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/)