A visit to the National Gallery in Merrion Square, Dublin is always a must at this time of the year. As always there are discoveries to be made amongst the collection of old master paintings in the gallery which was established in 1854 to commemorate the generosity of Carlow man William Dargan in funding the Irish Industrial Exhibition the previous year.
I have visited the Gallery on many occasions over the years but it was only recently that I took note of the marble bust of William Robert Fitzgerald 2nd Duke of Leinster which stands in the first room of the Irish collection. William, Duke of Leinster was to marry Emily St. George and both of them have given their names to the principal streets of our town. The bust of William shows him as an officer of the Volunteers which were formed to defend Ireland against a feared French invasion in the latter part of the eighteenth century. The most interesting feature of the bust however was the name of the sculptor inscribed on its base. The name was Simon Vierpyl with the additional details London 1725 - 1810 Athy.
Vierpyl was born in London in 1725 and at a young age was apprenticed to the distinguished Belgian born sculptor Peter Scheemakers. Scheemakers in the 1740’s was one of the premier sculptors of London, feted in his day for his statue of Shakespeare which was erected in Westminster Abbey. It was in the studio of Scheemaker that Vierpyl acquired his taste for the statuary of classical Rome. In 1748 Vierpyl left for Italy where he was to spend the next nine years of his life. His particular skill was to make copies of the great sculptures of the classical civilizations of the Greeks and the Romans. He lived in the Palazzo Zuccarri in Rome where he shared rooms with many of the most famous artists of the age including Sir Joshua Reynolds. Vierpyl is one of the figures in ‘Parody of the School of Athens’ which Reynolds painted in 1751. It forms part of the National Gallery’s collection today.
Vierpyl was a popular artist and was busily engaged in commissions for patrons such as Lord Wicklow and Lord Charlemont. By far his largest and most significant commission came from Rev. Edward Murphy, Charlemont’s tutor and travelling companion. From 1751 to 1755 Vierpyl copied 22 statutes and 78 busts in terra-cotta of Roman Emperors and other figures from the Capitoline Museum in Rome. They were all sent to Ireland in 1755. Vierpyl later described the work in a letter to Murphy in 1774 ‘your happy, and, I believe, singular thought, (getting the whole series copied, and then by one artist only), has never before nor to this day been executed by any sculptor except me. So that your imperial series is the only one of the kind now in the world. I am certain that no eminent artist will here after stand four years, winter and summer (as I have done), in the chilling Capitoline Museum to model so many busts an statues with his own hand’.
Rev. Murphy bequeathed the collection to Lord Charlemont, whose descendants presented the set to the Royal Irish Academy in 1868. With the patronage of Lord Charlemont, Vierpyl came to Ireland in 1756 where he established his reputation to such a degree that his work is noted in the majority of Dublin’s finest buildings of the late eighteenth century. Charlemont engaged him to supervise the construction of Rutland Square, now known as Parnell Square. Vierpyl himself bought No.21 on the square in 1760. Lord Charlemont himself resided in Charlemont House (now the Hugh Lane Municipal Gallery) where the collection bequeathed to Charlemont by Rev Edward Murphy were kept in the library of the house.
For Charlemont he executed much of the decorative sculpture for the Casino at Marino, a folly used by Lord Charlemont for holding parties. One of Vierpyl’s clever works was the sculpting of Urns for the roof of the Casino which disguised the chimneys.
Vierpyl’s work for Charlemont brought him to the attention of other patrons. Among his most significant work in Dublin included the earlier version of the Rotunda of the Rotunda Hospital, the facade of St. Thomas’ Church, Marlborough St., executed by him from the design of the Palladio in Venice. He also executed the decorative work on the Royal Exchange, now City Hall. For his contributions to the work on Poolbeg lighthouse he received the thanks of the Ballast Board.
From 1773-1779 he was responsible for the supervision and execution of the decorative stone work on the Blue Coats’ School, Blackhall Place, now the headquarters of the Law Society of Ireland. A painting by the artist Jonathan Trotter, dating to 1779 portrays the nine central characters involved in the construction of the school, one of whom is Simon Vierpyl.
Although his career was one of great distinction, it was his pupil Edward Smyth, an Irishman, who would achieve greater renown. Smyth’s sculptures adorn the principal public buildings built in Dublin in the late eighteenth century. His work graces edifices such as the Four Courts, the Bank of Ireland on College Green and most notably the Custom’s House. Smyth is responsible for the fourteen different River Gods carvings which are the keystones for the windows of the ground floor of the Custom’s House.
Vierpyl was married on the 26th December 1758 in St. Andrew’s Church in Dublin to Frances Dickson, who was a niece of a Rev. Dr. Henry of Kildare Street. Sleator’s Public Gazetteer described her as ‘ a most agreeable young lady , with a considerable fortune and every other qualification which can render that state happy’. They had a number of children including two sons, William and Charles, who became sculptors. However she was to later meet her death by throwing herself out of a window of their house on Batchelor’s Walk, Dublin, some time in the 1770’s. Viepyl was married again on the 30th of August 1779 to Mary Burrowes.
How Simon Vierpyl came to die in Athy on the 10 February 1810 is a mystery. A clue may lie in his second marriage to Mary Burrowes, a family name found in Co. Kildare and Co. Laois. There is no indication of where he lived in Athy and strangely enough his death certificate does not give same merely stating “father to Mrs Feranges from the Bachelors Walk Dublin”. We do know that Simon Vierpyl lived to 85 years of age and was buried in St. John’s Cemetery, Athy. One of the finest sculptors of his generation born in London of Dutch parents lies in an unmarked grave in the cemetery where the remains of the medieval monks of Athy probably also repose. It is ironic that an artist who spent so much of his life creating works of art in stone and marble today has no monument to mark his final resting place in St. Johns Cemetery.