop, who succeeded in defeating his brother’s request in his will that his correspondence be published. But Armagh is still very much indebted to the “mad Palladian” as he bequeathed to his brother any of his books on architecture and antiquities that the Archbishop might want for his new library.
Whatever his other eccentricities, Thomas’s books form one of the richest architectural libraries in the country and testify to his passionate interest in the subject. Curiously, the Archbishop may have been a bit jealous of his brother’s eminence as a collector – Richard’s bookplate is only half the property’s story in cases where the one of Thomas survives, but concealed.
These books survive with the other treasures of the Robinson Library – books from the early period of European printing; Swift’s copy of Gulliver’s Travels with own annotations; books that are not in the British Library, Trinity College or the National Library; the surviving books of Viscount Conway’s great 17th-century library, long thought to be destroyed in the 1641 rebellion. And this Wunderkammer has more than books.
Its prehistoric antiquities, its 12th century manuscripts, its architectural drawings including models of parish churches by Thomas Cooley, its prints (an almost complete set by Piranesi), its 3,000 “jewels” by James Tassie, its casts in sulfur of 1689-97 of Louis XIIV Medals, all constitute an oasis – rare in Ireland – which promises and offers “spirit therapy”.