The ferociously-protected entrance of Freame Mount, County Monaghan. This charming red-brick house dates from 1772 when built by Charles Mayne, agent for the nearby Dawson estate at Dartrey: its name derives from Philadelphia Freame, granddaughter of William Penn and second wife of Thomas Dawson, first Lord Dartrey. A flight of steps leads to the cut limestone tripartite door, the latter’s proportions somewhat too short so that more space than is customary has been given to the gothick fanlight.
Sir George Petrie (1790-1866) is today best recalled as one of the 19th century’s most notable antiquaries and archaeologists but he was also a fine artist, who n 1857 became President of the Royal Hibernian Academy. Many of his pictures provided the basis for engravings used to illustrate the period’s guidebooks and travelogues, and while he drew and painted views of the country’s ancient monuments he also produced a series of watercolours showing the Dublin of his day. To mark the 150th anniversary of Petrie’s death, the Royal Irish Academy (here he served as Vice President and which holds much of his archive) is currently exhibiting some of these pictures such as the view of Christ Church Cathedral above, which shows the building prior to its comprehensive restoration in the 1870s. Similarly the image below captures City Hall in its original incarnation as the Royal Exchange, and with a row of buildings to the immediate east which have long since been demolished. A fascinating show and well worth visiting in its final days.
Views of Dublin: Original Watercolours by Sir George Petrie, MRIA runs at the Royal Irish Academy, 19 Dawson Street, Dublin until next Monday, February 15th. Pictures reproduced by permission of the Royal Irish Academy © RIA.
A thesis waits to be written on the links between country house construction in Ireland and the history of the national economy.* There have been waves of building here and these were often aligned with agricultural prices: the better the annual return, the more likely houses would be erected, reconstructed or enlarged. Contrarily in lean times the amount of such work tailed off. In its present incarnation Hilton Park, County Monaghan exemplifies this phenomenon, since the house was last overhauled in the early 1870s, sufficiently after the Great Famine for the country’s agriculture to have recovered and not long before the onset of the following decade’s Land Wars which, coupled with the arrival of cheap grain and meat from the other side of the Atlantic, saw land values, and therefore estate owners’ incomes, precipitously decline towards the end of the 19th century. The land on which the house stands was purchased in 1734 by the Rev. Samuel Madden, the origins of whose family appear to lie in descent from a branch of the ancient O Madaidhin or O’Madden clan. One of his forebears became based in Oxfordshire in the 15th century and the first proven ancestor is John Mudwyn, one of whose sons Thomas Mudwyn settled in this country where he served as Comptroller of the Household to Sir Thomas Wentworth, later first Earl of Strafford during his time as Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. John Mudwyn’s surname became Madden, as it has remained ever since, and the Rev Samuel Madden was his great-grandson. This gentleman was commonly known as ‘Premium’ Madden, derived both from a provision in his will providing for premiums for Irish-made goods to the Dublin Society and from having been the founder of the ‘Madden Premium’ in Trinity College, Dublin (first given in 1718). Author of a play Themistocles, the Lover of his Country: a Tragedy (1729), he also wrote a work of speculative, and satiric, fiction called Memoirs of the Twentieth Century (1733). Dedicated to Frederick, Prince of Wales, to whom Madden had been tutor, the book was suppressed Prime Minister Sir Robert Walpole a fortnight after its publication. More influential was Madden’s Reflections and Resolutions Proper for the Gentlemen of Ireland which appeared in 1731 and embodied many of the aspirations behind the formation of the Dublin (later the Royal Dublin) Society which he co-founded the same year. No wonder Dr Johnson declared ‘His was a name which Ireland ought to honour.’
As mentioned above, in 1734 Samuel Madden bought some 4,000 acres of what subsequently became the Hilton estate. Once called Killshanless this had been land originally owned by the MacMahons but acquired through purchase in the 17th century by the Forth family. It was sold by them to Samuel Madden who appears to have spent some time there: Mrs Delany visited in August 1748 and wrote that the place ‘is pretty; a very fine wood of all sorts of forest trees, planted by Dr Madden just by the house, surrounded by a fine river.’ Following Dr Madden’s death in 1765 the property passed to his third son, John Madden. By then evidently there was a house called Maddenton, perhaps incorporating elements of an earlier building on the site, of seven bays and two storeys with tall brick chimney stacks. This survived until 1803 when the greater part of it was accidentally destroyed by fire after a servant set down a bucket of hot coals on the floor. The disaster was compounded by the fact that then-owner Colonel Samuel Madden of the Monaghan Militia was a ne’er-do-well gambler who ran through the family money and had to face his creditors two years before he died in 1814. The estate itself was only preserved thanks to the prudence of the Colonel’s father-in-law, the Rev Charles Dudley Ryder who kept the greater part of his own fortune to pass on to his grandson. But in the immediate aftermath of the fire, the family moved into what had been the servants’ quarters in the upper stableyard. Rebuilding did not begin until the first half of the 1830s, with the focus being on the rooms at the south side of the house which looked down to the lake: the dining room and a bedroom immediately above retain their decoration from this period. The finished house, the design of which is assigned to James Jones of Dundalk and the appearance of which can still be seen in old family photographs, had a long eastern facade of two storeys over basement and eleven bays. The centre five of these projected slightly, a flight of stone steps leading to the rather meanly proportioned entrance door. All this work and more (a new nursery wing to the north) was undertaken by Colonel John Madden of the Monaghan Militia who was able to benefit from his wise maternal grandfather’s inheritance and was as industrious as some of his forebears: he became a noted breeder of Shorthorn cattle and hackney horses, and built the Ride, a colonnade for exercising horses on wet days under his study window. A keen sailor and member of the Royal Yacht Squadron, he won a race around Ireland and sailed to the Mediterranean, bringing back from Naples a chimney piece now found in the drawing room. He also built a villa at Sandycove, Dublin and it was there he died in 1844.
Colonel Madden’s heir, another John, was not yet eight when his father died and was duly made a Ward of Court. Throughout his life John Madden held strong views not always shared by others of his class and background. As a young man he joined Isaac Butt’s Home Rule Party but failed to get elected in any of the elections he fought. In addition, in 1869 he was dismissed as a Deputy Lieutenant and Justice of the Peace for County Monaghan after contravening the 1850 Party Processions Act (which prohibited open marching, organised parades and sectarian meetings in Ireland) and for using using ‘language of studied insult to the government of the Queen’. (The Countess of Dartrey who lived elsewhere in the county described him at the time as ‘a semi-madman, who stood as a Tory Home Ruler for Monaghan in 1868, and wrote such outrageous letters that he was struck off the list of JPs.’)
More interestingly from our perspective, this John Madden carried out a sequence of improvements and allterations on his estate, beginning at age 19 with the sinking of a 135-foot well from which Hilton still draws its water: two years later he erected a bell tower of some 70 feet. In the aftermath of his abortive political ambitions, he engaged the gardener and landscape architect Ninian Niven, former curator of the National Botanic Gardens, to remodel Hilton’s parkland. Soon afterwards Madden embarked on a transformation of the house, initially consulting Sir Charles Lanyon but eventually settling for William Hague who today is primarily known for his work on public buildings, in particular Roman Catholic churches (he designed or altered between forty and fifty across the country). Cost may have been a factor in his selection, but also the fact that Hague was more likely to take direction from his client than would the established Lanyon. Hague’s intervention is immediately apparent on the exterior of the building, around which the ground was excavated some eight feet to create a new ground floor in what had hitherto been the basement. Access to the house was no longer gained at the top of a flight of steps, so to ensure protection against the era’s growing agrarian unrest a steel front door and shutters were installed. Meanwhile the facade, now fronted in sandstone and with a rusticated ground floor, was given a vast porte cochêre with a line of Italianate Ionic columns and pilasters beneath a pediment carrying the Madden coat of arms carved in Portland stone. The first floor pedimented windows have the long proportions of the late Georgian period but plate glass of the Victorian, while those above retain their sashes. Around the corner on the south side plans were drawn up for a central pavilion with an octagonal drawing room and matching wings but these were not carried out, a blessing according to the late Jeremy Williams since the outcome ‘would have given the house the semblance of a vast hotel to overwhelm the lake below.’
Internally, Hilton Park looks much as it did when Madden and Hague had finished their work on the building around 1878. The front door gives access to a hall with encaustic tiles and barrel vaulted ceiling: on either side a former pantry and housekeeper’s room became a study and smoking room respectively. Double doors open to the stair hall in carved oak which climbs to the first floor reception rooms. On the upper section of the west wall are a pair of heraldic stained glass windows made by Mayer & Co of London: between them is a niche holding a bust of ‘Premium’ Madden. At the top of the stairs a door to the immediate left opens into what had been a vast double drawing room: for reasons of practicality (and heat conservation) this was divided in two in the last century when the central timber archway was filled in. The northern section has a heavily carved Victorian chimney piece, the southern contains that brought back from Naples by the earlier John Madden. A boudoir to the north completes this run of reception rooms, ample enough to host a ball. Meanwhile at the centre of the south side of the house is the dining room which did not undergo refurbishment in the 1870s and therefore remains as designed by Jones forty years earlier; vaguely gothic in intent, it has sprung vaulting featuring oaks and ropes initiated from foliate corbels in each corner, but a classical black marble chimney piece. So too do the bedrooms above, the walls of one still covered in a pretty blue floral paper hung in the 1830s. Although much has changed in the intervening period, Hilton Park still remains in the hands of the Madden, the ninth generation now responsible for its future. Open to the public for weddings, weekend guests and houseparties (see hiltonpark.ie) it wonderfully exudes much of its original atmosphere, although one suspects that were earlier occupants to return they would be amazed by how much warmer and more comfortable is the house than used to be the case (and how much better the cooking today than it traditionally was in such places). All being well, the Maddens will continue to reside there offering Hilton hospitality for at least another nine generations.
Last November the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht launched a document called An Action Plan for the Sustainable Future of the Irish Historic House in Private Ownership. In her Introduction Minister Heather Humphreys observed that these properties ‘are an important part of our social, cultural and architectural heritage,’ as well as being ‘an essential thread of our national story and a great source of local community pride.’ Furthermore historic houses are ‘a vital attraction for both local and foreign visitors and they play an important role in stimulating economic development, particularly at community level.’
Last Thursday members of the Browne family announced that Westport House, County Mayo where they and their forebears have lived for almost 350 years, is to be placed on the open market. The financial difficulties faced by the Brownes, arising from a bank loan (and its attendant guarantees) taken out in 2006 by the late Jeremy Sligo, have been well known for some time. (Incidentally, they demonstrate yet again how in this country while a borrower can be penalised for making an ill-advised decision, the relevant lender suffers no such retribution). Westport’s predicament demonstrates how fragile is Ireland’s remaining stock of historic properties, how vulnerable to the vagaries of shifting circumstance, precisely because so few safeguards or supports exist to ensure they can weather past and future storms.
Westport House perfectly conforms to Minister Humphreys’ designation of the Irish historic property being a source of local pride, an attraction for domestic and overseas visitors and a key player in stimulating regional economic development. A report commissioned last year by Mayo County Council found the house and grounds attracted 162,000 visitors annually and contributed €1.7 million to the fiscal purse and local economy, with 60 per cent of respondents citing the Browne family home as their main reason for visiting Mayo. It is vital to the well being of the area, and the Brownes deserve applause for making this so.
Over the past year there have been plenty of reports, meetings, analyses and consultations over Westport’s plight. The time for talk has now come to a close. Decisive action needs to take place, the estate and house ought to be preserved, and the values espoused in its recent document by the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht made manifest. Otherwise, yet again, we will witness the diminution of Ireland’s heritage, and the loss of another ‘essential thread of our national story.’
The spirit of Palladianism lingered far longer in Ireland than elsewhere, and was present in the design not just of private houses but also public buildings. In the latter category among the very last such work was the Blue Coat School (now the Law Society of Ireland) designed in the early 1770s by Thomas Ivory. Among the pleasures of this property are the details of the façade. The granite rusticated quadrants, for example, have niches, the round tops of which together with the string coursing are of Portland stone (see above). Similarly the monolithic solidity of the two large end pavilions (one intended for use as a schoolroom, the other a chapel) is relieved at the bases by blind oculi once more of Portland stone inserted into granite (below).
On January 1st 1778 John Dawson, Viscount Carlow married Lady Caroline Stuart, daughter of the third Earl of Bute. Shortly before this occasion, Mrs Delany wrote of her as follows: ‘Lady Caroline is a genius in painting and musick, and has made a great progress in both; she has a clear, sweet voice, under good management, and less of the fashionable yell than most of her contemporarys. She is extremely good-humoured and sensible, but is one in whom many pleasing accomplishments are a little hurt by an awkward habit: she has no affectation, but a trick of a laugh at whatever is said or that she says herself.’ Fortunately we know a great deal more about Lady Caroline than this somewhat ambivalent description, as she was an ardent letter writer, especially to her youngest and favourite sibling, Lady Louisa Stuart. Their correspondence survives and was published in 1895 as Gleanings from an Old Portfolio. From her letters we learn that Lady Caroline was not altogether happy living in Ireland, separated from her family and old friends. It did not help that the house inherited by her husband failed to meet with her approval. Dawson Court stood on an estate in County Laois which had been acquired by Viscount Carlow’s grandfather, a clever banker called Ephraim Dawson who had married a Preston heiress and built the house for his bride. What might have sufficed at the start of the 18th century was no longer deemed good enough towards its close, and more than once Lady Caroline grumbles about the old building and its disadvantages. In August 1781 she writes, ‘we have had a storm of wind and rain to-day, that I really have been expecting this infirm house to give way, and dreamt of it all night, my fears were so strong… I have no pleasure in the place this summer, for, as nothing has been done in our absence, it is all in the greatest disorder, not a walk in the garden free from weeds, no water in the river, and the weather so bad that, in short, I comfort myself, as Miss Herbert says, with a good fire.’ That December, she complains again about problems caused by high winds: ‘I can hardly find a place to sit in to-day, being turned out of the drawing-room by smoke, and here’s a whirlwind in the library.’ One suspects that it was at least in part to put an end to her protests that around 1790 Lady Caroline’s husband, by now created first Earl of Portarlington, embarked on building a new residence.
Painted in Rome by Batoni in 1769 while on a Grand Tour, the future first Earl of Portarlington was a man of considerable artistic ability. According to George Hardinge, who visited Ireland in 1792 and 1793, Lord Portarlington ‘draws prettily & is a very ingenious architect… [he]draws in Sandby’s manner and almost as well – many of the views in Sandby’s work – (“The Virtuoso’s Museum”) are taken by the former, who has made a voyage pittoresque of Ireland worthy of immediate publication…’ Almost as great a patron of the arts as Lord Charlemont, Portarlington displayed his discernment by being one of the key supporters of James Gandon who he had met in the home of the aforementioned Paul Sandby and to whom he wrote from Ireland in 1779, ‘I do not see any architect of the least merit here.’ By 1790 Lord Portarlington had already commissioned from Gandon the design of a new church close by his estate at Coolbanagher (see A Very Conspicuous Object, December 28th 2015). Understandably he therefore turned to Gandon again when looking for a design for the proposed new house and so work commenced on what would prove to be the architect’s most important private commission. Evidently Lady Portarlington’s dislike of the old house was so great that the family demolished this building and moved into the new – named Emo Court – even though it was far from finished. And then disaster struck. In the autumn of 1798 her husband joined the army summoned to repel a French invasion in Mayo. In late November he wrote to his wife that ‘in consequence of a cold, I have had the most violent attack on my lungs; which was a dangerous situation for six days past, but I had last night a favourable change; which gives me great hopes of getting thro it…’ He died shortly afterwards and work on Emo Court came to a halt. The second earl initially seemed to promise well but proved a disappointment to the family, an army career stalling in 1815 when he somehow failed to join his company at the Battle of Waterloo until after much of the fighting had taken place: it would appear he had been enjoying himself too much and too late the night before. Thereafter he is generally described as giving himself up to dissipation, and the squandering of family funds, supposedly remarking on one occasion that he could not see what difference another nought would make to his financial obligations. He died in Londin in 1845 unmarried and unmourned, leaving title and estate – complete with unfinished house – to a nephew who also inherited debts running to some £600,000.
An account of Emo Court in the middle of the 19th century noted that ‘The principal apartments in the house are a grand reception saloon at the entrance, and a state drawing room, but these rooms, although built nearly sixty years rough bricks and stone still visible.’ Elsewhere could be found scaffolding and tools used on work begun but not concluded by the second earl who in the 1820s had employed the fashionable London architect Lewis Vulliamy and an otherwise little known trio of brothers called Williamson who ran a practice in Dublin. Between them, they had built a portico on the rear facade, decorated the dining room ceiling and designed the interior of the rotunda. It is the last of these that is shown here today, finally completed in around by yet another architect, William Caldbeck who also added that standard of the Victorian country house, a ‘bachelor’ wing. So what of this key space, aside from its basic form, can be attributed to James Gandon? The rotunda, otherwise known as the saloon, lies at a crucial juncture in the house, directly behind the entrance hall and between dining and drawing rooms. Here a series of marble pilasters capped with gilded Corinthian capitals rise to a coffered dome with glazed top. Niches between the pilasters would once have held statues and the floor is inlaid with elaborate parquet. The rotunda was intended to be the central point in an enfilade overlooking the gardens but could it ever have served any purpose, other than as a rather lovely meeting place while passing from one functional area to another? And again, what of its decoration can be considered based on Gandon’s intentions, and what those of the Victorian Caldbeck? It helps to compare the room with other near-contemporaneous examples, most obviously the saloon of Castle Coole, County Fermanagh designed by James Wyatt and dating from the same period. Again the walls are lines with Corinthian pilasters (scagliola) and there are round-topped niches (these holding Wyatt-designed stoves) the upper section of which has plasterwork which might have been Gandon’s aim for the Rotunda. Another, and closer, comparison can be made with Ballyfin, just a few miles away and designed in the early 1820s by the Morrisons, father and son. One suspects that in this instance, the incomplete work at Emo provided inspiration for Ballyfin’s top-lit rotunda (as the former’s library did for that at the latter) although here the walls are lined by Siena scagliola columns with Ionic capitals. So it seems reasonable to conclude that even if not executed by Gandon Emo’s rotunda displays his spirit.
More on Emo Court in due course. With thanks to the Office of Public Works for permission to photograph the house’s interior.
There are advantages to seeing a house like Lambay Castle, County Dublin in the depths of winter. During the rest of the year, the handsome layout of the surrounding gardens is inclined to distract attention from the ingenuity of Edwin Lutyens’ early 20th century design, the manner in which he enfolded an older building into the larger property, melding the two so thoroughly that without awareness of his plans it is difficult to recognise where one ends and the other begins. Likewise, his clever integration of different floor levels on this site becomes clearer during the present period when plants are cut back and the eye can focus more clearly on the house’s structural rhythm.