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Say it in stone

Nina Morgan considers a chicken-and-egg situation

Words by Nina Morgan
28 February 2024
The Museum Building, Trinity College Dublin built in 1853-1857

The Museum Building, Trinity College Dublin built in 1853-1857

While not exactly siblings – more like cousins perhaps – the buildings that house the Oxford University Museum of Natural History (OUMNH) and the Museum Building at Trinity College in Dublin share a common ancestry. The Trinity College Museum Building opened in 1857, and the OUMNH in 1860. Both were designed by the Irish architectural firm Deane and Woodward, with the younger partner, Benjamin Woodward, responsible for much of the design. The aim of both museums was to teach and promote science. And to promote their scientific messages, both made extensive use of decorative stones and realistic carving of animals and plants to symbolise and illustrate natural history.

This was at a time when science and Christian religious beliefs were somewhat at odds. Charles Darwin’s book On the Origin of Species, first published in 1859, was creating controversy – so symbolism really mattered. Much of the exquisite carving that decorates both museums was done by Irish stone carvers, the brothers John and James O’Shea and their nephew Edward Whelan.

James O’Shea working on the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, circa 1858

James O’Shea working on the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, circa 1858 (photo attributed to Henry Acland. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.)

Animal crackers

In the case of the OUMNH, the budget included no provision for carving, either inside or out, and the money needed to pay for this was covered by donations. This included a generous sum of £300 given by the critic, scientist, and polymath John Ruskin [1819 – 1900], to pay for a twin lancet window on the ground floor, and a carved window – now known as the Cat Window – on the first floor above it. A number of people, including Ruskin and the geologist and first Keeper of the OUMNH, John Phillips [1800 – 1874], were involved in designing the exterior and interior carving.

An account (possibly apocryphal!) by Henry Acland [1815 – 1900], Regis Professor of Medicine at the University of Oxford, and one of the driving forces behind the founding of the OUMNH, alleges that James O’Shea, on his own volition, was seen to be carving monkeys around the window. This elicited a strong objection from the Reverend Frederick Charles Plumptre [1796 – 1870], Master of University College Oxford, who believed the monkeys smacked of Darwinism and might prove to be embarrassing and scandalous to the university. O’Shea’s response was to change the monkeys into cats.

Why cats? One can only speculate. But perhaps O’Shea was inspired by the cat footprint he noticed in a brick used inside the museum. This had been left by a naughty cat walking over the clay before the brick was fired.

Chickens and eggs

In Dublin, the stone carvers employed to decorate other buildings designed by Deane and Woodward seem to have been given more freedom in their choice of what to carve, and were not so constrained by ‘religious’ considerations.

For example, in the Kildare Street Club in Dublin, a building designed by Deane and Woodward in 1860, monkeys playing billiards were carved into the plinth at the base of an exterior column made of fossiliferous Tullamore Limestone. Exactly who was responsible for the carving is not known, but the O’Sheas are clearly possibilities.

Nevertheless it is certain that the O’Sheas and Whelan, along with a mysterious Mr Roe of Lambeth, London, were responsible for the more elaborate exterior carvings that decorate the Trinity College Dublin Museum Building. These were created in Portland Stone, a pale oolitic Upper Jurassic limestone from the Isle of Portland on the south coast of England.

The O’Sheas carved many of the decorations in situ and the architects apparently allowed them considerable flexibility in their designs. For example, on the north façade, just below the roof line, along with a series of square panels representing Aesop’s fables, they included a panel that appears to be a commentary on Darwin’s theory of evolution. And their fanciful designs around the windows, modelled on stuffed animals from the museum collections and plants from the college botanic gardens, include creatures, such as cats, mice, squirrels, owls, birds, and snakes, as well as plants such as oak, ivy, lilies, and acanthus.

But what was the inspiration behind the charming panel with seven chickens next to a window on the east façade? Were the O’Sheas fond of hens? Did they keep some backyard chickens themselves? As stone carvers who clearly knew their stone – and maybe some Greek and Latin too – perhaps the hens were a nod to the oolitic or ‘egg stone’ nature of the Portland Stone!


Nina Morgan

Nina is a geologist and science writer based near Oxford, UK.


I thank Patrick Wyse Jackson of Trinity College Dublin for drawing my attention to the hen carvings, providing much helpful background and references about the Trinity College Museum building and for helpful comments on an earlier draft of this article. Any remaining errors are my own.

Further reading

  • Acland, H.W. & Ruskin, J. (1859) The Oxford Museum. Smith Elder and Co. 111 pp.
  • Casey, C. & Wyse Jackson, P.N. (eds) (2019) The Museum Building of Trinity College Dublin: Setting the standard in design, materials and craftsmanship. Four Courts Press Ltd. 320 pp.
  • Gilbert, B.J. (2009) Puncturing an Oxford Myth: the Truth about the ‘Infamous’ O’Sheas and the Oxford University Museum. Oxoniensia, Oxfordshire Architectural and Historical Society; oxoniensia.org
  • Kelly, O. (2018) Hidden history of Trinity’s Victorian marble wonder revealed. The Irish Times 12 December 2018; irishtimes.com
  • Making Victorian Dublin; makingvictoriandublin.com
  • McGrath, S. (2012) The controversy surrounding the Kildare Street Club monkeys; comeheretome.com
  • Morgan, N. & Powell, P. (2022) A Story in Stone: The Geology of the Oxford University Museum of Natural History Building. Geologica Press. 160 pp.
  • Wyse Jackson, P.N. (2015) The Museum Building revealed; www.ontherocksgeoblog.wordpress.com

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