Sunlight Chambers by Pat Liddy
In any city across the world there are buildings people walk by every day whose unusual decoration or sculptural embellishments might raise some mild interest or curiosity but hardly anybody bothers to look a bit deeper and see if there was any additional meaning intended. One such building on Dublin’s riverside is Sunlight Chambers, loved by most but understood by few. Unbelievably, when it was first built the primary building journal of the time, The Irish Builder, announced that it was “one of the ugliest buildings in Ireland”!
At the turn of the 19th and into the 20th century, personal hygiene was still rudimentary if not altogether absent for a significant number of people. Only the privileged had a bath in their homes. A single water tap serving the whole house was commonplace. Toilets may have been just crude facilities in the backyard. Showers or washing machines were unheard of. It was even considered by some folk that to wash oneself frequently was only to expose your skin to outside germs.
In James Joyce’s famed novel Ulysses, the hero, Leopold Bloom, visits Sweny’s Pharmacy on Lincoln Place to buy a bar of lemon soap to use for his visit to the nearby Turkish baths. He wanted to bathe here as he also did not possess a bath in his rented Georgian house on Eccles Street. Soap was still a rare commodity in those days (1904) and the innovation of its first introduction as a mass production item was the inspiration for the colourful façade of Sunlight Chambers at the corner of Parliament Street and Essex Quay. Parliament Street itself was laid down in 1762, the first work of a new planning authority grandly known as the Commissioners for Making Wide and Convenient Streets. Up to that Dublin was a congested city of narrow medieval streets, lanes and alleyways.
Replacing an earlier building at the very edge of the old Viking town, Sunlight Chambers (‘chambers’ is a rather archaic word meaning ‘offices’) was erected in 1901 as the headquarters for the Irish operations of Lever Brothers (William and James), the English soap and detergent manufacturers. “Sunlight” was the company’s brand name for their then main soap product, hence the origin of the name of their Irish offices. Traditionally soap was made from animal fats but their company chemist, William Hough Watson, came up with a more useful industrial product prepared from glycerine and vegetable fats (mainly palm oil). Initially sold in 1884 from their family grocery shop in Bolton, their marketing was so successful that their company became one of the largest firms in Britain, employing 250,000 people by 1930 when it merged with a Dutch company to become the name it is known by today, Unilever.
William Lever (later Lord Leverhulme – Hulme was his wife’s maiden name) was the driving force in the company (his brother was sickly) and he demonstrated a care for his workers by building in 1888 Port Sunlight, a model (but alcohol free) town for his employees and their families located across the Mersey from Liverpool. Unfortunately, his humanity didn’t prevent the exploitation of his African workers in the Belgian Congo who literally slaved to produce his palm oil! While returning from one of his African trips in 1925 Lord Leverhulme contracted pneumonia and died aged 74, in London.
Back to Dublin! Sunlight wasn’t seen as a soap for washing the person but was more a laundry soap but still relatively unheard of in Ireland. So the crafty Lord decided to use his new Dublin headquarters to promote the cleansing application of his useful product. Designed with a Florentine flourish by Edward Ould, the architect for Port Sunlight, the scheme called for a series of twelve panels and four roundels on the three facades of the building. They were to depict colourful glazed ceramic figures in relief carrying out certain duties in the pursuit of cleanliness. The sculptor-potter was Conrad Dressler of the Medmenham Pottery in Buckinghamshire.
The top seven panels show people working in the fields, the forest, delivering coal, constructing an arch ploughing and fishing. In other words, vocations that resulted in getting your clothes dirty and smelly! The lower panels provide the solution to all the mess. The friezes here demonstrate the extraction of raw materials, the manufacture of soap, merchants bargaining for scents and oils and cleaning or laundry women scrubbing clothes alongside a river and removing wicker baskets of washed laundry.
Over time the sculptures seriously deteriorated with the effects of both pollution and weathering but, happily, the owners of the building, solicitors Michael E Hanahoe, commissioned a complete restoration in 1999. Thanks to stone conservator, John Kelly and ceramic conservator, Eileen O’Leary of Leinster Studios this remarkable array of sculptures, a beauty in themselves but part of a Victorian advertising push, will be safely preserved for future generations.