Turner, Richard (c.1798–1881), ironmaster and engineer, was born in Dublin, son of Timothy Turner (d. 1822), a merchant in Clare Street, and his wife Catherine (née Sisson). His grandfather and great-grandfather were both ironsmiths named Timothy Turner, the elder of whom (d. 1765) worked on the provost's house at TCD. Richard inherited the ironworks of his uncle Richard and became a speculator and house builder on Pembroke Road, Leeson Street, and Rathmines Road in Dublin; the houses in all these streets are notable for their geometric fanlights. He married Jane Goodshaw in 1816; they had at least ten children.
Turner's earliest known curvilinear conservatory, at Colebrooke, Co. Fermanagh, dates from 1833. The following year he set up the Hammersmith ironworks at Ballsbridge south of Dublin, where he fabricated the lightest iron structures of his time, consisting of wrought iron ribs (inspired by the glazing bars invented by the Scottish horticulturist J. C. Loudon) linked by cast iron tubes. His most important patron was Ninian Niven (qv), director of the National Botanic Gardens at Glasnevin (1834–8). Turner built the east wing of the palm house for him in 1834, and presumably the miniature version attached to Niven's own home at Monkstown. The simplicity of this construction contrasts with the festive interior of Marlfield, Co. Tipperary, the ultimate homage to the Dublin fanlight (1835–40). Many of his works are lost, including two buildings probably designed with Decimus Burton (1800–1881) – the peach house (1836) for the viceregal lodge in Dublin and the conservatory for the chief secretary's residence (latterly the American ambassador's residence) nearby (1842), where he first used his perforated pilasters – and also the ambitious palm house built at Killakee, Co. Dublin (1843). There survive in Ireland the obscure Bellvue at Enniskillen (1835) and the wings of the palm house at Belfast Botanic Gardens (1839–40). These do not prepare the observer for the vast scale and structural minimalism of the palm house at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew (1844–8), Turner's masterpiece, all credit for which went to Burton, even in Turner's own lifetime. In 1880 Sir Thomas Drew (qv) sent a robust reminder of Turner's role to Building News, and a century later the research of Edward Diestelkamp concluded that the building was a genuine collaboration which has no parallel among the individual achievements of either man.
Turner worked throughout Britain, but here too many of his buildings have been demolished. The winter garden at Regent's Park, London (1845), his most frequented public space, was dismantled without objection in 1932. No records survive of his conservatory at Haddo in Aberdeenshire (1844–5) or his winter garden for the king of Prussia, nor is his visit to Russia in 1848 documented. With his son Thomas (see below) Turner entered the competition for the exhibition hall for the Great Exhibition of 1851, but the competition was won by Joseph Paxton whose design for the building later known as ‘Crystal Palace’ was less innovative but more buildable than the Turners’ submission. This failure was Turner's greatest setback: Paxton became world famous, while Turner lapsed gradually into provincial obscurity. He was kept occupied by creating large glass roofs to span railway stations; among these works are his roofs at Broadstone station (1847) in Dublin, York Road in Belfast (1848), Sligo, and Galway (1850), and at Wakefield and Lime Street, Liverpool, in England (1847), the last of which was the largest iron roof-span of its age. These and the houses he built for his workforce beside the Hammersmith ironworks have all vanished, as has his ornamental bridge across the River Suir in Cahir Park in Co. Tipperary. One unlikely masterpiece in Dublin survives and may be visited – the prison hall at Kilmainham (c.1836).
Turner's later conservatories have a certain minimalism: they include Rath House, Ballybrittas, Co. Laois (1847–50), Carnagarve, Co. Donegal (c.1849; attributed to Turner), the central pavilion at the National Botanic Gardens, Glasnevin (1847–8), and the twin curvilinear constructions at Ballynegall and Middleton Park in Co. Westmeath (1850). He is assumed to have built the double-apsed pavilion of Ballyfin House, Co. Laois (1855), linked by a glazed bridge to the building that housed the botanical department of the library (since dispersed); he also surmounted a mock castle in the park at Ballyfin with a cast iron observatory. Lost examples of his conservatories from the 1850s were those attached to St Anne's in Clontarf, and to Johnstown castle, Co. Wexford (the latter executed by his assistant James Pierce), his Victoria Regia House at Kew (1852), and others at Roxborough, Co. Tyrone (c.1856), Roebuck castle, Dundrum, a pair at Gracedieu, Waterford, and Clonyn, Delvin (the latter an attribution), and the glazed tempietto at Woodstock, Co. Kilkenny (1860). Those at Edermine, Co. Wexford, and nearby Castlebridge, both executed by Pierce, and that at Bessborough in Cork (1855–60) survive.
Although Richard Turner retired in 1863 and handed over the ironworks to his son William, he was still active behind the scenes. Diestelkamp attributes to him the conservatory of Longueville House at Mallow, Co. Cork (1866), and the remodelling of the wings of the glasshouse at Glasnevin (1869), his swansong. He died 31 October 1881 and was buried at Mount Jerome cemetery, Dublin. Portrait photographs of Turner and his wife are in the museum at Glasnevin. William Turner, who was less concerned with his public profile than his father had been, can be credited only with conservatories at Rokeby, Co. Louth, and the largest of all in Ireland, the recently restored Kilshane, Co. Tipperary; both have timber-framed windows, which are never found in Richard's output. On William's death in 1888 the foundry, which had been located at Oxmantown on the north side of Dublin since 1876, closed.
Another of Richard's sons, Thomas Turner (c.1820–1891), architect, was a pupil of Sir Charles Lanyon (qv) in Belfast, but won in his own right the competition for the Tudor entrance screen to the catholic church in Dundalk. He then assisted his father in the scheme for the exhibition building that lost out to Paxton's; he was also involved in an attempt of Richard's to build a tunnel beneath the English Channel. He left Lanyon's office in 1852 and joined Richard Williamson (d. 1874), the surveyor for Co. Londonderry. His first recorded commission gave him an opportunity that he was never to enjoy again: John Mulholland, later Lord Dunleath, engaged him to design a new house in the classical manner. Mulholland's father, Andrew Mulholland (qv), had commissioned from Charles Lanyon his most lavish country house, Ballywater, Co. Down, and presumably Turner met his patron in Lanyon's office. Turner reverted to Lanyon's earlier manner, creating a galleried central hall lit by a glazed dome; two gate lodges, one with a curved verandah, survived the transformation of the house into a golf club. Several neo-classical country houses have been attributed to him, including Glenavon, Cookstown, Co. Tyrone, and Dalriada, Jordanstown, Co. Antrim, both 1855. His finest tribute to Anglo-classicism is the town hall of Coleraine, where he replaced a work of George Dance with a design after James Gibbs (1859).
Sensing that Glasgow offered more opportunities than Belfast, Thomas set up a practice there in 1861 but it made little impact on the city. Before leaving Belfast he had presumably already met William Burn, then aged sixty-nine, who collaborated with him in designing Stormont castle (1858), in a partly Scottish partly Irish baronial idiom that was to have a strong following in Ulster. Ironically most of its progeny are by Lanyon or by Lanyon and his partner William Henry Lynn (qv): their Jacobean output of the 1860s, Knocknamoe (Co. Mayo), Killashee (Co. Kildare), Kintullagh (Co. Antrim), Stranmillis (Belfast), and Tempo (Co. Fermanagh), have been attributed to Turner, but it is not likely that he would have worked again for his ertswhile employers without their giving him firm recognition for his designs.
To Turner may be attributed more securely the Northern Bank in Derry (1866) with Williamson, which shows the influence of Glasgow classicism, and the Provincial Bank in Belfast, which he completed in 1869 after the death in 1867 of William Barre (qv). He did some of his best work with Williamson: the court house at Lurgan (1865), St Mura, Fahan, Co. Donegal, a country house in Greek classical style, and their masterpiece the court house at Magherafelt, Co. Londonderry (1873–4), built in what has been termed their ‘frontier manner’. The only evidence of Turner's short collaboration with Thomas Drew are three sensational but unexecuted designs for the entrance of Montalto House, Co. Down (1867). A Dublin commission was the spire of the mariners’ church, Kingstown (Dún Laoghaire) (1865), with its unusual entasis. Turner's last partnership, and the most disappointing, was with Hume Babington of Derry. Together they remodelled the Church of Ireland church at nearby Limavady. The grimly baronial house Thornhill (latterly a convent), which they designed (1882–5), overlooking the Foyle estuary, contains an Italianate arcaded staircase hall, Turner's last tribute to his master, Charles Lanyon.
Despite the fact that he was a sociable man, Thomas Turner's personal life remains an enigma. Few of his Irish contemporaries would have dared set up an independent practice in Scotland; this adventurous move was no doubt inspired by his early successes, the screen at Dundalk and Craigavad, Co. Down (1851). He may well have been embittered by his lack of success in Glasgow and retreated to the safer world of north-west Ulster, where he could fall back on partners less brilliant but possibly more dependable than himself. It is curious that he never promoted the family ironworks or called on his father and his brother to add their magical conservatories to his private commissions. His contribution to his father's conservatory and observatory at Ballyfin remains conjectural. He spent the last years of his life in Co. Dublin. In May 1883 he was appointed county surveyor for the northern division of Co. Dublin (he had been briefly county surveyor for Co. Cavan in 1852–3) and held the post until his death on 10 October 1891 at Raheny House, which he rented from the Sweetman family. He was buried with his parents at Mount Jerome cemetery.