Obituary: Jeremy Williams
Celebrated architect left behind a body of work embodying his genius, writes Charles Lysaght
Published 10/01/2016 | 02:30
Jeremy Williams, the architect, who died suddenly on Christmas Eve morning from a heart attack suffered in Thomas Street near his Dublin home, brought his creative genius to his profession and left behind a formidable legacy of artistic and historical work. He was a unique personality, of whom it was well said that if one had not known him it would be impossible to imagine him.
Born in 1943, he was one of twin sons of Dermot Williams, a member of the Tullamore merchant family that distilled Tullamore Dew and Irish Mist, and his wife, Joan Roche. Jeremy went to school at St Gerard's, Bray, and Glenstal, after which he spent a year at Maredsous, the Benedictine school in Belgium, before going on to University College Dublin, where he qualified as an architect.
A free spirit, he preferred to avoid the restraints of employment or the entanglements of partnership and so operated on his own from an early stage in his career. His practice blended with a peripatetic social life, a taste for which he had inherited from his convivial and unconventional parents.
His friends were his clients and his clients joined the wide circle of friends by whom he was cherished. They were often as unique as he was himself.
One lucrative client was the developer Johnny Ronan, for whom Jeremy designed a spectacular Palladian style villa in Burlington Road so lavish that it was described in the Irish Arts Review as 'Faroukian.' He did other important work for Ronan, restoring the cottage orné at Dargle Valley and providing a façade for the Powerscourt Hotel.
Other notable clients were the artist Martin Mooney, for whom Jeremy designed a splendid regency-style house at Ramelton on the banks of Lough Swilly, and his alma mater Glenstal, where his Russo-Byzantine chapel provided a suitable ambiance for the icons presented by a member of the famous Esmonde family.
Jeremy's reverence for the great architecture of the past and empathy with those who had inherited what had survived drew him into the Irish Georgian Society founded in the 1950s.
Many of his own commissions resulted in tasteful adaptation and preservation of historic houses. He was assiduous in rescuing for future use items such as ceilings and doors from buildings that had been pulled down by developers.
But Jeremy's own roots were more in Victorian than in Georgian Ireland and it was wholly appropriate that he moved to rectify the neglect of its architecture when he formed the Irish Victorian Society in 1974.
His 400-page book Architecture in Ireland 1837-1921, published in 1994, was the first comprehensive history of the subject. It was enlivened by witty asides and tales about the owners and architects. Shaking helplessly with laughter, he derived immense amusement, without ever being malicious, from the idiosyncrasies of his fellow humans and the embarrassing situations in which they sometimes found themselves.
Deft in sketching and drawing since his school days, he was able to supply his own illustrations. He also illustrated other books, notably Renagh Holohan's Irish Chateaux, a survey of houses of descendants of Irish families in France.
His many connections among the old nobility in France and Belgium, which he often visited, had opened doors that might otherwise have remained closed.
He made useful and original contributions to public debate on architectural issues. Among his characteristically imaginative proposals, alas not adopted, was a piazza across the river from the Custom House, creating the vista such a great building deserved. Another was the re-creation of the medieval streets surrounding Christchurch Cathedral to the rear of the controversial municipal buildings.
The drought in architectural work after 2008 bore hard on Jeremy, who had never been acquisitive and was always generous to a fault. One fruit was more artistic work, such as a collection of watercolours exhibited in 2014, depicting the seven principal rooms of Russborough House in Co Wicklow, complete with the original paintings situated there.
Jeremy's mother, to whom he had always been very close, lived into her 90s and died only in 2008. He is survived by his brother, Johnny, his nephew and godson Justin and his niece Ciara.