Perfection in Miniature

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‘The townland, and chief part of the demesne of Ledwithstown, are in this parish (Shruel), though the dwelling house and offices are in the parish of Kilcommack. It has been long the residence of a respectable family of the name of Ledwith, who possess a considerable property in this neighbourhood.’ A Statistical Account, or Parochial Survey, of Ireland, 1819.
In 1976 Maurice Craig wrote of Ledwithstown, County Longford, ‘there can be few houses of its size in Ireland more thoroughly designed, and with internal decoration so well integrated.’ The house has long been attributed to Richard Castle and is one of three such properties considered to have been designed by the architect, the other two being Gaulstown, County Westmeath (see Gallia Urba est Omnis Divisa in Partes Tres, February 24th 2014) and Whitewood Lodge, County Meath (see An Appalling Vista, February 9th last). In their form and composition this triumvirate demonstrates a steadily growing assurance, with Ledwithstown displaying by far the greatest sophistication and thus inclining to the idea that it was the latest, probably dating from the second half of the 1740s (Castle died in 1751). Relatively little is known of the building’s history, other than that until 1911 it was owned, although not always occupied, by the Ledwith family who settled in the area around 1650. Members of that now-vanished class, the gentry, the Ledwiths played their part in local society as Grand Jurors and High Sheriffs but otherwise came little to public notice. The same is true of their former home, which despite its considerable charm, can be passed unnoticed on the public highway: again like Gaulstown and Whitewood, Ledwithstown lies at the end of an exceptionally long, straight drive.

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As with Gaulstown and Whitewood, Ledwithstown is a three-bay house of two storeys over a semi-raised basement. With all three the main entrance is approached by a flight of stone steps; in this instance, the supporting walls splay out to create the impression of a ceremonial approach to the door. In the case of the other two properties, the doorcase is relatively plain, of cut limestone with a fanlight (that at Gaulstown also has side lights). Ledwithstown’s south-facing doorcase is altogether more elaborate, a cut-stone tripartite Tuscan design incorporating tetrastyle pilasters resting on rusticated base and surmounted by carved pediment. Such an entrance immediately indicates this is a building with greater aspirations than those of its siblings. In other respects, however, the facade of Ledwithstown is closer in spirit to Whitewood than to Gaulstown, sharing the same heavy parapet wall concealing the greater part of a slated roof with a pair of substantial chimneystacks (those at Gaulstown are at either gable end). Likewise Ledwithstown and Whitewood have raised corner quoins which add further gravitas to the building, the most striking differences between the two being that Whitewood’s facade is of cut stone (as opposed to roughcast render over rubble stone) and Ledwithstown’s first floor fifteen-pane sash windows share the same proportions as those one storey below (their equivalents at Whitewood are smaller).

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The interior design and decoration of Ledwithstown is much more elaborate than either of the two houses with which it bears comparison. Although measuring just forty-eight by forty-seven feet, it can be considered a country house in miniature, the layout being identical to that found in many larger properties. There are, for example, two staircases, that to the west, of carved wood, serving only the ground and first floors while secondary service stairs of stone to the east also descend to the basement area. Immediately inside the entrance hall are doors to left and right providing access to the former morning room and study; a matching pair to the rear open to the staircases while one in the centre of the back wall leads to the drawing room. Here and in the adjacent dining room, the walls retain their mid-18th century plaster panelling, that in the drawing room being especially fine with a combination of lugged and round topped panels topped by swags or baskets of fruit and shells. Similarly the main staircase, lit by a round-topped window, has timber wainscoting and leads to a panelled first floor landing with egg-and-dart and dentil cornicing; one of the rooms on this level is entirely panelled in wood and others still contain their shallow limestone chimney pieces. The basement likewise keeps much of its original character with a sequence of rooms opening off a central stone-flagged and vaulted central passage.

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In 1911 Ledwithstown was bought from the original family by Laurence Feeney. However, following his premature death just six years later, the house was let to a variety of tenants none of whom took care of the property; seemingly a brother and sister who lived there for a while removed all the door and shutter knobs, while another family allowed the chimneys to become blocked and then knocked holes in the walls to permit smoke escape. In 1976 Maurice Craig described Ledwithstown as being ‘unhappily in an advanced state of dilapidation, perhaps not beyond recovery’ and two years later Mark Bence-Jones wrote that the place was ‘now derelict.’ However, around this time the original Laurence Feeney’s grandson, likewise called Laurence, married and he and his wife Mary began to consider the possibility of restoring Ledwithstown.
The couple, together with their children, initiated work on the house and in 1982 they were visited by Desmond Guinness. Soon afterwards the Irish Georgian Society offered its first grant to Ledwithstown, the money being put towards replacing the roof. Further financial aid from the IGS followed, along with voluntary work parties to help the Feeneys in their enterprise. By 1987 Ledwithstown had a new roof and parapet and was once more watertight. Inevitably sections of the reception rooms’ plaster panelling and other decoration had been lost to damp, but enough remained for it to be copied and replaced. The same was true of the main stair hall and sections of the first floor wood panelling, all of which was gradually replaced: when new floors were installed on this level in 1990 surviving panelled walls had to be suspended in mid-air to facilitate the removal of decayed boards. Ledwithstown demonstrates that even the most rundown building can be saved provided the task is approached with enough commitment. Today, more than thirty years after they embarked on their mission, the Feeneys remain happily living in what is, above all else, a family home. So too are both Gaulstown and Whitewood Lodge, making this another trait all three houses share.

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Almost a Remembrance

 

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The gatelodge at Ballynegall, County Westmeath. Designed by Francis Johnston in 1808 the building provided a perfect introduction to the estate, its features emulating in miniature those of the main house. Tragically some twenty years after its exceptional contents were sold at auction, the house was stripped and gutted in the early 1980s, and is now a roofless shell. The lodge on the other hand remains, a sad remembrance of what once stood but has been lost at the end of the drive.

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Flying High

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More superlative rococo plasterwork by Robert West, this time in the double cube former ballroom of Castlemartyr, County Cork. The room was added to the existing house in the second half of the 1760s by Richard Boyle, second Earl of Shannon. The house remained in the family until the beginning of the last century and more recently has become a hotel. Anyone in the area should remember that at present this room contains many of the original Boyle portraits which formerly hung here and have now temporarily returned to their former home.

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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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O Ruined Piece of Nature

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Looking through a wrought-iron gate towards one of the ruined twin gothic lodges of Ballysaggartmore, County Waterford. Now deep in woodland, the estate was developed in the 1830s by Arthur Kiely-Ussher, supposedly spurred on by his wife who wished to surpass the efforts of her brother-in-law at Strancally Castle in the same county. However, the Kiely-Usshers’ ambitions exceeded their revenues and in 1853 Ballysaggartmore was offered for sale by the Encumbered Estates Court. The main house was burnt out in 1922 and now only ancillary buildings such as these gutted lodges remain to testify to the folly of the Kiely-Usshers.
More on Ballysaggartmore soon.

The Bloomsbury Set

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At some unknown date in the 1620s a man called Michael Tisdall moved from England to Ireland where he first established himself in Castleblayney, County Monaghan. The following decade he married Anne Singleton whose family were likewise recent settlers in the country. The couple had seven sons and two daughters, the heir, born 1637, also named Michael Tisdall. He was the first generation to make an advantageous marriage, his wife being Anne Barry. Her father, the Rev. William Barry of Killucan, County Westmeath (who had nineteen children from two marriages) was the elder brother of James Barry, a clever lawyer who rose to become Chief Justice of the King’s Bench (Ireland) and a Privy Counsellor before being ennobled as Baron Barry of Santry. Incidentally, the last of this line Henry Barry, fourth Lord Santry was the only Irish nobleman to be convicted of murder by his peers and sentenced to death in April 1739 after he had run a tavern porter through with his sword while drunk the previous year: he subsequently received a royal pardon, with his title and estates returned to him. History does not relate what became of the poor tavern porter’s family.
Meanwhile the younger Michael Tisdall, who like his wife’s uncle practised law, seems to have lived a more exemplary life, primarily in Dublin although he began to acquire property elsewhere. In 1668 he leased the manor of Martry, County Meath containing 1,900 acres from Nicholas Darcy whose family had owned property in the region for the previous three centuries. However, as Roman Catholics and supporters of Charles I, the Darcys suffered financial setbacks, not least due to government fines during the Commonwealth, and so in 1672 Michael Tisdall was able to buy Martry outright. After he died in 1681, the estate passed to his son William, then still a minor since he had only been born in 1668; as a result, the property was managed by an uncle, James Tisdall who served as M.P. for Ardee, County Louth in successive Irish parliaments from 1692 onwards. Around the date he was first elected his nephew William married Frances FitzGerald, sister of Robert, nineteenth Earl of Kildare: she was thus aunt of James FitzGerald, first Duke of Leinster, a useful family connection for her children. The eldest of these, the third Michael Tisdall replaced his great-uncle James as Ardee’s Member of Parliament in 1713 and six years later married Catherine Palmer whose politician father William Palmer had served as Chief Secretary for Ireland in the mid-1690s as well as M.P. first for Kildare and then later for Castlebar, County Mayo. However, as a rule the Tisdall males were not long-living and thus the third Michael died in 1727 at the age of thirty-three leaving a seven-year old heir named Charles.

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During his long minority, the now-considerable estate of Charles Tisdall was managed by three trustees including a neighbouring landowner, William Waller of Allenstown, County Meath and an uncle, the Rev. George Tisdall. Young Charles stayed in Dublin with his mother who had remarried, her second husband being the Rev. Edward Hudson. After taking his degree at Trinity College Dublin Charles embarked on the first of several visits to mainland Europe during which he spent time in Italy. Finally in 1740 he assumed responsibility for his own affairs and undertook work on the family’s lands in County Meath. Given that he had not lived there for much of his life, and that his father had been an infrequent visitor, the property at Martry – now known as Mount Tisdall –  had deteriorated and was in need of attention if it were to produce a decent income for the owner. On the other hand, Charles Tisdall remained a traveller for the rest of his life, moving around Ireland as well as paying trips to England and further: in October 1741, for example, he was in Paris where fashionable purchases included a gold-topped cane for £5 13s and nine pence, and a gold repeating watch for £20, 9s and sixpence. (We know about these items thanks to an extant account book kept by Charles Tisdall for the period 1740-51 which details not only what he bought but also what he spent: this book forms the basis for Marion Rogan’s Charles Tisdall of County Meath, 1740-51 published last year by Four Courts Press in its Maynooth Studies in Local History series.)
A need to modernise and improve the house at Mount Tisdall led to considerable expenditure over the years it was in Charles Tisdall’s possession. In February 1743 he had the wainscoting of the ‘big parlour’ refitted, and the following year spent £2 15s on a looking glass for the room. In July 1745 he paid £3 for a large mahogany dining table and some years before had ordered a suite of furniture ‘red velvit embroidered with gold’ from Paris at a cost of £91 4s. At the same time, he had embarked on building a new residence three miles away, which he named Charlesfort. The design for this can be confidently attributed to the period’s most fashionable architect, since the account book records in February 1743 ‘To Mr Richard Castle when he gave me the plan for my house. I bargained with him for twenty guineas for his plan, & a guinea every day he overlook’d the execution £20.’ Eventually in 1751 Charles moved into Charlesfort and Mount Tisdall was rented, initially to a John Murray. The Tisdalls retained ownership of the estate until the death of Charles’ grandson in 1835 when it was sold to the Barnewalls, an old Meath family who were Lords Trimlestown.

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The expenditure listed in Charles Tisdall’s account book indicates a house already existed on his County Meath estate, albeit one that had been little used for many years. It is presumably this building which forms the core of the present property, considered to have been five bays wide and two bays deep, in other words probably each floor held little more than a single room on either side of the central hall. So it seems to have remained until 1858 when Mount Tisdall, by now called Bloomsbury, was greatly enlarged for Richard Barnewall. The architect responsible was William Caldbeck, a competent but not especially imaginative practitioner who specialised in banks and religious institutions, his clientele in both cases likely to have preferred the familiar over the innovative. Such is the case at Bloomsbury where to the rear of the old house Caldbeck added a large two-storey over semi-basement range with a seven-bay garden front; the three centre bays break forward and are defined by full height pilasters and round-headed French windows on the ground floor while flights of steps descend to what were once formal gardens. Similar pilasters to those on the garden front were added at corners of the entire building and from the centre bay of the façade projjects a limestone portico with Ionic columns, the facade finished with a pediment. To one side of the house is a long service yard with handsome stables and other outbuildings, an exceptionally handsome gothic-style greenhouse running along one wall.
This structure, like the rest of the site, is now in advanced decay. Bloomsbury remained in the ownership of the Barnewalls until the last century and then at some date in the 1920s it was sold to the Whaley family who continued to look after the place. As recently as 2001 Kevin V Mulligan could write ‘The gardens of Bloomsbury are amongst the finest in the country, lovingly cared for by the owner, Jack Whaley, who has written extensively on gardens and his family.’ Indeed Mr Whaley published several books on gardens, but the one on which he lavished care now displays little evidence of its former glories. In the present century Bloomsbury was sold to a new owner who embarked on a blitzkrieg of the entire place: as can be seen, the house was stripped literally down to its bare walls inside and out while the rest of the estate was permitted to fall into hopeless decay. Whatever the eventual intention, the project was then abandoned and the property left without care. The outcome is that what just a decade ago was a fine historic house with associated buildings is today at risk of being lost forever.

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One building on the Bloomsbury estate is of outstanding importance: an 18th century boathouse. Located at a point on the estate where two rivers meet, this is a legacy of Charles Tisdall’s proprietorship. The aforementioned account book contains information on a number of items of expenditure related to the boathouse. In July 1742 for example he bought a boat from Thomas Taylour of Headfort for £30 11s, and in June 1744 spent £1 2s and nine pence having the vessel painted. The building must date from around this period. Some fourteen feet in diameter, it is octagonal in shape and constructed of brick resting on a stone base. The plainness of the exterior walls is relieved by hollow roundels just below the onset of the dome.  Access to the boathouse proper is via a flight of steps on one of the sides; these descend to a large space with an arched opening to the water (although changing levels means direct access to the river is no longer possible). Above this is a single chamber, presumably intended for summer dining and other such pleasures,  entered via a door at the top of a short flight of steps. One side of the room is given over to a fireplace; its chimney cleverly doubles as the pinnacle on the roof. Of the other six sides, three hold windows, each offering a view of the rivers below, and the three have tall niches still holding the remnants of plasterwork, as does the domed ceiling. Charles Tisdall must have been proud of this little gem, since in August 1744 he bought for it an urn of Ardbraccan limestone costing £3 16s, and in April 1750 he spent spent over £4 two shillings on ‘whitening and painting the summer house and boat.’
There are only a handful of similar structures remaining in this country, among them the Belvedere at Dromoland, County Clare (see With Panoramic Views, Jan 29th 2014) which dates from approximately the same time, and the boathouse in the grounds of Leixlip Castle, County Kildare which is believed to have been built a few decades later. There is also an 18th century octagonal summer house with ovoid interior in the grounds of Mallow Castle, County Cork; photographs indicate this is in poor condition. The boathouse at Bloomsbury is likewise not in good shape but continues to survive, if somewhat precariously as vegetation threatens to widen cracks already apparent in the roof and an inexorably damp location has had repercussions on the fabric. But if the building is lost altogether, that would represent a serious loss to the country’s architectural heritage.

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