One of a Pear

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A chimneypiece in the entrance hall of Furness, County Kildare. The name of 18th century amateur architect Francis Bindon has occurred here several times before (most recently When New Becomes Old, March 24th), and this is another house attributed to him. The core of the building is believed to date from c.1730, and some of the decoration from that period survives, not least this chimneypiece which is carved from pearwood, a material often used for wind instruments and of dark hue: in this instance, it has been painted to imitate stone.
More on Furness to follow in the coming weeks.

Head to Head

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When Thomas Conolly married Lady Louisa Lennox in 1758, Castletown, County Kildare which had been built by his great-uncle William from c.1722 onwards still lacked a main staircase. The young couple undertook to address this want and within a year of their wedding seem to have employed the Swiss-born stuccadore Filippo Lafranchini to work on the plasterwork decoration. The result, as Joseph McDonnell has written, ‘evokes, like little else in the country, the spirit and grandeur of the grotesque decoration of Imperial Roman interiors…’ Yet in the midst of the grandeur one also finds domesticity, not least in the profile portraits inserted by Franchini into the stairhall walls and believed to represent members of the Conolly and Lennox families. This is especially true when one reaches the landing and encounters a pair of heads facing each other across a now-empty stucco frame. These are depictions of Tom and Louisa who together did so much to enhance the beauty of Castletown.

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All Aglow

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After Monday’s rather dispiriting report on the plight of Dublin’s last Georgian private residence Aldborough House (which generated the greatest traffic yet on this site: thank you to everyone who helped spread the word, if only officialdom would display as much concern), a property which has been taken into state care, with obvious benefits. At Castletown, County Kildare two views of the quadrant leading to the stable wing. Helped by the play of light on warm, ochre-hued render the building looks particularly Italianate here with the influence of Florentine architect Alessandro Galilei, who is deemed responsible for producing the house’s original design in the early 1720s, most apparent.

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And the Winner is…

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I am delighted to advise that last night The Irish Aesthete was declared Ireland’s Best Arts & Culture Blog 2013. Many thanks to those awarding the titles and also to all readers whose encouragement and interest are always so appreciated.
The accompanying illustration depicts the Conolly Folly, designed by Richard Castle and built at the request of the widowed Katherine Conolly in order to provide relief to the local poor during he famine of 1740-41. It is, of course, also the symbol of the Irish Georgian Society.

Splendours and Follies

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Driving along a minor road in south County Kildare, one’s eye is caught by the sight of ruins rising high above a field of maize. These roofless blocks were once the stables attached to and now all that remain of Belan, seat of the Stratford family, Earls of Aldborough. That Belan was once rather splendid cannot be doubted: in 1786 George Powell who was related to the family through marriage, wrote ‘The Mansion House of Belan is most Magnificent as is also the Demesne thereto, containing 12 porters Lodges Erected by the present Earl at the six Approaches, who hath also added thereto a Fruitery, Green, Hot and Tea Houses, a Square of Offices, a Chappel & a Theatre & Expended near £8000 on the Estate…’
Almost all of this is now gone, and the only evidence of Belan’s former resplendence are the aforementioned stables, the shell of an octagonal tea house, a few obelisks and a small domed temple. For once, however, decline and fall occurred not during the last century but earlier and while members of the Stratford family were still, if only nominally, great landowners.

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Originally from Warwickshire, the Stratfords seem to have settled in Ireland about the time of Charles II’s restoration in 1660. Within a few years Robert Stratford had acquired land around Baltinglass, County Wicklow and thereafter their rise was assured, not least through the ability to return two members to the Irish House of Commons. By 1690 they already owned property at Belan, since in July of that year Edward Stratford found himself successively entertaining the two rival Kings James and William, his personal sympathies lying with the latter. As William ultimately proved the victor, the Stratfords’ political and financial status was further strengthened. Edward Stratford’s third son John (who was made first Earl of Aldborough shortly before he died in 1777) inherited Belan around 1740 and soon afterwards commenced either to build anew or to enlarge his residence there. The architects for this property are held to have been Richard Castle and Francis Bindon.
We cannot say for certain what the house looked like since paintings in which it features by William Ashford (from which the engraving at the top of this piece is taken) and Francis Wheatley (see the very last picture, showing the second Earl reviewing the Aldborough Volunteers at Belan) display differences that suggest to some extent they reflected the owner’s aspirations for the building rather than its actual appearance. Nevertheless we do know the main block, large and plain, was 120 feet long and 44 feet deep, of three storeys with a gabled attic and projecting end bays. To its right were the pair of parallel stable blocks that still survive (albeit in ruinous state), the first of them linked to the house by a curved portico.

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Here are some extracts from the delightful reminiscences of Georgina Sartoris (née Lyster) published in the Journal of the Kildare Archaeological Society in January 1908 during which she recalls visiting Belan as a little girl in the 1830s:…’a fine stone mansion, a magnificent flight of granite steps, with two stone vases at the top, led to the entrance door. Though uninhabited for fully ten years, the house was in perfect repair, no trace of damp or decay and to all appearance, might have been lived in a week before. I have not a distinct recollection of all the rooms; but the dining room is fresh in my memory, also the saloon, and his late lordship’s bedroom. The dining room, not very large was panelled, family portraits being set in the panelling. I was too young to care much about them, but feel sure they were all of men. Had there been lovely ladies or pretty children amongst them, I should have remembered them. The saloon was lovely, with a polished floor of narrow oak boards…. on one occasion (why I know not) my sister and myself occupied his late lordship’s bedroom, very comfortable it was of moderate size, the fireplace like those of the other bedrooms surrounded with the prettiest tiles I have ever seen, the ground white with pink and blue landscapes, figures and flowers on it; a fine four post mahogany bedstead, Indian chintz curtains, some Chippendale chairs, and a wardrobe are all I remember of its furniture…The grounds of Belan were very beautiful, and of considerable extent. On one side though not seen from the house, were the celebrated fish ponds (not that in my time there was a fish in them), large and deep, the trees around them giving them a secluded and fascinating look. Here, on hot summers’ evenings, we used to sit and watch the dragon flies. I had never seen dragonflies before, and could not associate them with flies – I could only think of them as tiny winged spirits, whispering messages from afar to the reeds and irises which grew at the water’s edge. The gardens were at some distance from the house, and were large and walled in. I do not think I was often in them. What struck me most was the enormous quantity of lily of the valley. I have never seen anything like it elsewhere and its scent lingers with me still…’

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The fall of the house of Stratford was as spectacular as its rise. The second Earl, a man of great energy, not only greatly improved the house and demesne at Belan but was also responsible for developing Stratford Place in London and for building the immense (and now sadly dilapidated) Aldborough House in Dublin in the years preceding his death in 1801. Although twice married, he had no children and so a younger brother inherited. The last member of the family to live at Belan, he was likewise childless meaning everything passed to another brother, the fourth Earl who preferred to occupy a house elsewhere on the estate, Stratford Lodge (subsequently destroyed by fire) and who abandoned Belan to an agent more interested in helping himself than in looking after his employer’s property. The next heir, Mason Gerard Stratford, fifth Earl was a hopeless spendthrift who, when short of funds, would visit London money lenders with a gun and threaten to shoot himself if they did not give him cash. He was also a bigamist, possibly even a trigamist, and on his death the eldest son from one of these marriages had trouble claiming a right to the title and what remained of the family property. Sixth and final Earl of Aldborough, he died without heirs in 1875.
By that date Belan was already in poor condition and some thirty years later Mrs Sartoris, who remembered the house intact, could write that ‘Beautiful Belan lies in ruins, the wind blowing where it listheth, sighs over the desolate grounds and gardens once so beautiful, a herd lives in the yard, sole occupant of that once lovely demesne.’ As late as the 1940s the main walls of the house still stood, but this shell was subsequently swept away. Today only the remnants of the stables survive to remind us of what once stood on this site and to serve as a warning that nothing is eternal.

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Remembrance of Lost Time

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The sad tale of what befell the Dukes of Leinster in the last century, the loss of the family estates and the scattering of their inheritance, has been told so often that it does not need to be repeated here. Heads of the FitzGerald family and once princely figures in Ireland, the Leinsters no longer have any presence here, and their main seat Carton, County Kildare has metamorphosed into just another golf resort and spa.
Over recent decades various FitzGerald heirlooms have come on the market, and next week more items will be sold by English auctioneers Cheffins of Cambridge. Some of the lots are significant: a series of family portraits executed in pastel by Hugh Douglas Hamilton; a set of George II mahogany and parcel gilt dining chairs; even Lord Edward FitzGerald’s ring, bequeathed on his deathbed to a favourite sister. Yet somehow the more poignant items are the commonplace ones such as the set of eight George III leather fire buckets shown above. Each painted with the ducal monogram and coronet, they would once have been kept at Carton but now, following the rest of the house’s original contents, are set to join a general dispersal. One ought not to become too sentimental about such matters, but still it is regrettable that these functional yet handsome mementoes of quotidian life in an Irish country house should be lost.
For more information on the Cheffins sale, see: http://auctions.cheffins.co.uk/asp/searchresults.asp?pg=1&ps=50&st=D&sale_no=F180913

Ignorance is Never Better than Knowledge

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Earlier this week photographer James Fennell took a number of extraordinary pictures showing an old house at the entrance to the 18th century planned Quaker village of Ballitore, County Kildare being enveloped within a new structure; once the latter is complete, the old house will be demolished. The company responsible for this undertaking is Glanbia plc which grandiloquently describes itself as ‘a global nutritional solutions and cheese group’ and which on Wednesday announced a 13 per cent rise in revenue to €1.68 billion in the first half of 2013. Glanbia already has a plant in Ballitore and last year applied for planning permission to extend the premises, which involved the demolition of the house, referred to in the application as a ‘two storey office building’ thereby conveniently ignoring its history as part of a long-standing residential settlement.
Permission for this work to proceed was duly granted by Kildare County Council, after its conservation advisors advised that the structure had been so altered and refurbished that it ‘no longer retains any features of special significance’ and could accordingly ‘be deemed to be of little significance within the architectural heritage of Kildare.’ Leaving aside the fact that the local authority permitted those alterations and refurbishments to take place, the approval also ignored the house’s importance within the overall framework of the village of Ballitore, a unique collection of houses that are each part of a greater whole; damage one element and you damage the entire site and thereby irreparably alter its distinctive character. Glanbia is not some foreign entity (its origins lie in the Irish co-operative movement and it ought therefore to have a sense of community) so neither this organisation nor Kildare County Council can claim ignorance of the history of Ballitore. No doubt the inevitable economic arguments will be trotted out in justification for this act of cultural vandalism. Tourism is also an enormously important money-generating industry in Ireland: this is not Soviet Russia and tourists do not come here to look at factories. By assisting in the demolition of a fine old house and its replacement with a characterless monolith, the two bodies responsible will have inflicted damage on both the appearance of Ballitore and on the local economy.

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No Room at the Inn

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Seen from a towpath on the opposite side of the Grand Canal, the old hotel at Robertstown, County Kildare retains its charm. Originally opened in 1801, this hostelry attracted so much business that within three years it had to be extended. But with the advent of railways came a decline in canal business and by 1869 the Royal Irish Constabulary had been granted a lease on the premises. In the last century the building was used for various purposes; from the mid-1960s onwards it was the centrepiece of an annual summer festival in which the Irish Georgian Society became involved. Famously on one occasion a demonstration was given by Desmond Leslie of water-skiing on the canal. What made his activity distinctive was that Leslie was pulled by a horse being ridden at speed along the bank. Now the hotel is empty and falling into dereliction (all window openings are filled with painted boards). A five-year old planning application attached to the main door proposes a four-storey, 44-bedroom extension and sundry other changes but that option now seems unlikely. Although listed as a protected structure, the future does not look good for this important vestige of Irish transport history.

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Relishing the Society of Friends

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‘Our eyes were charmed with the sweetest bottom where, through lofty trees, we beheld a variety of pleasant dwellings. Through a road that looked like a fine terrace walk, we turn to this lovely vale, where Nature assisted by Art, gave us the utmost contentment. It is a colony of Quakers, called by the name of Ballitore.’ Thus wrote an unknown visitor to this part of County Kildare in 1748. Ballitore has long been an area where members of the Religious Society of Friends settled. The sect was established in the late 1640s by the English dissenter George Fox but its tenets quickly found a response in Ireland where the first recorded Friends meeting for worship took place in 1654 at a house in Lurgan, County Armagh belonging to William Edmundson.
Before converting to Quakerism and adopting its pacifist principles, he had been a member of Oliver Cromwell’s Parliamentarian Army, as was his almost exact contemporary Colonel John Fennell who like Edmundson moved from England to Ireland. In 1675 Edmundson’s diary records travelling from Wales and attending a meeting at Fennell’s Irish house: ‘The wind coming fair we put to sea again and landed at Cork where Friends were glad of my coming. When I had visited Friends’ meetings in that quarter, I went to John Fennell’s in company with several Friends, where we had a refreshing, heavenly meeting. Here divers Friends from Mountmellick and thereabouts came to meet me, in whose company I returned home, where I met with my wife and children in the same love of God that had made us willing to part one with another for a season for the Lord’s service and truth’s sake.’ By this time Edmundson was settled in Rosenallis, County Laois (not far from another Quaker settlement, the aforementioned Mountmellick) while Fennell had acquired land at Kilcommon on the outskirts of Cahir, County Tipperary.

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Despite being in (quietly reflective) opposition to the established church and its practitioners accordingly incurring various penalties, Quakerism soon established a presence in Ireland. Already by 1660, the sect had some thirty meeting houses around the country and their numbers continued to grow through the remainder of the 17th and early years of the 18th centuries. Their minority status meant Quakers often gathered together in settlements such as that at Ballitore. The land on which the village stands was purchased in 1685 by two Quakers John Barcroft and Abel Strettel, supposedly after they had discovered the spot while resting their horse en route from Dublin to Cork. The first planned Quaker settlement in these islands, it quickly grew and some forty years later saw the foundation of a boarding school by the Yorkshire-born Abraham Shackleton. Although run on Quaker principles, it was open to children of all denominations and its most celebrated ex-pupil was the orator, statesman and philosopher Edmund Burke.

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Not far from Ballitore stands Burtown, originally built for the Quaker Robert Power in 1710 and marked on early maps as Power’s Grove. The house’s original appearance was somewhat different to what can be seen today: of three bays but only one room deep, it seems to have had wings of which just a faint outline remains. In the second half of the 18th century, the property was extended to the rear, notably by the addition of two large bow-fronted rooms one above the other and linked by a splendid staircase accessed via a broad elliptical arch. It is surmised that the ground floor room was intended for dining: it has a charming arched alcove filled with plasterwork representing tendrils of grapevine and flanked by Corinthian-capped pilasters on which sit classical vases. The space seems made for a sideboard which would certainly support the dining room theory. Meanwhile the equally fine room directly above, although now serving as a bedroom, would originally have been a piano nobile drawing room.
Burtown’s plasterwork, probably the work of a travelling stuccadore offering what were then fashionable flourishes, is one of the house’s greatest delights. There is more of it found in the entrance hall, rather Wyatt’esque in style compared with that seen elsewhere in the house. The ceiling is mostly covered in a sequence of swags while the walls have small oval medallions and, a delightfully quirky detail, classical busts on brackets in each of the corners. More work took place to the house in the early 19th century when the front was given its fan-lighted door and the roof those deep eaves so typical of the period.

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Traditionally Quakers were renowned for their plain living with all forms of ornamentation eschewed. Burtown’s decoration suggests its owners were perhaps not the strictest adherents of their faith; tellingly William James Fennell who inherited the property in 1890 and was a keen horseman, was ‘asked to leave the Quaker persuasion because of his fondness for driving a carriage with uniform flunkies on the back.’ William James was a direct descendant of Colonel John Fennell and came to live at Burtown through his mother, Jemima Wakefield. The Wakefields had married into the Haughton family who in turn had married members of the Power family, Burtown thus passing several times through the female line. Jemima Wakefield had not expected to come into the property until her brother died after being hit by a stray cricket ball; who knew the game could be so dangerous?
William James Fennell was the great-grandfather of Burtown’s present owner, photographer James Fennell who lives in the house with his wife Joanna and three children. The latest generation has added its own mark while preserving the property’s character and cherishing its history. In particular Burtown’s gardens, which are now open to the public, continue to be expanded and developed. Across three hundred years and four different but inter-related families Burtown has acquired a patina only possible provided there is sufficient time and care. As had that visitor to the area in 1748, today it is still possible to be charmed here when ‘through lofty trees, we beheld a variety of pleasant dwellings.’ Few such houses as Burtown remain in Ireland and it is therefore fortunate that the current owners bring such enthusiasm and commitment to the task of preserving the place into the future.

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For more information about Burtown and its gardens, see: http://www.burtownhouse.ie

Up Pompeii

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As is widely known, in August 79 A.D. Mount Vesuvius in southern Italy erupted, sending a plume of ashes, pumice and other rocks, and scorching-hot volcanic gases so high into the sky that people could see it hundreds of miles away. ‘I believed I was perishing with the world, and the world with me,’ afterwards wrote Pliny the Younger, who saw the eruption from the other side of the Bay of Naples and whose uncle Pliny the Elder, an admiral of the Roman fleet, died in the catastrophe. Many residents of the nearby town of Pompeii quickly fled but those who remained behind soon found it impossible to do so: falling ash clogged the air and made breathing difficult, buildings started to collapse and then a 100-miles-per-hour torrent of hot poisonous gas and pulverized rock – called a pyroclastic surge – poured down the mountain and covered everything and everyone in its path.
Buried beneath at least thirteen feet of volcanic ash, Pompeii was forgotten until 1599 when the digging of an underground channel exposed a few walls. However, the site was covered up and not explored again until the mid-18th century. First in 1738 came the excavation of the former town of Herculaneum, which had also been destroyed in the eruption of Vesuvius and which was found by workmen digging the foundations for a summer palace for the King of Naples. A decade later work on Pompeii was intentionally initiated.

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The excavations at Pompeii and Herculaneum excited widespread interest, and were much visited by affluent Irish and English travelers in Italy participating in the Grand Tour. Furthermore books were published with engravings of what had been uncovered on these sites, in particular the elaborate painted decorative schemes that covered the walls of ancient Roman houses. Some of these ideas had been emulated in the 16th century thanks to the discovery around 1500 of sections of Nero’s Domus Aurea in Rome, the inspiration in that city for work by Raphael and his successors in the Vatican loggie and the Villa Madama, and in turn for French artists of the Fontainebleau school.
The style took longer to win adherents in England and Ireland, but began to attract interest with the appearance from 1757 onwards of successive volumes of the official Le Antichità di Ercolano which contained engravings of wall paintings. A stir was caused by the creation c.1759 of the Painted Room in Spencer House, London designed by that great advocate of neo-classicism, James ‘Athenian’ Stuart. The Adam brothers then undertook similar decorative schemes in such houses as Syon on the outskirts of London and Kedleston Hall in Derbyshire, and later Osterley Park, London. In the 1770s the interiors of Fawley Court, Buckinghamshire were designed in pure ‘Etruscan’ style by James Wyatt, an early commission which helped to establish his reputation.

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Only one room painted in the Pompeian style exists in Ireland: the Long Gallery in Castletown, County Kildare. The house was built in the 1720s and initially this space was used as a picture gallery but this looked old-fashioned even by the time Thomas Conolly took up residence at Castletown in 1759. When in Rome the previous year he had his portrait painted by Anton Raphael Mengs (a copy of the picture can be seen over the chimneypiece at the east end of the room) and may have visited Herculaneum and Pompeii. Incidentally also in 1758 Mengs painted an imitation ancient Roman fresco representing Jupiter and Ganymede in Rome’s Palazzo Barberini in order to mislead art historian Johann Joachim Winckelmann; so convincing was this work that Winckelmann was duped into believing it was an original.
On his return from Italy Thomas Conolly married the 15-year old Lady Louisa Lennox, one of the four daughters of the second Duke of Richmond whose story was told in Stella Tillyard’s 1995 book Aristocrats. Lady Louisa’s older sister was married to James FitzGerald, Earl of Kildare (and later first Duke of Leinster) who lived less than four miles away at Carton House. Over the next twenty years or so the Conollys carried out extensive alterations at Castletown, not least to the Long Gallery. Situated on the first floor and with eight windows looking north (towards the Conolly Folly of 1740), the room measures 79 feet three inches by 22 feet nine inches. Originally there were four doors but as part of Lady Louisa’s decorative scheme, this was changed and there is now only one entrance (the matching door on the south wall is blind). There are white marble chimneypieces at either end, that already mentioned and its pair above which is a copy of Lady Louisa’s portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds. The doors and chimneypieces were designed by Sir William Chambers, the actual work believed to have been overseen by Simon Vierpyl who performed a similar role at the casino in Marino (see Casino Royale, March 25th).

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The Long Gallery’s Pompeian-style decoration dates from 1775/76 and was undertaken by English artist and engraver Charles Ruben Riley (frequently referred to in Lady Louisa’s correspondence as ‘little Riley’), assisted by Thomas Ryder. It was a slow process with many changes for in August 1776 Lady Louisa wrote to another of her sisters, ‘Mr Riely [sic] goes on swimmingly in the Gallery but I am doing much more than I intended, that pretty white, grey and gold look that I admired in the ends of the room, did look a little naked by the painted compartment when finished and upon asking Mr Conolly’s opinion about it, he meekly told me, he always thought it would be much prettier to have painting, but thought I knew best.’ Clearly Mr Conolly understood the merits of a quiet marital life.
Although the overall stylistic inspiration came from ancient Roman decorative schemes, the Long Gallery’s complex iconography drew heavily on Bernard de Montfaucon’s 15-volume L’antiquité expliquée et représentée en figures published 1719-1724 and also on Raphael’s work in the Vatican. A variety of themes are illustrated, not least love, marriage and family – a reflection of the Conollys’ own circumstances – as well as different subjects from ancient antiquity. Over the two doors is a lunette copied by another artist from Guido Reni’s fresco of Aurora in the casino of the Palazzo Pallavicini-Rospigliosi, Rome. From the compartmentalised ceiling hang three glass chandeliers. They were ordered from Venice by Lady Louisa to complement the decorative scheme but once unpacked she was obliged to note, ‘The chandeliers have arrived intact, but they are the wrong blue for the room.’
In 1778 the newly-married Lady Caroline Dawson (whose cultivated husband would later become first Earl of Portarlington and commission the design of Emo Court, County Laois from James Gandon) visited Castletown and wrote, ‘It has been done up entirely by Lady Louisa and with very good taste: but what struck me most was the gallery. I dare say 150 feet long, furnished in the most delightful manner with fine glasses, books, musical instruments, billiard table…in short everything you can think of is in that room, and though so large it is so well fitted that it is the warmest, most comfortable looking place I ever saw: and they tell me that they live in it quite in the winter, for the servants can bring in dinners or suppers at one end, without anybody hearing it at the other.’
While the Long Gallery’s furnishings have since been dispersed, its unique decorative scheme remains intact and in excellent condition. Castletown, rescued by Desmond Guinness and the restored by the Irish Georgian Society in the 1960s is now owned by the Irish State and open to the public. For more information on the house and its many attractions, see: http://www.castletownhouse.ie. More to follow about Castletown on another occasion…

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