Just Williams – Frank McNally on a tribute to the late Jeremy Williams: artist, architect, and renaissance man

Jeremy Williams, at Portmagee, Co Kerry, in 1977. Photograph: Jochem Jourdan, from the cover of Jeremy Williams: One of a Kind (Lilliput Press)

Jeremy Williams, at Portmagee, Co Kerry, in 1977. Photograph: Jochem Jourdan, from the cover of Jeremy Williams: One of a Kind (Lilliput Press)

 

Like the bards and harpers of ancient Ireland, the late Jeremy Williams – artist, historian, and architect – led a nomadic existence. He had his own home, a modest one, in Dublin’s Liberties. But the loves of his life were old mansions and castles, however distressed. 

And as Dermot Scott, the editor of a book of tributes to his life, puts it, Williams had an ability “to talk his way into any large house, often for dinner and frequently to stay, a skill not confined to Ireland but practised throughout much of north-western Europe”.

He did this without the harp or the poetry-writing skills (although the gossip he collected along the way might have conferred some of the blackmailing powers for which the old bards were feared, had not his good nature always got the better of any malice when recounting it).

If he sang for his supper, it was by means of charm, erudition, and the brilliance of his primary talent, drawing architecture of the most intricate detail with apparent effortlessness.

Renagh Holohan, formerly of this newspaper and among the book’s contributors, saw this at closer quarters than most once when, for another book project in the 1980s, she accompanied Williams on a month-long tour of French chateaux with Irish connections.

These included some of the great wine producing houses – Hennessy, Dillon, Lynch, etc. But at his insistence, they also visited the more obscure Wild Geese families, who were often the most interesting and grateful for the interest shown.

Everywhere they went, hosts were astonished at how much Williams knew about them already, or how many of their friends and relatives he had met previously.

Like many who pay their rent in talent, he was able to live beyond his means. Not that he shouldn’t have been well off in his own right – his profession could have earned plenty. Yet it’s a recurring theme of the book that he was always close to hard up. 

Jochem Jourdan recalls him having “very, very little money”; Darina Allen thinks “he never charged quite enough”; while Johnny Ronan laments that people underestimated his work: “At one stage I did wonder if anybody was paying him . . . ”

It may be partly for this reason that, despite constant travelling, he never owned a good car. Mind you, that may have been fortunate. Holohan did all the driving in France because Williams’s tendency to become distracted by the scenery made him “terrifying” when in charge of a vehicle.

Amid all the aestheticism, a short chapter of the book is devoted to his difficult relationship with steering wheels.  David Willis, a regular host, recalls him driving into a ditch in Mayo, running aground on a traffic island in Carrick-on-Shannon, and being given a six-month sabbatical from driving by a judge. 

During the ban, the Willises’ son became chauffeur for trips wherein Williams expounded on the architecture and landscape of Ireland. “What an incredible crash course that was,” writes David, in what I hope was just a metaphor.

Elsewhere, the late Nicola Gordon Bowe recalls another occasion when the hero’s driving attracted Garda attention, although this time without accident. En route to a hunt ball in Laois once, he took friends on a detour via the stately house of people he knew had already left for the event, to show off their ground-floor plasterwork. It being dark, this required him to drive his front wheels up onto a rockery, so that the headlights were at the right angle. For some reason, local gardaí found such behaviour suspicious and arrived to investigate.

Opinion is divided as to which architectural era Williams would most have enjoyed. Martin Mooney suggests “his absolute passion was for the eighteenth century”. Johnny Ronan marvelled at his mastery of all periods but “particularly Victorian, which he adored and which I did not like at all”. 

But as John Boorman notes, when Williams was commissioned to transform the “dreary chapel” of his old school, Glenstal Abbey, he used “bright pastel David Hockney colours”. This was too modern for some monks. “Half loved it, half hated it.”

Perhaps, being a renaissance man, Williams would have thrived best in that era. His finances might have benefited at least. Ronan again: “I told Jeremy he should have had the Medicis as patrons.”

He was rich in friends, anyway. The book – Jeremy Williams: One of a Kind (published by Lilliput Press) – sprang from a memorial event in 2016 at the Irish Architectural Archive.

Another theme of its dozen essays is how much he has been missed since. “Being in his company was always enriching,” writes Boorman, “and his death has left a void in my life.”

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