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Sunlight Chambers

‘Sunlight Chambers’, it says over the door of the office building on the corner of Parliament Street and Essex Quay.

What a lovely name! But why is the building called that? Facing north across the Liffey, it certainly wasn’t catching many rays when Dublin.ie visited on a day in December.

With its arched windows and overhanging eaves, it looks like an Italian palace, built perhaps for a cadet branch of the Medici family c1500. But hang on a second, what’s with the strange 3D decorations stuck on the walls of the first and second storeys? There’s nude babies, a donkey, a man building a boat, two men constructing an arch, a bunch of Renaissance-style ladies doing the laundry. Plus some tilling of the land, some gathering of olive branches and a stove smoking away in the corner.

Pat Liddy, knows his Dublin oddities and is a good man to tell us more. “Sunlight Chambers? It’s is one of my favourite buildings in Dublin”, he says. “It’s also one of the most passed-by buildings in Dublin, which is a shame because what people should be doing is looking up… They should give themselves a few minutes to absorb the beauty of the sculptures and the story they tell.”

what people should be doing is looking up…

It turns out the story they tell is the history of hygiene. Well, that was the brief to the sculptor, at any rate. Archiseek, every architecturally-curious Dubliner’s favourite website, states: “Conrad Dressler, a sculptor and potter, was engaged to design and craft the series of four roundels and twelve panels around the three faces of the building. The glazed ceramic friezes were made in 1902 in Dressler’s pottery works in Buckinghamshire”.

Back to the name: Sunlight Chambers. It’s called after the fantastically successful soap of the same name. Sunlight soap was one of the first to be made on an industrial scale from vegetable oil instead of animal-derived tallow. It was an invention of Lever Brothers, which, since it merged with a Dutch margarine company in 1929, has called itself Unilever. That’s the people who currently bring us Surf, Persil, Sunsilk, Lux etc. They still make bars of Sunlight soap too; you can buy it in Belgium.

It’s called ‘Sunlight’, after the soap of the same name

Lever Brothers (actually there was only one brother, William, calling the shots) gave the name ‘Port Sunlight’ to the firm’s Liverpool manufacturing base-cum-company town. And when he needed a name for his Dublin HQ, a variation on the Sunlight theme was inevitable. So we can look at the whole building as a sort of giant three-dimensional billboard: a permanent, high-quality, highly coloured tribute to the glory of cleanliness. The ship, the stove, the arch: most likely these are symbolic representations of Lever Brothers’ own efforts to make and export their products.

“Yes, it’s all for show, of course,” says Peter Pearson, painter and author of Decorative Dublin. “Everything’s on the outside where you can see it; the interiors are very plain”. Peter’s an expert on those bits of buildings that don’t strictly need to be there but massively enhance our enjoyment of them when they are. Like Pat Liddy, he’s a big fan of Sunlight Chambers. He enjoys the “comic-strip” nature of the decorations – and the reference they make to Renaissance art, in particular, that of Luca della Robbia.

Peter Pearson. Courtesy of the Irish Independent.

It’s a shame, he tells Dublin.ie, that this sort of thing doesn’t happen anymore. Today’s architects are very unlikely to treat us to a decorative tour de force. “There’s a fear of using ornament,” says Peter. He points out that ornament doesn’t have to feature a historical subject. But, he says “you wouldn’t get so much as a disc or a cube by way of decoration these days – the craftspeople don’t get the commissions. Architects feel they have to be as minimal and industrial in their approach as possible”. One exception to this rule does occur to him, however: the newly renovated Bewley’s Café on Grafton Street, which is not devoid of freshly commissioned ornament.

Sunlight Chambers is a beautiful reminder all the same of an era when Dubliners were treated to craft, artistry and beauty – all paid for out of an ambitious industrialist’s marketing budget.