Made to Last For Ever

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‘It were also to be wished that even our gentlemen would in their country-seats imitate Colonel Newburgh, a great improver in the Co. of Cavan, who as well as several others, does not only use stucco work, instead of wainscot, but has arched his fine dwelling-house, and all his large office-houses, story over story, and even all their roofs in the most beautiful manner without any timber.’
Samuel Madden, Reflections and Resolutions Proper for the Gentlemen of Ireland, Etc. 1738.
‘This seat, for beauty and magnificence, may vie with any in Ireland. There is an ascent to it by several terraces from the river, which are adorned with ponds, jets d’eau, fruit and flowers. The house is about 140 feet in front – it is made to last for ever – the roofs and all the apartments being vaulted, and curiously finished with stucco work; and yet scarce any house in Ireland has so brisk and lively an aspect – the just mixture of the brick and hewn stone, and the proportion of the parts adding life to one another; the large court and offices also behind it are all vaulted. It is not easy to pass by this fine seat without delaying at it, but to do justice to the house, its various apartments, gardens, vistas, avenues, circular walks, roads and plantations rising to the tops of all the hills around, would require a description that would draw me too far from my present design.’
Rev. William Henry, Upper Lough Erne, 1739.
‘The affairs of Ireland being sometime happily settled, the gentlemen of the country now began to quit their cottages, and build mansion houses, suitable to their estates and fortunes. The arts hitherto unknown in Ireland, architecture in particular, began to receive encouragement; of which no gentleman of private fortune gave juster and more useful specimens than Mr Newburgh. His dwelling house as well as offices being arched throughout, in the upper as well as lower stories are thereby of course, free from the danger and power of fire. The compliment that the late Dean Swift paid to Mr Newburgh on the planning such a singular but useful edifice, was as uncommon, as there is reason to believe it sincere, viz. That it was not only the best, but the only house he had seen in Ireland.’
Particulars relating to the Life and Character of the Late Brockhill Newburgh Esq. ,1761.

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As part of James I’s plantation of Ulster, in 1609 John Taylor of Cambridge received a grant of 1,500 acres in an area of County Cavan called Aghieduff. Here he established the town of Ballyhaise and, according to a mid-19th century report, ‘built a strong Bawn of lime and stone for his own residence, on the site of the present castle, which, from it position, commanded the ford over the river.’ Further English and Scottish settlers were encouraged to move into the area and when Nicholas Pynner undertook his government-commissioned survey of the province’s plantation in 1618-19 he found eighteen such families living at Ballyhaise ‘and everything around the infant colony appeared in the most prosperous condition.’ The disturbances of the 1640s were a setback to the enterprise but by the time of Charles II’s restoration to the throne in 1660, Ballyhaise’s settlement was once more progressing. John Taylor had married the daughter and heiress of Henry Brockhill of Allington, Kent and their elder son was duly christened Brockhill Taylor; he served as Member of Parliament for the borough of Cavan in the 1630s. On his death he left no son but two daughters one of whom, Mary inherited the Cavan estate. She married Thomas Newburgh and the couple had several sons, the second of which, Colonel Brockhill Newburgh, was the next owner of Ballyhaise since his elder brother died in 1701 without heirs. During the Williamite Wars, Colonel Newburgh had raised a company of soldiers and participated in several battles in support of what would prove to be the winning side. In 1704 he was appointed High Sheriff of Cavan and served as an M.P. from 1715 to 1727, as well as acting as chairman of the local linen board. However it is for the building projects he undertook on his Ballyhaise estate that Colonel Newburgh is best remembered. In 1703 he and another local landowner rebuilt the bridge here as an eight-arched stone structure, and during the same period he also embarked on a grand scheme to lay out a new town, described after his death as being ‘in the form of a Circus, the houses all arched, with a large circular market house in the center; a building, in the opinion of some good judges, not unworthy the plan of Vitruvius or Palladio; and which (if we may be allowed to compare small things with great) bears no distant resemblance to the Pantheon at Rome, but with this difference, without the opening of the convex roof at the summit, contrived to give light to the latter.’ Unfortunately in 1736 the market house collapsed and had to be rebuilt; in 1837 it was reported to be ‘an arched edifice built of brick and of singular appearance.’ It has since gone and the present market house, with ill-considered uPVC windows, does little to improve what remains of Colonel Newburgh’s once-elegant and innovative programme of urban planning.

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The near-contemporaneous accounts carried above give us an idea of Colonel Newburgh’s ambitious developments of his own house and grounds at Ballyhaise, and the impact these made on visitors to the area. The gardens, it is clear, were an elaborate baroque arrangement of ‘ponds, jets d’eau, fruit and flowers’ spread across a sequence of terraces that descended to the river before the land rose up once more on its far side. As for the house, its architect has long been the subject of speculation. It used to be attributed to Castle, but given that Colonel Newburgh is believed to have been born c.1659 (and died in 1741) and that certain elements of the building, not least the red brick used in its construction, are associated with Sir Edward Lovett Pearce, he now seems more likely to have been responsible. Ballyhaise was probably constructed on the site and incorporated parts of an earlier dwelling dating back a century to around the time of John Taylor’s arrival; one imagines this to have been defensive in character. Colonel Newburgh’s house, on the other hand, projects its owner’s assurance and the more tranquil character of the time.
The core of the building was of two storeys over half-basement, and of seven bays. As already mentioned red brick was used except for the three centre bays which are of limestone with Ionic over Doric pilasters below a full entablature supporting a pediment. The narrow entrance is reached at the top of a flight of steps, a garland of carved flowers fitted beneath the door case’s segmental pediment containing a scallop shell. In 1746 the architect and designer Thomas Wright who was then visiting Ireland as a guest of Lord Limerick (see Do the Wright Thing, July 28th 2014) made a sketch of the front of Ballyhaise as it then was. This can be seen above and indicates the house was the centrepiece of a Palladian scheme extended on either side by quadrants before terminating in pavilion wings. None of this remains today and the interior has likewise undergone changes since first completed when it was vaulted throughout, allegedly as a precaution against fire. What remain largely unaltered are the entrance hall and rooms immediately on either side; one of these, the so-called Peacock Room, contains wall paper from the first half of the 19th century, covered in varnish at some later date but otherwise in good condition. To the rear of the entrance hall is the room which best evokes Colonel Newburgh’s house, a small oval saloon. Its walls covered in plaster panelling beneath a shallow coffered dome, the saloon contains a simple Kilkenny marble chimneypiece and two windows on either side of what surely must once have been an opening onto a balcony at the centre of the projecting bow.

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Ballyhaise remained in the possession of the Newburgh family until around 1800 when it was sold to William Humphreys, a Dublin merchant who had made his fortune in the wood trade. By then the house must have looked very old-fashioned and it was therefore subjected to a complete overhaul. The quadrants and wings were demolished and the main block extended on either side to hold drawing and dining room respectively, both lit by generous tripartite windows. The contrast between these and the original early 18th century windows is only one of a number of incongruities, accentuated on the exterior by the unmistakable difference in tone of brick. Inside rather narrow passages provide access to the main reception rooms which are large and mostly plain although the overdoors carry floral friezes. The main staircase, squeezed into too tight a space, leads to the first floor former bedrooms which are also simple although some, such as that immediately above the oval saloon, retain their Georgian decoration and chimney piece. Mr Humprheys’ heirs enjoyed the advantages of his wealth for barely a century before it ran out and the house was once more sold, this time to the state which in 1905 bought the estate to run as an agricultural college. Ballyhaise has served this purpose every since, a mixed blessing for the place. Inevitably there have been losses, not least to the surrounding parkland where no evidence of Colonel Newburgh’s fantastical gardens survive; of course, these may well have been swept away when the property was modernised by Mr Humphreys. Recent additions to the building stock in the grounds are pedestrian in design, but the old stable blocks remain and have suffered relatively little compromise. And most importantly the house itself survives and has of late benefitted from remedial works, particularly to the roof. Not all is as was when Colonel Newburgh embarked on his improvements but the words of the Rev. William Henry written in 1739 still ring true: Ballyhaise appears to have been ‘made to last for ever.’
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The Management of Decline

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Search the internet and as recently as two years ago you will find abundant references to Cartlan’s traditional thatched public house on the main street of Kingscourt, County Cavan, as well as many photographs of the building looking suitable picturesque. This is the state of the same building today, in the throes of what appears to be terminal decline. Unfortunately it is a spectacle replicated in far too many other Irish towns; the world has a super-abundance of ersatz Irish pubs while the real thing is allowed to fall into desuetude.

The Bellamont Busts

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Since first writing of Bellamont Forest (La Belle au Bois Dormant, January 21st), I have heard from a number of readers concerned about a set of 18th century marble busts formerly in the house. Although none can be verified with absolute certainty, various tales exist concerning the origin of these busts. It is said, for example, that they represent different members of the Coote family responsible for building Bellamont. It has also been proposed that they were brought back from mainland Europe after a Grand Tour and installed in niches in the entrance hall and first-floor landing specifically created to accommodate them.
What can be confirmed is that the busts were already in the house more than two centuries ago. Sir Charles Coote, an illegitimate son of the last Earl of Bellamont, produced a Statistical Survey of Cavan in 1802 in which he wrote of the house, ‘The entrance from the portico is a lofty hall, thirty feet by thirty, which is ornamented with statuary in regular niches…’ Likewise in 1835 Lieutenant P. Taylor’s statistical report on the parish of Drumgoon includes a description of Bellamont with the observation, ‘The portico enters into a lofty hall 30 feet square, tastefully ornamented with statuary…’ I am grateful to Kevin Mulligan for bringing these two references to my attention.

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The earliest known visual evidence of the busts’ presence in the house comes from a photograph album presented by Richard Coote to his neighbour Lady Dartrey in September 1870. Now in the possession of the National Library of Ireland, it includes a view of the entrance hall (then serving as a billiard room), which with that institution’s permission I reproduce above; one can assume the picture was taken at some date prior to 1870 (and incidentally, how fascinating to see the hall decorated in such high-Victorian style). A photograph in Volume V of the Irish Georgian Society’s Records (see top of this piece) which was published in 1913 and shows the busts in their niches appears to be a section of the earlier picture. Thereafter it would seem the busts remained within the house through changes of ownership – until last year.
Following the death of John Coote in January 2012, the busts were removed from Bellamont. After representations from the Irish Georgian Society, in September Cavan County Council issued notice to a number of parties requiring the busts’ return. To date this has not happened. I do not intend to become immersed in legal niceties, not least because the matter could yet go to litigation. On the other hand, the busts’ removal does raise a number of significant questions about what constitutes a permanent fixture within a historic building and what should be deemed a transitory decorative feature. In the case of the busts no violence was done to the house during their removal, for which nothing other than a step ladder was required. In other words, unlike say when a chimneypiece is taken out, the structure suffered no damage.
The Government’s 2011 Architectural Heritage Protection Guidelines for Planning Authories proposes: ‘free-standing objects may be regarded as fixtures where they were placed in positions as part of an overall architectural design.’ It also states that ‘Works of art, such as paintings or pieces of sculpture, placed as objects in their own right within a building, are unlikely to be considered as fixtures unless it can be proved that they were placed in particular positions as part of an overall architectural design.’
It is worth noting first that these are only guidelines; the document’s opening page counsels that what follows ‘does not purport to be a legal interpretation of any of the Conventions, Acts, Regulations or procedures mentioned. The aim is to assist planners and others in understanding the guiding principles of conservation and restoration.’ In addition, the advice offered is that works of art can only be deemed fixtures provided there is proof ‘they were placed in particular positions as part of an overall architectural design.’ In the case of the Bellamont busts the lack of such conclusive documentary evidence is an obvious problem for anyone championing their return. We do not know the artist responsible, or the date of their creation. Were they commissioned or bought ‘off the shelf’? Can it be conclusively demonstrated the niches were designed to accommodate them?
The next photograph shows the entrance hall in the mid-1980s not long before Bellamont Forest was bought by John Coote; over the intervening century every aspect of the room’s decoration has changed except for the busts.

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I am unaware of any similar case to the Bellamont busts in this country at the moment or indeed in the past but it has to be said that recent precedents in Britain are not encouraging. In 1990, for example, Canova’s marble statue of The Three Graces, which had been commissioned by sixth Duke of Bedford in 1814 and installed in a purpose-built temple at Woburn, was removed after it had been judged not to constitute a part or fixture of the building. Only following four years of intense negotiation was the statue jointly bought by the Victoria & Albert Museum and the National Galleries of Scotland. More recently in 2007 Dumfries House and contents were offered for sale by the Marquess of Bute. Those contents included the only fully documented suites of furniture made by Thomas Chippendale. If anything could be deemed a fitting, albeit free-standing, it was surely these Chippendale pieces. Yet they would have been dispersed at auction (for which catalogues were printed by Christie’s) but for the intervention of the Prince of Wales who subsequently helped to establish a charitable trust preserving Dumfries and its furnishings.
Alas in Ireland we have no such well-connected champions of the country’s architectural heritage, nor have we shown much concern for preserving the historic contents of our houses. For this reason, the issue of the Bellamont busts is important and could set a precedent. But it is essential that sentiment does not cloud any discussion relating to their removal. Over centuries an inordinate number of works of art have been taken from their original or long-term settings and placed elsewhere, as a visit to any state gallery or museum will demonstrate. To insist that proprietors of historic buildings may not dispose of certain items which have remained in the same location beyond a certain period of time is to trespass dangerously on the rights of private ownership. It could also hinder rather than help the cause of heritage preservation by inspiring antagonism among the very people we are trying to encourage and support. Having seen the busts in place over many years, my ardent wish is that they will be restored to the niches they occupied for so long. But I am also sufficiently aware of the complexities of the case to appreciate this might not happen.

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The Irish Aesthete welcomes comment on this or any other topic covered here, provided it is expressed in temperate language.

Back to Bellamont

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Having been once to Bellamont (see La Belle au Bois Dormant, January 21st), it is impossible not to return. Here is the upper floor of the house’s main cantilevered staircase. The relative want of ornamentation – only plasterwork curlicues embellishing each sprung arch – forms a striking yet sublime contrast to the elaborate workmanship found on the floor below.

La Belle au Bois Dormant

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Here is Bellamont Forest, County Cavan which can lay claim to being the most beautiful house in Ireland. Certainly its situation is unparalleled, since the building sits on a rise at the end of a mile-long drive, the ground to either side dropping to lakes, the world beyond screened by dense woodland. Bellamont is an unexpected delight, hidden from view until one rounds the last turn of the drive and sees the house ahead.
In purest Palladian style and looking like a villa in the Veneto, Bellamont is believed to have been designed c.1725-30 by the pre-eminent architect then working in Ireland, Sir Edward Lovett Pearce who was also responsible for the Houses of Parliament in Dublin (now the Bank of Ireland), and a number of since-lost country houses such as Desart Court, County Kilkenny and Summerhill, County Meath. Pearce was a cousin of Bellamont’s builder Thomas Coote, a Lord Justice of the King’s Bench. The Cootes had come to Ireland at the start of the 17th century and prospered so well that within 100 years their various descendants owned estates throughout the country. Ballyfin, County Laois which has recently undergone a superlative restoration was another Coote property.

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The appeal of Bellamont lies in its exquisite simplicity, beginning with an exterior which is of mellow red brick with stone window dressings. Of two storeys over a raised rusticated basement, the front is dominated by a full-height limestone portico reached by a broad flight of steps. The imposing effect is achieved by the most effortless means and using the plainest materials, but there can be no doubt that Bellamont was always intended to impress. The Portland stone-flagged entrance hall, with its coved ceiling and pairs of flanking doors, sets the tone for what is follow.
While there are small rooms immediately to right and left, the latter traditionally used as a cosy winter library, the main reception areas lie to the rear of the building, a sequence of drawing room, saloon and dining room which retain their 18th century decoration including the chimneypieces. The first of these is believed to have once been a series of rooms, but following a fire in 1760 acquired its present form including the elaborate recessed ceiling which was probably intended to complement that in the dining room on the other side of the saloon. The walls of this central room contain contain stucco panels once filled with family portraits, the best-known of which – painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds in 1773 and showing the Charles Coote, Earl of Bellamont resplendent in his robes as a Knight of Bath – now hangs in the National Gallery of Ireland.

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The aforementioned Earldom of Bellamont was a second creation of the title for a member of the family. Evidently an ostentatious and pompous man – seemingly he insisted on making his maiden speech in the House of Lords in French, to the bemusement of his fellow peers – Lord Bellamont can at least be credited with having the good taste to enhance the house built by his grandfather. He married a daughter of the first Duke of Leinster and by her had four daughters and just one son who died in Toulouse at the age of 12, his body being brought back to Bellamont to lie for three days on the upper landing before burial in the family vault.
As a result of there being no legitimate heir, the earldom again lapsed on Lord Bellamont’s death in 1800. However, despite being seriously wounded in the groin during a duel with Lord Townshend, he managed to have at least 16 offsring out of wedlock by four different women, and one of these sons, also called Charles Coote, inherited Bellamont Forest. Ultimately it was sold out of the family in the middle of the 19th century and bought by the Smiths (later Dorman-Smiths), one of whom Major-General Eric Dorman-Smith served in the British army during both the First and Second World Wars after which, having changed his surname to O’Gowan, he became involved with the IRA.

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In 1987 Bellamont Forest was bought by John Coote, an Australian interior designer whose family had emigrated from Ireland at the start of the last century. John dearly loved the house and undertook to restore it to a pristine condition, keeping the decoration spare so that the beauty of the rooms’ architecture would be more apparent. There was never a great deal of furniture, just a few large pieces he had specifically made and which were inspired by Georgian workmanship. In revealing the building’s purity he not only demonstrated the splendid taste of Pearce but his own also, since it would have been tempting to intervene in the interiors.
Those interiors served wonderfully for entertaining, which John did frequently. I have been to a great many terrific parties at Bellamont, and even hosted a few there, one of which – a birthday dinner for 30 – is thankfully uncommemorated by any photographs. But there are ample souvenirs and joyous memories of John’s own sundry social gatherings, such as the thé dansants he loved to throw, when a 16-piece orchestra would play in the saloon and Jack Leslie would demonstrate how to dance the Black Bottom. The last great party at Bellamont took place during the summer of 2009 to mark John’s 60th birthday and was spectacular even by his standards, with drinks in the lower gardens followed by dinner and dancing outdoors in the balmy air.
The following year John was obliged to put Bellamont Forest up for sale, and thereafter he rarely visited the place. Tomorrow marks the first anniversary of his death, which happened unexpectedly while he was working in Indonesia. He is still sorely mourned by all of us who knew him in Ireland. Meanwhile Bellamont slumbers, awaiting a new owner who will kiss the place back to life; there is talk now of an auction in March. One prays that whoever next assumes responsibility for Bellamont will bring to the house the same flair and fun as did John Coote for so many years.

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All photographs by René Kramers (http://www.reneez.com/)