Peep around the life-size marble sculpture of Venus newly-emerged from her bath and you can see a view of the central hall at Mount Stewart, County Down. This octagonal space was designed in the 1830s by William Vitruvius Morrison for the third Marquess of Londonderry. In the 19th century it was decorated with suits of armour and lit by coloured glass in the dome above the first-floor gallery. Then in the last century the walls were painted a lusty red, the gallery’s balustrade replaced with ironwork and the original pale stone floor covered in a black and white checkerboard pattern. Mount Stewart reopens to the public this week after several years of restoration undertaken by the National Trust which has now returned the central hall’s walls to their intended cooler tones; plans are afoot also to remove the present floor covering and reveal the stone beneath.
The 18th century polymath Thomas Wright (1711-1786) is usually described as being an astronomer, mathematician, instrument maker, archaeologist, historian, pedagogue, architect and garden designer. He was also evidently a man of great charm since he never wanted for friends or patrons and despite modest origins moved with ease, and always assured of welcome, from one country house to the next. In many respects, he can be considered the successor of William Kent who likewise rose from humble beginnings to enjoy a stellar career across a diverse range of disciplines. But whereas Kent never came to Ireland Wright did so, spending a year in this country in 1746-47. During this period he undertook the necessary research and made drawings for a book published in London in 1748, Louthiana. As its name indicates, the subject was County Louth and the work is the first example of such a survey of archaeological remains in Britain or Ireland. It features seventy-four copperplate sketches and line-drawings of ancient field monuments, most of them being the earliest accurate drawings of these places. Despite the book’s significance, Lord Orrery wrote soon after it appeared, ‘A thin quarto named Louthiana, is most delicately printed and the cuts admirably engraved, and yet we think the County of Louth the most devoid of antiquities of any County in Ireland…These kind of books are owing to an historical society founded in Dublin, and of great use to this kingdom, which is improving in all arts and sciences very fast: tho’ I own to you, the cheapness of the French claret is not likely to add much at present to the increase of literature.’
Thomas Wright came to Ireland at the invitation of his friend James Hamilton, first Viscount Limerick (and later first Earl of Clanbrassill) who, because his titles were in the Irish peerage, sat as at M.P. in the English House of Commons and thus maintained a house close to London (at Brook Green, Hammersmith) where Wright often stayed. Lord Limerick had benefitted from an extensive Grand Tour (the enlightening diaries he kept during this period were edited and published in 2005 by his descendant the present Earl of Roden) and brought a well-informed sensibility to his Irish estates based in Counties Down and Louth: he owned the greater part of Dundalk which had been purchased by his parents and where his main residence was located (the Manor House, demolished 1909).
It was here that Wright established his base while a guest of Lord Limerick and the latter’s wife, Lady Harriet Bentinck who was related to many of the other families supportive of his endeavours. Among these was Viscountess Midleton whose husband Alan – he had large estates in County Cork – was responsible, with the second Duke of Richmond (father of Ladies Emily and Louisa Lennox who respectively married the first Duke of Leinster and Thomas Conolly of Castletown) for drawing up the first written rules for cricket. Lady Midleton was Lady Limerick’s step-niece while her step-sister the Countess of Essex was also married to a man owning extensive property in Ireland. All of them numbered among Wright’s friends and supporters, and help to explain his connexions with this country.
As mentioned, Lord Limerick’s principal residence was in Dundalk and it is believed that the improvements he made in the grounds of this house were designed or inspired by Wright. In late June 1952 during his tour through Ireland the future Bishop of Ossory (and later Meath) Richard Pococke noted of Dundalk, ‘Lord Limerick lives here, and has made some fine plantations and walks behind a very bad house which is in the street of the town: as walks with Elm hedges on each side, an artificial serpentine river, a Chinese bridge, a thatch’d open house supported by the bodies of firtrees, etc. and a fine kitchen garden with closets for fruit.’ At least some of those interventions indicate the influence of Wright.
Lord Limerick also owned land further north at Tollymore, County Down and in September 1746 he and Wright travelled there for a stay of eight days. There was an old house on the property but in 1740 a ‘New Deer Park’ had been created on an adjacent site with a small hunting lodge or summer house being built there. Its situation was exceptionally romantic, with the land dropping down to the Shimna river before rising up to the Mourne Mountains. One imagines it was this vista which stimulated both Wright and his patron and led to the erection of a series of other structures in the park.
Here is Richard Pococke continuing his perambulations around Ireland: ‘I came over the hills to Briansford [now Bryansford], on the side of Tullamore park, which belongs to Lord Limerick; this park is a very fine situation, being divided into two parts by a rivlet which runs in a deep rocky bed covered with trees, and affords a most Romantic prospect, to this rivlet there is a gentle descent; on the other side the Park takes in for a mile the foot of the high mountains of Moran and particularly of the highest call’d Slieve Donard which is 1060 yards high from the surface of the sea to which it extends: the park is all fine wooden and cut into Vistas up the side of the steep hill; there is a handsome bridge over the rivlet, where the rocky cliffs on each side may be twenty feet deep, and so cover’d with trees that you can hardly see the water at the bottom in some places. Here just over the rivlet Lord Limerick has built a thatch’d open place to dine in, which is very Romantick, with a stove near to prepare the Entertainment: above on the North side of this He has begun to build a pretty lodge, two rooms of which are finished, designing to spend the Summer months here…’
The ‘thatch’d open place’ which Pococke deemed to be ‘very Romantick’ is no more (it was likely gone before the end of the 18th century), but many of the interventions made by Lord Limerick, and by his son the second Earl of Clanbrassill, remain at Tollymore. All show the abiding influence of Wright and although no material survives specifically linking him with any of them, their design (and their similarities to other such work in England which can be traced to him) allows one to assume such a connection. It is interesting that even structures in the parkland of a later date are in the same style as those put up in the period following the September 1746 visit to Tollymore; for example the Barbican Gate which is post-1777 (see top photograph). By this time the second Earl had come into his inheritance but as a young man he had benefitted from Wright’s teaching and thereby imbibed the latter’s ideas on garden design.
The original lodge at Tollymore consisted of a two-storey, five bay house, the centre of which featured a three-sided bow. Single storey wings were added on either side and this is the building that appears in a 1787 engraving by Thomas Milton after John James Barralet. Following his father’s death in 1758 the second Earl of Clanbrassill enlarged the the house adding three single-storey extensions, each forty feet long, to create an internal courtyard. He also put up further edifices around the demesne, not least Clanbrassill Bridge dated 1780, which has two turrets with pinnacles and niches at each end, and the high-arched Foley’s Bridge of 1787. When he died in 1798 his estates passed to his sister Anne Hamilton, widow of the first Earl of Roden; she like her brother had been tutored when young by Wright and therefore brought the same understanding to Tollymore. In turn on her death in 1802 it all passed to her eldest son Robert Jocelyn, second Earl of Roden. The Rodens’ main residence had hitherto been Brockley Park, County Laois, a house designed in 1768 by the Sardinian architect Davis Ducart (and sadly demolished in 1944). However, the family preferred Tollymore and so the house here was greatly enlarged in the 1830s, although it remained possible to discern the original lodge (see photograph below).
The Rodens continued in ownership of Tollymore until the last century when the eighth Earl gradually disposed of the land, park and house, the buyer being the Northern Ireland Ministry of Agriculture. In the mid-1950s Tollymore was opened as the province’s first public forest park but by this date the house, having stood empty for some time, was demolished: today a car park occupies its site. The rest of the demesne has been maintained and certainly deserves to be visited in order to gain an insight into 18th century romantic sensibility.
Tollymore has been the subject of a number of excellent studies as follows:
Tollymore: the Story of an Irish Demesne by the Earl of Roden (Ulster Architectural Heritage Series, 2005)
Tollymore Park: The Gothick Revival of Thomas Wright & Lord Limerick by Peter Rankin (The Follies Trust, 2010)
Thomas Wright and Viscount Limerick at Tollymore Park, County Down by Eileen Harris (in The Irish Georgian Society’s Irish Architectural and Decorative Studies, Volume XVI, 2014).
In his Irish Sketchbook of 1842, William Thackeray describes visiting a cotton mill in Belfast: ‘There are nearly five hundred girls employed in it. They work in huge long chambers, lighted by numbers of windows, hot with steam, buzzing and humming with hundreds and thousands of whirling wheels, that all take their motion from a steam-engine which lives apart in a hot cast-iron temple of its own, from which it communicates with the innumerable machines that the five hundred girls preside over. They have seemingly but to take away the work when done – the enormous monster in the cast-iron room does it all…I have seldom, I think, seen more good looks than amongst the young women employed in this place. They work for twelve hours daily, in rooms in which the heat is intolerable to a stranger; but in spite of it they looked gay, stout and healthy; nor were their forms much concealed by the very simple clothes they wear while in the mill.’ Thackeray came to Belfast with introductions from the Irish novelist Charles Lever who he had met in Dublin (and who the following year in a review of the Irish Sketchbook described it as ‘the pleasantest reading for a morning in the country, and the most amusing text of an evening’s conversation in town.’) Thus he was able to meet the owner of the cotton mill he visited, one of the era’s most successful entrepreneurs, Andrew Mulholland.
Before the Beerage came into existence, there was the Linenocracy: a group of predominantly Ulster families who became exceedingly rich thanks to their involvement in the region’s linen industry. The Mulhollands were one such family, the origins of their rise traceable to Thomas Mulholland, described as a ‘dealer’ who in 1803 bought two houses on Belfast’s Upper Church Lane: the fact that he signed the contract for this transaction with an X is often taken as indicative of his illiteracy but this could be unfair. In any case, he must have possessed abundant shrewdness because in 1815 he and three of his sons entered an already-flourishing cotton industry by purchasing a mill. Five years later Thomas Mulholland died but the trio of siblings carried on the business, building a large spinning mill in the city near York Street. There was a set-back in June 1818 when this premises was almost completely destroyed by fire. Undaunted, the brothers set about rebuilding their property with one crucial difference: instead of cotton, it was now used for spinning flax. Not only was the former business beginning to experience economic problems, but a new method of flax spinning by machine had recently been developed in northern England without yet being subject to patent. Hence the Mulhollands were able to benefit from this technological advance. As indeed they did: when the York Street mill opened in 1830 it had 8,000 spindles, and by 1856 it had grown to 25,000 and was probably the largest such enterprise in the world. Also by that date it had entirely passed into the control of one brother, the aforementioned Andrew Mulholland and it was he who had shown Thackeray around the site. Where Mulholland led, other Belfast businessmen followed: by 1850 the city boasted 29 flax-spinning mills compared with only four premises spinning cotton. On the advent of the American Civil War in the early 1860s, which had the effect of almost cutting off the supply of raw cotton to Britain, linen became ever more important. In 1864, Andrew Mulholland & Son became a limited company, the York Street Flax Spinning Company Limited, its prospectus proclaiming the business possessed ‘the largest flax mill and linen factory in the North of Ireland, covering about four acres of land.’ With branches in Paris (opened 1870) New York (1871) London (1874) Berlin (1876) and Melbourne (1882) it soon became the largest firm of flax spinners, linen manufacturers and distributors in the world.
One of Andrew Mulholland’s brothers, St Clair was a Justice of the Peace for County Down and High Sheriff of County Louth while Andrew was elected Mayor of Belfast in 1845. In his speech of thanks he undertook to ‘ameliorate the condition of the operatives,’ proposing the introduction of public gardens and washhouses, free libraries and coffee shops for workers which would promote ‘their health and cleanliness and give them better tastes.’ The onset of the terrible potato famine later that year put paid to such ideas, and instead Andrew Mulholland was a generous contributor to relief programmes. When better times returned to the country, he provided Belfast’s Ulster Hall with the grand organ still in situ. The donation was initially anonymous but once his identity became known, he explained the intention was ‘to give an opportunity to the working classes to hear from time to time the best music from a truly splendid instrument, at such a rate as would enable the humblest artisan to enjoy advantages which even the opulent could rarely purchase until now.’
Andrew Mulholland died in 1866 but before then the family business had passed into the hands of his only son John. He nurtured more overt political ambitions than had his father, serving as a Justice of the Peace for Antrim and Down, and as High Sheriff of Down in 1868 and of Tyrone in 1873. He stood as Conservative candidate for Belfast in 1868 but was beaten by the Orange populist William Johnston of Ballykilbeg. However John Mulholland was subsequently more successful, being elected MP for Downpatrick between 1874 and 1885. Three years before his death, on the recommendation of the outgoing Conservative Prime Minister Lord Salisbury in 1892 he was created Baron Dunleath of Ballywalter.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that an affluent urban entrepreneur must be in want of a rural retreat. Thus Andrew Mulholland, having acquired great wealth through his early engagement with linen production, sought a spot to which he could retire and found a suitable estate on Ulster’s Ards Peninsula. Originally this was called Ballymagown and in 1729 had been acquired by the Matthews family from the Montgomerys of nearby Grey Abbey. Walter Harris’ Ancient and Present State of the County of Down (published 1744) refers to the property built there and now named Springvale, as being of two storeys over a semi-basement and containing a collection of curios gathered by George Matthews while a captain in the Royal Navy (including ‘several Figures of Mummies in divers kinds of Earth, in wood that is said never to decay…’). In 1805 a remodelling of the house was begun but remained incomplete before being abandoned seven years later: this was the building, together with surrounding estate, bought by Andrew Mulholland in 1846 for £23,500. He also acquired the adjoining Ballyatwood demesne, uniting the two of them with a replanting programme that ran to 41,000 trees and shrubs. The whole was now called Ballywalter Park, taking its name from an adjacent town founded in 1605.
Andrew Mulholland also turned his attention to the old Matthews house which over the next few years was encased inside a much larger structure (although traces of it survive in the basement), the greater part of the building being absorbed into a top-lit inner hall sixty feet long. In addition, the entrance was moved from south to east side, signalled by the presence of a porte-cochere with coupled Doric columns. Two single storey wings were added to either side of the main block and these have bows on the garden front the better to contemplate Ballywalter’s well-planted parkland. The eventual house’s appearance is sometimes described as emulating an Italian palazzo but more often and truthfully is said to look not unlike one of London’s smarter gentlemen’s clubs as designed by Sir Charles Barry. In a much-quoted observation, Professor Alistair Rowan has remarked that Ballywalter possesses ‘a metropolitan air and all the architectural trappings of a London club, dropped as if by chance in the open country of the north Irish coast.’
Ballywalter Park was designed by Sir Charles Lanyon and the interior is one of his most accomplished pieces of work. As mentioned, the core of the building is its inner hall which rises to a gallery from which in turn springs a glazed roof, thereby filling the entire space with natural light: note how plain Doric columns and pilasters of the ground floor give way to the richer Corinthian order above so as to encourage the eye upwards. Also worthy of attention here and in the other main rooms are the deep and heavily ornamented cornice mouldings, and the beautiful parquet floors. The effect throughout is opulent yet by no means overwhelming: as Alistair Rowan commented the house exudes an air of ‘solid comfort.’
One advantage of the inner hall is that it gives direct access to a succession of reception rooms, moving from morning room to library to drawing room and from thence to dining room. Despite having certain decorative elements in common, each of them possesses a different and distinct character, and all of them has – like the space at its core – ample natural lighting: even the library where the pedimented mahogany bookcases were installed in 1866 is a singularly bright room: Ballywalter is entirely free of the oft-cited Victorian gloom. Although the main block was completed by 1852, in 1863 Lanyon returned to carry out further work, adding a billiard room onto the north-west corner of the garden front and, at right angles to this, a large domed conservatory which provides a spectacular conclusion to any tour of the house.
Ballywalter Park epitomises mid-19th century splendour, but this has proven hard to maintain in subsequent eras. By the time the fourth Lord Dunleath inherited the property more than 100 years after its completion, there were no live-in staff, the house was suffering serious structural problems and its future looked uncertain. What saved the place was both a young owner’s determination to battle on, and a visit in 1961 by future Poet Laureate and life-long champion of Victoriana John Betjeman who urged the house’s preservation at all costs, since he recognised the then-rampant detestation of mid-19th century architecture was a merely a passing fashion in taste. Of course he was proven right, and luckily Ballywalter was not demolished or reduced in size: its survival has become even more precious since two other of Lanyon’s Ulster houses, Dundarave, County Antrim and Drenagh, County Derry, both of which have hitherto remained in the ownership of their original families, are now being offered for sale.
Meanwhile Ballywalter continues to benefit from ample care and attention to its welfare and future. Both inside the house and in the grounds, the sixth Lord Dunleath who succeeded in 1997 has together with his wife tirelessly continued the programme of refurbishment and restoration embarked upon by their predecessors, and as a result Ballywalter today looks better than was likely the case half a century or more ago. Displaying the old Mulholland entrepreneurial spirit, the Dunleaths have made the property available for a variety of events, not least film and television production (as a result of which it has appeared in an disconcerting assortment of guises) and yet the spirit of the place and its distinctive character have remained uncompromised, which is too rarely the case. Ballywalter survives as a tribute to the once-mighty Ulster linen industry and, equally important, as a very happy family home.
For more information on this house, see: http://ballywalterpark.com (and while there don’t forget to look at Lady Dunleath’s stylish blog – http://ballywalterpark.com/category/walled-garden-blog – in which she displays her encyclopaedic knowledge of food).
Through dense planting, a glimpse of the lake at Mount Stewart, County Down. The gardens around the house, created from the mid-1920s onwards by Edith, seventh Marchioness of Londonderry, are justly famous but the attention they attract can mean the rest of the estate receives less attention. This part of the demesne dates from the first half of the 19th century, following the marriage of the third Marquess to the great heiress Frances Anne Vane-Tempest: her wealth allowed the creation of the lake to the north of the house on the site of a former gravel pit, and extensive planting around its borders.
The shared carriage gates for a pair of houses on English Street, Downpatrick, County Down. The three-storey over basement buildings were designed c.1835-36 by the English-born John Lynn seemingly for himself. He is believed to have come to this country as clerk of works for the building of Rockingham, County Roscommon, designed by John Nash for Robert, 1st Viscount Lorton. According to Thomas Bell in his Rambles Northwards in Ireland (1827) Lynn ‘was originally a Carpenter by trade, but the Patronage of the noble Lord has it would appear transfused into his mind the theory of his profession, and converted him into an Architect.’ Evidently he did well in his new career because there are a large number of buildings, several of them gaols (including that in Downpatrick) for which he was responsible. With their prominent bows this pretty pair of houses would not look out of place in Cheltenham. That on the right is known as the Judges’ Lodgings since it was formerly used for that purpose by Assize judges presiding at the nearby courthouse.
The ceiling of the library at Killyleagh Castle, County Down. Although the building dates back to the 12th century when constructed by the Norman knight John de Courcy, its present appearance is the result of a complete renovation undertaken 1849-51 to the designs of Charles Lanyon. Exterior and interior alike display terrific exuberance, as well as a wide variety of sources of inspiration, as this ceiling demonstrates. Originally a gasolier would have hung from the centre of the plasterwork.