Knightly Lore

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A portrait of Thomas FitzGerald, 23rd Knight of Glin painted by Philip Hussey which hangs in the entrance hall of Glin Castle, County Limerick. Tomorrow evening, Wednesday 29th January, I shall be giving a talk on the life and achievements of Desmond FitzGerald, 29th and last Knight of Glin at the Irish Georgian Society headquarters in the City Assembly House, South William Street, Dublin. Further information can be found at http://www.igs.ie/events/detail/The-Last-Knight-Lecture-by-Robert-OByrne.

The Colossus of Castlemartyr

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As painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds in 1759, this handsome gentleman is Richard Boyle, second Earl of Shannon whose Dublin residence has featured here before (see From Townhouse to Tenement – and Back, September 16th). A direct descendant of Richard Boyle, the great Earl of Cork, Lord Shannon owed his own title to his father, Henry Boyle who served as Speaker of the Irish House of Commons for almost quarter of a century before accepting a peerage. His son was less politically astute but still managed to acquire a large number of rotten boroughs, allowing him to control election to parliament and thus to become known as the ‘Colossus of Castlemartyr’ (this being the name of his country seat in County Cork). Strangely Lord Shannon voted in favour of the 1800 Act of Union, even though it meant a loss of power for himself. On the other hand, he held onto the title of First Lord of the Irish Treasury, only relinquishing the position in 1804 in return for an annual pension of £3,000; he would die just three years later. His great-grandson sold this picture through Christie’s in June 1889 when it fetched 215 guineas. The work then passed through a number of different hands before coming up at Christie’s again last July when it went for £73,875. The photograph here was taken earlier this month at an art fair in Dallas, Texas: the Colossus of Castlemartyr has travelled…

A Spouse’s Souvenir

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Dating from c.1816 this watercolour is deemed to be J.M.W Turner’s only Irish view and shows Clontarf Castle, County Dublin. The picture was painted for one of the artist’s closest friends, Walter Fawkes of Farnley Hall, Yorkshire who owned a large collection of Turner’s work. The watercolour is of particular interest because Turner never visited Ireland and therefore must have been working from an image of Clontarf Castle produced by someone else; the connection is that Fawkes’ second wife Maria Sophia Vernon – who he married precisely around the time this watercolour was produced – had grown up at Clontarf Castle, so presumably it was intended to act as a souvenir of her childhood home. Twenty years later the building, originally constructed in the 12th century by the Knights Templar and acquired by the Vernons in the second half of the 17th century, was very extensively remodelled by William Vitruvius Morrison at the request of Maria Sophia’s nephew, John Edward Venables Vernon. Thus the picture also serves as a guide to what the house looked like in its earlier incarnation. Today Clontarf is a suburb of Dublin and the castle, greatly enlarged, an hotel. It is possible to gain a sense of what the building and surrounding lands were like a century ago by reading ‘A Georgian Boyhood’ the third part of Cyril Connolly’s wonderful Enemies of Promise published in 1938. His mother was a Vernon and he therefore spent holidays as a child in the house. Estimated to fetch €20,000-€40,000, the watercolour is due to be auctioned next Monday by Adam’s as part of its country house sale at Slane Castle, County Meath (see: http://www.adams.ie).
Update: the Turner watercolour of Clontarf Castle sold for €65,000.

About Last Knight

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The late Desmond FitzGerald has been mentioned here before more than once (Knight and Day, October 1st 2012 and Shanid A Boo, July 8th last). I am now happy to advise that my new book The Last Knight which celebrates Desmond’s many achievements has been published and is available from the Irish Georgian Society (see: http://www.igs.ie). Thanks to the generosity of a number of benefactors, all proceeds from the sale of this work go to benefit the IGS.

Around the Ring

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Spotted recently on a minor road in County Kilkenny, this handsome pedimented arch which is flanked on either side by gates. These in turn lead to quadrants terminating in large cut-stone posts. The whole is most arresting despite being in a sad state of disrepair, and appears once to have been the entrance to an estate called Ringwood. In the 18th century, Ringwood was owned by members of the Agar family and the core of a still-extant house nearby was most likely built in the late 1730s by James Agar whose political ambitions were blighted by a long-standing dispute with one of the leading orators of the period, Henry Flood. The two men fought a duel in 1765 and then a second one four years later using pistols. Agar fired first and missed, he shouted ‘Fire, you scoundrel,’ and was promptly shot dead: although the deceased’s family brought a case against Flood for murder, he was found guilty of manslaughter in his own defence and freed. James Agar’s son George had a happier political career than his father, and was eventually ennobled as first (and last) Lord Callan. His prelate nephew Charles Agar became Archbishop first of Cashel and later of Dublin before likewise receiving a peerage as first Earl of Normanton. The Normanton seat today is Somerley, Hampshire which lies just a couple of miles away from a market town called Ringwood.

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September 2013

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September 1913
William Butler Yeats

What need you, being come to sense,
But fumble in a greasy till
And add the ha’pence to the pence
And prayer to shivering prayer, until
You have dried the marrow from the bone;
For men were born to pray and save?,
Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone,

It’s with O’Leary in the grave.
Yet they were of a different kind,
The names that stilled your childish play,
They have gone about the world like wind,
But little time had they to pray
For whom the hangman’s rope was spun,
And what, God help us, could they save?
Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone,
It’s with O’Leary in the grave.

Was it for this the wild geese spread
The grey wing upon every tide;
For this that all that blood was shed,
For this Edward Fitzgerald died,
And Robert Emmet and Wolfe Tone,
All that delirium of the brave?
Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone,
It’s with O’Leary in the grave.

Yet could we turn the years again,
And call those exiles as they were
In all their loneliness and pain,
You’d cry ‘Some woman’s yellow hair
Has maddened every mother’s son’:
They weighed so lightly what they gave.
But let them be, they’re dead and gone,
They’re with O’Leary in the grave.

Inspired by Dublin Corporation’s refusal to provide financial assistance to Sir Hugh Lane for the building of a modern art gallery in the city, Yeats’ poem was published in The Irish Times 100 years ago today. The picture above shows one of the designs prepared by Edwin Lutyens for the projected gallery, not that of a bridge spanning the river Liffey but more conventionally sitting within the western railings of St Stephen’s Green.
You can discover more about the events behind the writing of September 1913 by watching: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=62C1sbgKVk4

The Irish Aesthete Recommends IV

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Anyone who has read Rose Macaulay’s wonderful 1956 novel The Towers of Trebizond will be familiar with its opening lines: ‘”Take my camel, dear,” said my aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass. The camel, a white Arabian Dhalur (single hump) from the famous herd of the Ruola tribe, had been a parting present, its saddle-bags stuffed with low-carat gold and flashy orient gems, from a rich desert tycoon who owned a Levantine hotel near Palmyra.’
Those words always remind me of Melosina Lenox-Conyngham who, like the narrator’s aunt Dot was an inveterate and fearless traveller until her death almost two years ago. Melo, seen above wheeling her bicycle through the gates of Lavistown Cottage, County Kilkenny where she lived, wrote and broadcast many articles about her journeys, her low voice (Melo might have been short for Melodious) recounting all sorts of adventures with terrific gusto and humour. In one of these pieces, she described riding on a camel to Timbuktu, the silence of the desert reigning absolute until ‘it was broken by a familiar jingle, and Mahomet extracted from his long blue robes a mobile telephone that he poked into the folds of his turban.’
Back in Ireland, Melo entertained frequently – I remember an abundance of cobwebs but also very good home-made biscuits each topped with a blanched almond – and told still more tales of where she had been and what she had done. Between trips she served as indefatigable secretary of the Butler Society and did much to encourage interest in the history of this part of Ireland and its architectural heritage.
One greatly misses Melo but now a terrific selection of her writings A Life in Postcards has been published by the Lilliput Press (www.lilliputpress.ie). The book perfectly captures the author’s wry tone and is definitely to be recommended if you would like to know more about this very special woman and her distinctive outlook on life.

The Comet’s Pulsing Rose

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The Mussenden Temple erected in 1785 by Frederick Hervey, Bishop of Derry in memory of a deceased cousin. The temple is located in County Derry, the same part of the world in which poet Seamus Heaney was later born. A craftsman with words rather than with brick or stone, Seamus died yesterday and so this image commemorates his passing from our midst. He will be much missed by all of us fortunate to have known him.

A Woman of Substance

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Venturing outside the Irish Aesthete’s customary sphere, today we consider the career of Irish couturier Sybil Connolly who sixty years ago this month came to international prominence following a fashion show in County Meath. ‘Ireland,’ wrote former American Vogue editor Bettina Ballard in her 1960 memoir In My Fashion, ‘was a completely unexpected centre for fashion for everyone but Carmel Snow. We were drawn en-masse to Dublin by the personable, milk-skinned Irish charmer called Sybil Connolly who showed a small collection made of Irish tweeds and linens in Dunsany Castle and bewitched us all into buying models or filling our editorial pages with them.’
It comes as no surprise that the incomparable Carmel Snow, outstanding editor of Harper’s Bazaar for over a quarter century, should have championed Sybil since she too was Irish, having been born in Dalkey, County Dublin in 1887 (for more about Snow’s life and work I recommend Penelope Rowlands’ 2005 biography A Dash of Daring). Presumably she and the designer had met when the latter first visited New York in 1952 and thereafter they remained friends. Certainly Snow was responsible for ensuring a large group of American buyers and journalists, en route to Paris for the couture shows, stopped off in Ireland to see the work of a rising Irish star.

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After Sybil Connolly’s July 1953 fashion show, Carmel Snow wrote enthusiastically in her syndicated column of what she and the others present had been shown: ‘Miss Connolly is lovely, with jet black, curling hair and amazingly grey eyes. She came to America last spring and went back to Dublin with many orders. Today she has her foot firmly planted on the ladder of international success – a success that gives one a glow.’ As for the clothes, Snow attributed their appeal to a number of factors: ‘Her integrity in using exclusively Irish materials and using them with strict relevance to native needs; her imaginative adaptation of traditional Connemara garments for contemporary use; her colossal capacity for hard work; her respect for native craftsmanship and the age-old independence of weaver and dyer, and a parallel determination to guide and suggest where she is far too intelligent to demand.’
Throughout her career Sybil was fortunate to have women of influence and authority offering their support in this way. For example, the most powerful woman in American public relations Eleanor Lambert was a close friend for decades (indeed, it was through Sybil that I came to know Eleanor and to sit on the adjudicating panel for her International Best Dressed List – but all that is perhaps for another occasion). Then there were the well-connected women who helped by buying the clothes and promoting her name, not least Sheila, Lady Dunsany who offered the use of beautiful Dunsany Castle for that show in July 1953. (I remember Sheila Dunsany’s wry amusement as she told me some months before her death in July 1999 that Sybil, whose Welsh mother’s maiden name was Phillips, liked to claim an affinity since this was also Sheila’s family name). Then look at the pictures above and note that in the first of these the models photographed by Norman Parkinson for Vogue in July 1954 are Ladies Melissa and Caroline Wyndham-Quin, daughters of the sixth Earl of Dunraven, while that below, taken by Henry Clarke, shows one-time model Anne Gunning who by this date was married to English politician Sir Anthony Nutting.

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Sybil Connolly’s signature design was a dress made from pleated handkerchief linen. She used to say that she first discovered this featherweight fabric in a Northern Irish factory where it had been manufactured many years earlier for the crowned heads of Europe, but after the First World War ‘there weren’t enough of them left around.’ Sybil had the linen tightly pleated to produce lengths which were thed used to make clothes. Nine yards of linen were required to produce one yard of finished pleated material. The first garment made in this way to be shown in the United States, a white evening dress called First Love, required three hundred handkerchiefs and contained more than five thousand pleats (see bottom picture which shows Sybil wearing the item).
The great merit of her pleated linen was that it was uncrushable – and virtually indestructible. I recently came across one of her dresses in a box in Birr Castle; it had been made for the late Anne Rosse. Although not worn for decades after a quick shake the dress fell into place and looked much as it must have done when first produced. Harper’s Bazaar noted in June 1958 that a Connolly pleated linen skirt ‘will pack into a small duffle bag and emerge unscathed.’ Sybil’s pleated linen is as remarkable a contribution to fashion history as was Mariano Fortuny’s Delphos pleated silk dress half a century earlier and will similarly be forever associated with the name of one designer.

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As can be seen by the two pictures immediately above, Sybil did not only use pleated linen, but also worked with other fabrics, the majority of them associated with Ireland. So, for example, she bought bales of red flannel traditionally used for petticoats in Connemara and had the material made into quilted skirts which were then teamed with white cambric blouses and black shawls to create an early version of peasant chic. She was not above using seemingly mundane material: a dress called Kitchen Fugue from her summer 1954 collection, for example, had a full skirt made from lengths of striped tea towels. But her clothes more often featured the likes of hand-dyed tweed and hand-made Carrickmacross lace and crochet.
In her heyday – the second half of the 1950s and early 1960s, Sybil Connolly was internationally renowned and enjoyed huge success, especially in the United States where her clientele included members of the du Pont, Mellon and Rockefeller families as well as the likes of Elizabeth Taylor, Rosalind Russell and Merle Oberon. Jacqueline Kennedy’s official portrait for the White House (painted by Aaron Shikler) shows the former First Lady wearing one of Sybil’s outfits. Although she lived until May 1998 and always kept herself busy through such projects as designing fabrics for Brunschwig & Fils and china for Tiffany, already by 1970 her moment as a fashion leader had come to an end. Still, it is worth remembering just what a pioneer she was for Irish design and how, thanks to a show staged sixty years ago, she turned the global fashion spotlight on this country.

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To commemorate the sixtieth anniversary of her July 1953 fashion show, I shall be giving a talk on Sybil Connolly at the Little Museum of Dublin next Wednesday 24th July at 7pm. For further information, see http://www.littlemuseum.ie

Lane’s Lore

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Art dealer and collector Sir Hugh Lane drawn by the artist John Butler Yeats in August 1905. At the time, Yeats was engaged in producing a series of portraits of notable Irish men and women, a commission he received from Lane who intended these works to form the core of a National Portrait Gallery for Ireland. Within three years he had instead established a modern art gallery in Dublin which continues to this day. To learn more about Lane, and about the controversy over a collection of Impressionist paintings after his unexpected death in 1915, you can now watch two short films featuring the Irish Aesthete: