Sunlight and Shadow

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A shaft of sunlight falls across the floor of the drawing room in Westport House, County Mayo. The parquet was laid by George, third Marquess of Sligo in 1855, one of a number of changes he made to the building during that decade, which also included a new principal staircase of Sicilian marble. Westport House was originally designed by Richard Castle in the 1730s but was thereafter subject to a variety of alterations and additions incorporating work by amongst others Thomas Ivory and James Wyatt.
More about Westport House in the near future.

A Cheeky Welcome

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Peep around the life-size marble sculpture of Venus newly-emerged from her bath and you can see a view of the central hall at Mount Stewart, County Down. This octagonal space was designed in the 1830s by William Vitruvius Morrison for the third Marquess of Londonderry. In the 19th century it was decorated with suits of armour and lit by coloured glass in the dome above the first-floor gallery. Then in the last century the walls were painted a lusty red, the gallery’s balustrade replaced with ironwork and the original pale stone floor covered in a black and white checkerboard pattern. Mount Stewart reopens to the public this week after several years of restoration undertaken by the National Trust which has now returned the central hall’s walls to their intended cooler tones; plans are afoot also to remove the present floor covering and reveal the stone beneath.

The Scattering

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When that chronicle of loss, Vanishing Country Houses of Ireland was published in 1988, it did not include Glyde Court, County Louth. There must have seemed no need to feature the place; the last member of the original family to own the estate had only died five years earlier and it would have been presumed another would now take over Glyde Court. Such assumptions proved incorrect and today the house is a skeletal ruin set in the remains of planned parkland. By the time the book’s thirtieth anniversary occurs, Glyde Court will most likely have vanished. The lands on which the remains of the house stand were acquired in the middle of the 18th century by John William Foster. He was a younger brother of Anthony Foster, responsible for building the main family residence elsewhere at Collon in the same county (for more on this house, see Mr Speaker, April 28th 2014). At the time Glyde Court was called Rosy Park and after John William’s death it passed to a nephew, John Thomas Foster, son of the Reverend Thomas Foster, Rector of Dunleer and first cousin of the John Foster who served as last Speaker of the Irish House of Commons. In 1776, John Thomas married Lady Elizabeth Hervey, youngest daughter of Frederick Hervey, Bishop of Derry and Earl of Bristol. (The Earl Bishop’s building exploits have been discussed in It’s Downhill All the Way, October 28th 2013 and Let the Door be Instantly Open, For there is Much Wealth Within, March 31st 2014).

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Although they had three children, two of whom survived to adulthood, the marriage of John Thomas Foster and Lady Elizabeth Hervey was not a success and the couple separated after five years. What followed next is well known. Lady Elizabeth moved to England where in 1782 she met the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire in Bath. Soon she and the Duchess, the famous Lady Georgiana Spencer, had become close friends. Subsequently Lady Elizabeth became a mistress of the Duke with whom she had two children. Although both born elsewhere in Europe the pair were eventually brought to England and raised with the Devonshires’ own offspring. Lady Elizabeth is also believed to have been the mistress of several other notable figures including the Dukes of Dorset and Richmond, Count Axel von Fersen and the first Earl of Dunraven. In 1809, three years after the death of Georgiana, she married the Duke of Devonshire but within two years he too had died. Eventually she moved to Rome and remained there until her own death in 1824. As mentioned, John Thomas Foster and his wife had two sons, the younger of whom, Augustus John, became a diplomat, a career assisted by his mother’s relationship with the Duke of Devonshire. By 1811 he was Minister Plenipoteniary to the United States, although he returned to Britain the following year after the outbreak of hostilities between the two countries. He later became Minister Plenipotentiary successfully to Denmark and Turin, Kingdom of Sardinia before retiring in 1840; in 1831 he had been made a baronet. He died in 1848 after cutting his throat during a delirium caused by poor health. Two of Sir Augustus’ sons succeeded him as baronet, the elder Sir Frederick Foster dying unmarried in 1857 was succeeded by the next brother, Sir Cavendish Hervey Foster who spent over forty years as rector of a parish in Essex. The youngest son, Vere Foster, is remembered as a notable philanthropist beginning when he paid a visit to Ireland in 1847 and was shocked to see the effects of the country’s ongoing famine. As a result, he spent the next half century advocating better conditions for the poor including improved educational opportunities. When he died in Belfast in December 1900, he had effectively spent all his personal funds on helping others.
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As for Rosy Park, following the death of John Thomas Foster in 1796 and given that his children were based in England, it appears the property was let for a long period to the Upton family. The original house was of typical late Georgian design with an extended two-storey facade. At some unknown date work began on extending and converting the building in the Jacobean style to the designs of an unknown architect. It may be that this development was initiated by Sir Augustus Foster after his retirement but then came to a stop on his death, or perhaps the Uptons undertook the project themselves. At some point during the lifetime of the third baronet (he died in 1890) the transformation of Rosy Park was completed, so most likely the job was undertaken by his son, Major John Frederick Foster since during the 1870s he was High Sheriff and Deputy Lord Lieutenant of Louth. As finished, the now-renamed Glyde Court incorporated the old house into a long slim range accessed by a three-arched porch at the north end. Its design gives an indication of what lay ahead thanks to the arched openings and vaguely Perpendicular-style ceiling. On either side rise blank gables, their curled tops underlining the Jacobean inspiration; the breakfront chimney breasts here carry the Foster coat of arms. The west, garden front has a five-bay centre flanked by deep flat-roofed, two-storey and three-bay bows, with another three bays on either side of these. Curling gables once more climbed above the roofline, several incorporating dormer windows while the east end of this block had an Oriel window with Gothic glazing (that elsewhere was of the standard sash window variety). Cement mouldings give surface interest to this facade, all of which looks in old photographs to have been white-washed. Immediately behind and to the south are red-brick ranges containing stables and other services, at least some of these including a handsome pedimented carriage arch, look to have been part of the original 18th century development. The house’s main reception rooms ran north to south, beginning with an entrance hall the same width as the porch. This leads to a passageway with a series of westerly openings into the former drawing and dining rooms (which featured the two large bow windows), library and so forth. From what remains, it appears the interior decoration was a mixture of 18h century classicism and 19th gothicisation: fragments of fallen plasterwork scattered about the place reveal a mixture of designs.
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Major John Frederick Foster died just months before his father, so both the baronetcy and the Glyde Court estate passed to the next generation. Sir Augustus Vere Foster was seventeen when he came into his inheritance and four years later he married Charlotte ffolkes whose father, like his grandfather, was an Anglican clergyman based in Norfolk. In 1907, after thirteen years of marriage, the couple agreed to have their portrait painted by William Orpen, the commission coming via Hugh Lane who had met the Fosters a few years earlier when looking for pictures for an exhibition. He underwrote the portrait to the tune of £100 because the Fosters pleaded poverty: when Lane advised her on how best to redecorate Glyde Court, she warned, ‘Honestly, at most I am sure £40 is the outside of what ought to be spent on our drawing room.’ Lane also took a portrait of Lady Elizabeth Foster by Sir Thomas Lawrence, as part-payment for the Orpen picture: the Lawrence is now in the National Gallery of Ireland. The execution of Orpen’s painting seems to have been fraught from the start. The artist went to stay at Glyde Court which was being updated at the time and on the first floor candles were the only form of lighting. Sir Vere was impatient and preferred to go out shooting while his highly-strung wife (‘Vere hates the idea of “sitting” and will only do so as a favour to me’) fussed and fluttered. ‘All seems strange here,’ Orpen wrote to his wife, ‘They seem like two children playing at being married.’ Although several years the junior, he also commented ‘I feel years older than Sir Vere or Lady Foster and find myself giving them advice on how to manage their servants, etc. and children.’ By this date they had two daughters who were also to be included in the picture, together with a donkey (Lady Foster had a passion for the animals). Although summer, the weather was cold and wet, and so sometimes the donkey had to be brought into the drawing room for its sittings. The elder girl Philippa, then aged nine, liked to imagine she was really a boy and insisted on being called John and wearing a knickerbocker suit of brown velvet. In fact, Lady Foster was then pregnant with the couple’s much longed-for son, Anthony who was born the following February but as a result of her condition, she regularly disappeared to bed for days, making Orpen’s task even more difficult. When he finally completed the picture, Lady Foster wrote to Lane complaining that she and the other members of the family had been given the same expressions as the donkey: ‘If you knew of all the idiotic comments that tinkle through to us about the group, you would in a way understand my touchiness on the subject.’
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In the aftermath of the first World War, the War of Independence and the Civil War, the Fosters remained on at Glyde Court, although Lady Foster’s propensity for remaining in bed grew more and more pronounced and she was inclined to hibernate throughout the winter months. The couple’s son Anthony appears to have been more lively and in 1931 he revived an annual midsummer festival called the ‘Patrun’ or Pattern in the nearby village of Tallanstown. On the first occasion he initiated proceedings by blowing on a trumpet, while a local band played and a symbolic bough was set up in the centre of the village. Singing and dancing followed, together with humorous sketches and ‘recitations’ and, in the evening, the performance of a play, after which Anthony Foster once more blew on his trumpet. The festival continued to be held even though for much of the time thereafter he was in India, a subaltern in the British army. From there he wrote to his sisters in late 1933, asking them to advise his parents that for Christmas, ‘Let them put thirty shillings aside for my return, when we can have a dance to which the band, the Patrum Committee and all my friends are invited and that will pay for their refreshments. That’s what I’d love most in the world.’ It was not to be. The following September after his regiment had moved to Khartoum, he was found dead in what have been described as ‘tragic and mysterious circumstances’, contemporary newspaper announcements declaring they would be releasing details of what had happened. Lady Foster died four years later but her husband lived on until 1947, when he left Glyde to his younger daughter Dorothy. In 1940 she had married Colonel Arthur May and the couple thereafter lived in her family home. The older sister, still calling herself John and distinguished by her cropped hair and mannish dress, lived in the same county with a cousin, Miss Evelyn ffolkes until her death in 1962. Dorothy May survived another twenty-one years but had no children and with her passing, the Foster link with Glyde Court came to a close. Still, that is less than thirty years ago and one might have thought the house would today still stand. Instead, it is about to disappear, absorbed into the landscape. The nation’s already sparse architectural heritage will be further diminished.

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After the Sale

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A view of the entrance hall at Ballynagall, County Westmeath. The house dates from c.1808 when it was built at an estimated cost of £30,000 for James Gibbons to a design by Francis Johnston. This photograph was taken in 1961, a year before the contents of the house were sold: within two decades the building itself had been stripped of its fittings and left to fall into ruin. The photograph below shows the same entrance hall today. I shall be discussing the plight of Ballynagall, and several other houses which have seen their contents sold, at a conference on Art in the Country House being held at Dublin Castle next Thursday, April 23rd. For more information on this event, see: http://www.igs.ie/events/detail/art-in-the-country-house

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Ray of Light

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The inner hall of Kilrush, County Kilkenny. A branch of the St Georges settled here in the 17th century but for a long time the family lived in a late mediaeval tower house which was refurbished and enlarged. Finally in the second decade of the 19th century and following his marriage, Arthur St George commissioned a new residence from local architect William Robertson. Its most striking feature is the space shown here which looks as though it might have  been designed by Sir John Soane. Via a substantial staircase, the inner hall leads to the first-floor landing at the centre of which is a circular well-gallery surrounded by Doric columns and pilasters. Thanks to this being topped by a glazed dome the opening sends a broad pool of light into the hall below: notice the shadow of the gallery’s balusters thrown onto the far wall.

Change is Constant

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It has long been commented that Mountainstown, County Meath is mis-named since its location in the midst of flat countryside is near neither a mountain nor a town. One ill-tempered Englishwoman in the 1840s wrote ‘At the beginning of this month we came to a place called Mountainstown, which name it must have been received from the inveterately stupid and perverse disposition of the Natives, because the place is situated in a low and flat Country, and there is not a Mountain to be seen within the Horizon.’ In fact the denomination most likely derives from an Anglicisation of the Irish for ‘Beside a Bog.’ It has borne the name for hundreds of years since the house here, soon due to celebrate the tercentenary of its construction, has always been known as Mountainstown. It is believed to have erected around 1720 for Richard Gibbons whose father Samuel acquired the estate in the late 17th century: in the same year he made a visitation of his diocses, Bishop Anthony Dopping of Meath recorded ‘Mr Gibbons and his wife came here in xmas 1693.’ Mr Gibbons’ son Richard is likewise recorded as being at Mountainstown in Faulkiner’s Dublin Journal in 1745, by which time the house would have been well finished.

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The oldest part of Mountainstown is a stocky rectangular block with six bay front, of two main storeys with dormer attic above and basement below. Kevin Mulligan has described the building as occupying ‘the middle ground between farmhouse and mansion’ and like others employed the terms bucolic and naive when speaking of its design. Mountainstown’s facade is its most immediately striking feature, a determined effort on the part of Richard Gibbons to display awareness of current architectural trends even if these were employed in a somewhat unsophisticated manner. Four slender Ionic pilasters ascend to the top of the building but without the intervention of an entablature and frieze; instead they meet the roofline via a narrow moulded cornice. The two central pilasters support a pediment but again appear too slight for the task. The raised entrance is reached by flights of stone steps with iron work railings on either side, the Venetian doorcase once more being flanked by pairs of pilasters with sidelights above which sit half-urns while over the door itself is a stone cartouche featuring the arms of the Pollocks, the family that followed the Gibbonses at Mountainstown. The latter remained in possession of the estate until 1796 when it was sold to the John Pollock who had already been renting for some time.

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The history of Mountainstown’s next owners represents a familiar trajectory from merchant class to gentry, a route to which many families formerly aspired. The first John Pollock moved from Scotland to Ireland in 1732 and settled in Newry where he became involved in the burgeoning linen trade. His son continued in the same business and was commemorated by a tombstone in St Mary’s, Newry declaring he and his wife Elizabeth had been ‘parents of eleven children all of whom they lived to see established in the world.’ One of those children, another John, became a successful solicitor in Dublin and was appointed Transscriptor of the Court of the Exchequer. He also acted as agent for the Hills, Marquesses of Downshire, among the country’s largest landowners: at one time they had 115,000 acres, mostly but not exclusively in County Down. Hence being their agent was a profitable occupation and allowed John Pollock first to rent and then to buy Mountainstown although he retained a townhouse in Dublin’s Mountjoy Square so that his business could continue. Married to the daughter of a London banker, around 1811 he extended Mountainstown by adding a two-storey wing to the south-west of the older building. The ground floor of this new section contains a large drawing room with canted bay window and beyond it an equally substantial dining room. To the immediate right of the facade is a long kitchen wing and behind this lies a very substantial stable yard added by the next generation.

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Mountainstown is thus of two periods and two parts, each complementing the other. While the later portion of the house is relatively plain and very much in the Regency taste with deep tripartite windows, high ceilings and understated plasterwork, the earlier reflects the more ostentatious taste of the period in which it was built. The entrance hall, stairs and first floor landing retain their original decoration, moulded plaster panels with lugged heads forming tabernacle frames beneath a dentil cornice. The handsome stairs are wide and shallow, Doric balusters supporting the handrail and the side of each tread adorned with carved curls of foliage. As with the facade, this decoration represents the original builder’s interest in showing he was au courant with the latest fashions. The most unexpected feature can be found almost immediately inside the front door: what looks to be a death mask set into the ceiling. It is commonly believed that the man shown is Samuel Gibbons, perhaps placed here as an act of filial piety on the part of his son Richard. The rooms in the front portion of the house are noticeably smaller than those added in the 19th century, and some have angled corner chimneypieces: a marble panel on that in the former morning room featuring a knight in armour.

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In the mid-1820s Mountainstown was inherited by Arthur Hill Cornwallis Pollock, named after his father’s patron, Arthur Hill, second Marquess of Downshire. Almost twenty years before he had been sent on a tour of Europe by his parents, presumably keen that their heir have the upbringing of a gentleman. Having visited France and Italy, he travelled as far as Russia, spending time at the Imperial court in St Petersburg with his friends Lords Royston and Somerton, before finally returning home in the second half of 1807. Four years later he married a cousin and devoted the rest of his life to agriculture and country pursuits. It was Arthur who created the spacious yard immediately to the north of the main house as he often won medals for his animals at agricultural shows. The Pollocks were always keen on hunting and Arthur had his own pack of hounds at Mountainstown as did many of his neighbours: eventually these were amalgamated into the Clonghill Hunt which later became the Meath. And so it has gone on until now, when the present generation has decided the moment is right to pass Mountainstown on to another family, perhaps one that will remain in the house for as long as have the Pollocks. It is always sad to see an historic property come on the market, especially in Ireland where relatively few families have stayed in the same place for so long. However, one should remember the words of Disraeli who in 1867 observed, ‘Change is inevitable in a progressive country. Change is constant.’ Whatever one’s personal feelings, the proposed departure of the Pollocks from Mountainstown, like that of the Gibbonses before them, is a reflection of that necessary change.

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Return of the Native

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On a table in the Gothic Saloon of Birr Castle, County Offaly, a porcelain figure looms over Cecil Beaton’s photograph of a former chatelaine Anne, Countess of Rosse. Home since 1620 to fifteen generations of the Parsons family, in the past couple of years Birr Castle has welcomed back Patrick, Lord Oxmantown, his wife Anna and their young children who were previously living in China. You can read more about their return to the ancestral seat in an article I have written for the May issue of Architectural Digest. For more, see http://www.architecturaldigest.com/decor/2015-05/birr-castle-tour-county-offaly-ireland-article