A Man of Acton

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Over the chimney piece in the dining room at Ballyfin, County Laois, an oil of Mary Anne, Lady Acton and her children painted in 1809 by the neo-classical artist Robert Fagan. Lady Acton’s husband, Sir John Acton, commander of the naval forces of Grand Duchy of Tuscany and prime minister of Naples in the late 18th century, was also her uncle: the couple had been permitted to marry by papal dispensation. The boy holding a bird to the right was their younger son, Charles Januarius Acton who, after being educated in England, returned to Italy where he became a priest. In 1837 Pope Gregory XVI made him Auditor to the Apostolic Chamber and two years later he became a cardinal. However, never very strong, he died in 1847 at the age of forty-four. Incidentally his nephew was the historian Lord Acton, best remembered for the observation, ‘Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.’ This was certainly not true of Cardinal Acton.

The Fair Place

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The name Ballyfin derives from the Irish An Baile Fionn, meaning the fair place, and it’s an apt description for the house and estate in County Laois which now bear that name. Originally this part of the country was under the control of the O’More clan, but like so many others they were displaced of their lands during the settlement period in the 16th century. Laois was one of two counties created by Queen Mary in 1556 when it was called Queen’s County (and its main town, now Portlaoise, was Maryborough) and by the early decades of the following century Ballyfin had passed into the control of Sir Piers Crosby who is said to have built a castle here. In the disturbances of the 1640s, however, Crosby lost this territory when it came into the ownership of one Periam Pole, younger son of the Devonshire antiquarian Sir William Pole. In turn his son, likewise called Periam, would be confirmed as being in possession of the land, part of a larger estate of some 3,500 acres.
His son William Pole succeeded him in 1704 and some time later pulled down the old Crosby castle, replacing it with a more commodious house, these changes being described by a nephew as ‘grand and expensive and his designs were elegant, as his gardens show.’ But the expenditure meant that by 1727, the same relation would comment that William Pole ‘died worth no ready money between his improving Ballyfin and his wife’s going constantly every winter to Dublin.’ His elder son, another Periam – who undertook restoration on the house following a fire – died childless in 1748 and so the estate went to his sibling, another William Pole. The latter and his wife Lady Sarah Moore, a daughter of the fifth Earl of Drogheda, greatly developed Ballyfin’s parkland: in May 1759 Emily, Countess of Kildare could write to her husband, ‘Yesterday I saw a most delightful place indeed, much beyond any place I have seen in Ireland – Ballyfin…There is a piece of water there very like what I fancy ours will be, only broader; fine plantations and the greatest variety of trees and flowers almost that I ever saw anywhere.’ Over 250 years later Lady Kildare’s description remains apt.

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In addition to the grounds, William and Lady Sarah Pole also carried out work on the house built by his father, including ‘an elegant and commodious square of offices’ and, in 1778, an extension to the building that provided a new entrance hall and series of reception rooms. In 1784 William Ashford painted a number of views of Ballyfin which provide us with an idea of its appearance at the time; one of these pictures was engraved by Thomas Milton and published in 1787 in his Views of Seats in Ireland. The house is shown across the lake created by the Poles, a fourteen-bay elevation conforming to Milton’s description of it as ‘plain and modern-built’, the result being ‘an excellent family mansion’ with rooms ‘large and commodious, fitted up with taste’. Another engraving of the same building in 1794 shows its uneven façade and provides confirmation that the owners were planning still further developments. On the other hand, as was so often the case in Ireland, ambition outstripped income and it is apparent the Poles were heavily indebted by the time of their deaths in 1780 and 1781 respectively. Still, they were determined the improvements they had undertaken should not be dissipated, William Pole declaring in his will that ‘the person for the time being who shall enjoy my mansion house and demesne of Ballyfin shall engage and employ a skilful gardiner at the salary of one hundred pounds Sterling a year to attend and take care of the improvements…so as to keep and preserve the same in good and compleat order, repair and condition.’

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Like his elder brother William Pole had no children, and therefore Ballyfin passed to a godson and great-nephew, William Wellesley, whose father was the music-loving first Earl of Mornington and whose younger brother would become the great Duke of Wellington. Wellesley’s inheritance came with the proviso that he adopt the name Pole, and so he became William Wellesley-Pole. Although he spent time in this country as Chief Secretary for Ireland between 1809 and 1812 and as Chancellor of the Irish Exchequer during part of the same period, Wellesley-Pole, who would be made first Baron Maryborough in 1821 (and on the death of another brother in 1842 become third Earl of Mornington), spent the greater part of his career in England. In 1813 he offered his Irish estate for sale, a fortunate move since it would otherwise have been squandered by his eldest son.
This gentleman was one of the most notorious rakes of the early 19th century. Born William Wellesley-Pole, in 1812 shortly before marrying for the first time he added the surname of his heiress fiancée, thus becoming William Pole-Tylney-Long-Wellesley. The unfortunate bride, Catherine Tylney-Long, at the time generally called ‘The Wiltshire Heiress’ was believed to be the richest commoner in England, with estates providing an annual rental income of £40,000 per annum and financial investments worth £300,000. Her husband, on the other hand, had only debts and within a decade was forced to flee to mainland Europe to evade his creditors. His last years were spent in London, living on a weekly pension of ₤10 provided by his cousin Arthur Wellesley, second Duke of Wellington. On his death in July 1857, the Morning Chronicle obituarist summarised him as follows: ‘A spendthrift, a profligate, and a gambler in his youth, he became debauched in his manhood… redeemed by no single virtue, adorned by no single grace, his life gone out even without a flicker of repentance.’

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Instead of being frittered away by William Pole-Tylney-Long-Wellesley, the Ballyfin estate changed hands in 1813 when it was bought by Sir Charles Henry Coote, premier Baronet of Ireland. The first of his family to come to Ireland had been an earlier Charles Coote, like Periam Pole originally from Devonshire. As a young soldier he came to this country to make his fortune and was eventually rewarded with large grants of land as well as a lifetime possession of several valuable state offices. He died in 1642 during the Confederate Wars and was succeeded by his son Charles who supported Oliver Cromwell but, after the latter’s death, championed the restoration of Charles II and was thus granted the title of Earl of Mountrath. This title passed down through successive generations until the death in 1802 of the childless seventh earl who left his Mountrath estate of some 50,000 acres to a kinsman, Charles Henry Coote, then a ten-year old schoolboy. The property was held in trust until he came of age, conveniently just as Ballyfin was offered for sale and a year before his marriage to Caroline Whaley (a niece of the famous Irish gambler Thomas ‘Buck’ Whaley).
Although the Cootes had been considerable landowners in Queen’s County since the early 17th century, they do not appear to have had a significant residence there. The ruins survive of two houses associated with the family, Castle Cuffe, built by the first Sir Charles Coote and named after his wife Dorothea Cuffe, and Rush Hall, but neither was in use by the time the ninth baronet came into his inheritance. Therefore it made sense to acquire an existing estate, especially one such as Ballyfin which had benefitted from the attention of successive earlier owners. He and his new wife settled here and when the place was visited by Atkinson in 1815, he reported in The Irish Tourist, ‘The dwelling-house of Ballyfin is a large building in the form of a half-square, it has an aspect of neatness and extent, but in its exterior appearance nothing very ornamental or magnificent. The rooms, however, which I saw, were spacious and furnished in a stile of elegance suitable to the place. Under this head may be classed, as an article of the first consideration, a rich and valuable collection of paintings, the work of eminent artists.’

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It was perhaps because they required a better setting for their collection of ‘rich and valuable’ paintings that in the early 1820s the Cootes decided to embark on a rebuilding programme at Ballyfin. It would appear that the initial intention was to remodel and extend the existing structure, using the services of a relatively unknown architect called Dominick Madden (he would go on to design several Roman Catholic cathedrals in the west of Ireland). However, here as elsewhere Madden ran into trouble with his clients – in 1810 he had been dismissed from a position with the Board of Works for ‘irregular conduct’ including the theft of furniture from the Vice-Regal Lodge – and was replaced by the ubiquitous Morrisons, Richard and his son William Vitruvius. They proposed an entirely new scheme that even involved the demolition of Madden’s recently completed library and vestibule, and somehow succeeded in persuading Sir Charles Coote to go along with their plans.
As Kevin V Mulligan wrote in a 2005 article on the house, ‘The detail and quality of finishes in the executed building, indicate that the Morrisons’ skills in spatial planning and decorative design were matched only by their powers of persuasion. The wealth of materials available to the Morrisons is seen in the ability to execute all the elevations in smooth sandstone ashlar. The conservatory, a feature represented in the Morrisons’ earliest proposals, seems to have been the only element sacrificed until Richard Turner’s fragile curvilinear glass cell was added sometime after 1855. Internally, a stunning collection of scagliola columns included the most expensive that could be obtained from the Lambeth works of William Croggon who almost certainly provided them here, represented by the imitation verde antico Corinthian columns that contribute to the imperial grandeur of the saloon. Elsewhere, endless mahogany for doors and bookcases and an assorted range of exotic woods used to remarkable effect in the parquetry floors constituted more expensive materials; added to this were the contents of seven packing cases sent from Italy in 1821 through the agency of the artist Gaspare Gabrielli which may have included the matching chimneypieces with Bacchanalian friezes that now serve the saloon and dining room or indeed the Roman mosaic set into the stone floor of the entrance hall. But all of this barely compares with the wealth of artistry available in the craftsmen who fashioned these materials, especially those who modelled and cast the extraordinary stuccowork, an eclectic decorative display that remains the principal glory of Ballyfin.’

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Ballyfin remained in the ownership of the Cootes for just over 100 years before steeply declining income, the loss of the estate to the Land Commission and changing political circumstances obliged the family to sell. In 1928 the house and demesne were acquired by the Patrician Brothers for £10,000, only a fraction of what it had cost to build the Morrison-designed property a century before. The religious order operated a boarding school on the premises until they in turn announced an intention to sell in September 2001. After visiting Ballyfin the following January, I wrote that by this date some of the rooms had become ‘barely habitable, because in recent years the house has suffered from water seeping through the roof and into the building. A corner of the ground-floor drawing-room, for example, shows evidence of serious damage from this problem.’ While problems with the roof had been stabilised, ‘more costly work is still required on the parapets and corbels. Then money will need to be spent elsewhere on the building, taking care of those sections which have been ruined by damp as well as rescuing such features as the saloon’s marquetry floor, areas of which have become dislodged, and the unique glass and iron conservatory dating from the 1850s and believed to have been designed by Richard Turner…And the grounds are also suffering from a shortage of funds for their upkeep: trees need to be thinned or felled, while other sections of the woodlands should be replanted; the grottoes and follies, including a 19th-century “medieval” observation tower, are suffering; and one of the neo-classical gate lodges is almost derelict. Remarkable and deserving of support as Ballyfin may be, the question must be asked: who can or will come to its salvation?’
Amazingly, a new owner did come forward to save Ballyfin and to undertake the slow and costly programme of restoration that the house required. Work began in 2002 and continued until 2010, meticulous, methodical and almost without equal in this country. Ballyfin then reopened as an hotel, but not – as is too often the case – with its parkland despoiled and its interiors butchered. On the contrary, the sensitivity of the house’s present owners and the skills of the team they assembled to resuscitate the property means that this is one of the finest restoration projects undertaken in Ireland in the past century. As a result Ballyfin today once more lives up to its name of being the fair place.

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For this week’s account I am much indebted to Kevin V Mulligan’s excellent 2011 publication, Ballyfin: The Restoration of an Irish House & Demesne.
Ballyfin is now a superlatively luxurious hotel, for more information see: http://www.ballyfin.com

A Stellar Design

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A section of the spectacular ceiling in the Gold Drawing Room at Ballyfin, County Laois. Its decoration, designed by the Morrisons and executed by Irish craftsmen in the 1820s, derives inspiration from the work of French First Empire architects Charles Percier and Pierre Fontaine. Their sumptuous style would have become familiar to William Vitruvius Morrison on his travels in mainland Europe before he returned to this country to join his father’s practice: at least some of the motifs seen here are taken from the vaulted ceiling of the Gabinete de Platino in the Aranjuez Palace outside Madrid, designed by Percier and Fontaine for Joseph Bonaparte while the latter was King of Spain. The gilding was added when the room was redecorated in 1848 by Gillow’s of London.

To Smooth the Lawn, To Decorate the Dale

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Travellers in Ireland during the 18th and 19th centuries seem rarely to have visited Laois, or Queen’s County as it was known until 1922. The preference was to head either south or north or west, by-passing the midlands with the result that references to this part of the country are not so easy to find. One suspects this continues to be the case, a pity since land-locked Laois has much to offer, not least the Lutyens-designed gardens at Heywood.
The main outlines of the estate here were created by Michael Frederick Trench, son of the Rev. Frederick Trench; one of those visitors to Ireland who did explore the area, English antiquary Owen Brereton, in 1763 wrote of the cleric’s property, describing it as ‘a sweet Habitation’ with ’24 Acres Walld round 10 feet high.’ Both the habitation and the grounds were enlarged by his son who in 1773 built a new house which he named Heywood after his mother-in-law’s maiden name. A barrister and amateur architect, Trench is believed to have been responsible for the building’s design, perhaps in consultation with James Gandon: Thomas J Mulvany’s biography of the latter (published 1846) states that in 1785 Trench ‘anxiously superintended’ the erection of the Rotunda Assembly Rooms in Dublin, being a member of the building committee. He has also been credited with the design of the two pavilions which terminated the colonnades on either side of the lying-in hospital.
At Heywood, Trench embarked on large-scale improvements to the surrounding parkland beginning with a gothic entrance gate and featuring various other decorative features, most notably a striking ruin on the adjacent hill, composed from elements of the mediaeval Dominican friary at Aghaboe some twelve miles away. When Samuel Lewis published his Topographical Dictionary of Ireland in 1837, a year after Michael Frederick Trench’s death, he was able to call Heywood a ‘richly varied demesne ornamented with plantations and artificial sheets of water.’

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When Michael Frederick Trench’s only son General Sir Frederick William Trench died in 1859, he left Heywood to the family of his sister Helena who in 1815 had married the euphoniously-named Sir Compton Pocklington Domvile. This couple’s granddaughter Mary Adelaide Domvile in turn became an heiress and in 1886 she married William Hutcheson Poë. There has always been some confusion about how to pronounce the family name, but William’s younger brother Edmund once explained, ‘I have been sat upon by women and held at arm’s length by men, but my name is pronounced p-o-a-y.’
Sons of a Queen’s County barrister, both men were educated at Dr Burney’s Academy in Gosport, near Portsmouth before joining the navy. Edmund rose to be promoted to Rear-Admiral in 1902, second in command of the Home Fleet the following year and Commander of the 1st Cruiser Squadron in 1904. A year later he was appointed Commander-in-Chief, East Indies Station, then Commander-in-Chief, Cape of Good Hope Station in 1907 and Commander-in-Chief, Mediterranean Fleet in 1910. Finally he became First and Principal Aide-de-Camp to George V in 1912, retiring two years afterwards.
William Hutcheson Poë meanwhile served in the Royal Marines and from 1884 was in Sudan, commanding a unit of the Camel Corps in the Relief of Khartoum in 1885 during which period he had a leg amputated. The following year he married Mary Adelaide Domvile and retired from service in 1888 when promoted to Lieutenant Colonel. The rest of his public life can be summarised as follows: in 1891 became High Sheriff for Queen’s County, and in 1893 for County Tyrone. He was a member of the Land Conference in 1904, was appointed a Governor of the National Gallery of Ireland in 1904 and created a baronet eight years later. In 1915 to 1916 he served in Egypt in the First World War, and from 1916 to 1919 with the Red Cross in France. From 1922 to 1925 he served as a Senator of the Irish Free State.

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At Heywood Colonel Hutcheson Poë was responsible for substantial alterations to both house and grounds. With regard to the former, Sir Charles Coote in his Statistical Survey of Queen’s County (published 1801) having discussed Trench’s various enterprises on the estate says ‘The Mansion house has also been built after his own plan, and is of a curious, though not regular order of architecture, being a square building composed of four fronts, and, from the irregularity of the ground, on which it stands, presents at one front three stories, at another four, at the third five, and six at the fourth. The apartments are as commodious as could be wished for, and are considerably more extensive, than we should suppose from the outside view.’
In the 1890s this building was enlarged and almost engulfed by extensions to either side, designed by one of the period’s most indefatigable architects Sir Thomas Drew. Sadleir and Dickinson’s 1915 Georgian Mansions of Ireland describes the result as ‘a large building, embodying extensive recent additions, and has been in fact so completely re-edified that one room only retains its entire Georgian character. This is the large and well proportioned dining-room, a singularly handsome apartment, and one of the finest examples of the Adam style in this country…the walls are covered with plaster panels and festoons, which, like the ornament of the over-doors, are very delicately modelled. The mantel, purchased by the present owner in London, exhibits Adam decoration with wedgwood plaques, and there is a steel grate…A series of Minerva heads in the frieze conceal the electric light bulbs, this ingenious device obviating the introduction of unsightly electroliers. In the adjoining drawing-room, which also retains some Georgian features, are a number of valuable pictures, including the fine full-length of John Musters, of Colwick, in Nottinghamshire, by Sir Joshua Reynolds…’ A series of photographs taken by A.E. Henson in 1917 and published in Country Life two years later testify to Colonel Hutcheson Poë’s discerning taste as a collector of pictures and furniture, even if not of architecture.

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Outside also Colonel Hutcheson Poë set about leaving his mark. The house at Heywood was built at the top of a south-west facing ridge from which the ground drops steeply to a lake out of which runs a stream in turn feeding two further lakes. As well as being a successful army man, Sir Frederick William Trench was a talented artist (just as his father was an amateur architect), and in 1818 he produced several drawings of the demesne from which lithographs were produced; these give an excellent idea of how the view swept away from the house across water and trees towards distant mountains, the very incarnation of the romantic landscape.
Nevertheless in 1906 Hutcheson Poë commissioned Edwin Lutyens to come up with a design for gardens in the vicinity of the house, occupying the area to the immediate south, east and west. As has already been explained, this part of the parkland is on a slope, and so the first and most important task was to build a massice retaining wall with buttressing to protect the house above from any risk of slippage. Thereafter the main features of the scheme begin with a pair of central terraces relatively uncluttered so as not to obscure views from the building; other than flagged walks and grass lawns, the most notable feature here is a pair of columns topped with stone balls and carrying carved milestones. Presumably Lutyens recycled these from elsewhere, as he did a series of Ionic columns which were once part of a Temple of the Winds erected by Michael Frederick Trench elsewhere in the grounds. The columns can now be seen in a pergola walk which Lutyens constructed to the west of the main terrace and where they support a line of oak beams. This walk, from which there is a sharp descent to the lake, is otherwise composed of rough-hewn stone, with an open prospect at its southern end and an apsidal niche at the northern: the latter once held a copy of the Capitoline Venus but now contains a more respectably clothed figure.

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Colonel Hutcheson Poë was not an easy client and Lutyens’ letters indicate his time at Heywood was rather stressful. In February 1910, for example, he wrote to his wife, ‘Colonel Poë, you know, has a wooden leg and he sits on a chair and watches the men lay stones – stone by stone – and finds endless fault. I couldn’t stand it.’ Two years later he wrote again, ‘The gardens promise well, but he is so cross to his workmen, to me and to all under him, and his wife, who is very rich, is left alone and ignored almost. At least she goes her own way, ignores as much as she is ignored.’
On an earlier occasion Lutyens had announced that the colonel’s ‘cross period has damaged the garden as there is, I think, evidence in my work of my attitude or despondency towards him.’ There is in fact no evidence of the sort apparent, particularly not in the marvellous elliptical sunken garden which is Lutyens’ greatest legacy at Heywood. The approach to this was most likely intended to have been via a short sequence of yew enclosed spaces which lead to a curved flight of stone steps bringing the visitor right into the garden. Today however, the more customary point of access is from the main terrace, passing tall piers to a pleached lime walk. Here a low stone wall to the south offers open views of the countryside, the wall to the north being higher and carrying a series of cut stone niches: originally these contained lead busts but they are now filled with stone urns. At the end of this walk, wrought iron gates provide access to the sunken garden, its centre occupied by a large pond once fed by spouting bronze tortoises and holding a basin formerly topped by another piece of sculpture. At the easternmost point of the sunken garden is a slender, single-room pavilion, the rear wall of which contains four Ionic capitals set into the rough stone and said to have come from the 18th century Irish House of Commons designed by Sir Edward Lovett Pearce (for more about this discovery, see Jane Meredith’s article on the subject in the Irish Arts Review Yearbook 2001, Vol. 17).

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Like so many other Irish country houses and estates, Heywood experienced mixed fortunes in the last century. After its owner’s death in 1934, the house stood empty and then the Land Commission moved in to divide up the property. In 1941 the house and surrounding 160 acres was acquired by members of the Salesian religious order who originally used the place as a novitiate. Unfortunately in 1950 the house was badly damaged by fire, after which a decision was taken to demolish it; a new building was erected on a site to the north-east adjacent to the former stable yard. This became a school run by the Salesians but since 1990 has been a community school. Three years later the Lutyens gardens were transferred to state ownership and they have since been the responsibility of the Office of Public Works.
Visiting Heywood today is a curious experience. On the one hand, it is wonderful that Lutyens’ work here has been preserved, on the other it is difficult properly to appreciate his vision without the presence of the house for which the gardens were intended to provide a setting: the context for which they were created has gone (see the plan below for a better understanding of this). And the 18th century parkland devised by Michael Frederick Trench is even harder to envisage since it has received very little attention, and some of it has been altogether lost. The defiant ugliness of the school buildings also plays its part in suppressing any impulse towards romanticism. Conversely, once properly inside the gardens equivocation slips away, and the genius of Lutyens takes over. It is, as I say, a curious experience but with the accompaniment of a little imagination by no means an unpleasant one.

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With thanks to Máirtín D’Alton for his advice and information.

Beneath a Starry Dome

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A section of the coffered dome in the Rotunda at Ballyfin, County Laois. According to Kevin V. Mulligan, the plasterwork fronds and stars were originally gilded and set against a Prussian blue background. Although the space is clearly inspired by the Pantheon in Rome, its central oculus is not open to the elements but rises through a cloud of gilded stars to a further dome filled with coloured glass.

Completely Floored, Part Two

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The entrance hall of Ballyfin, County Laois is paved with an elaborate marble floor the centre of which features a large antique Roman mosaic. Along with many other decorative elements, this was sent to Ireland from Italy in 1822 and incorporated into the Morrisons’ design for the house, a triumph of early 19th century neo-classicism.

Completely Floored

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Two sections of the marquetry floors in the saloon at Ballyfin, County Laois. Dating from the 1820s and designed by the Morrisons père et fils, the house was built for Sir Charles Coote, premier baronet of Ireland. As such it was intended to reflect his status and was decorated with unusual lavishness and with inspiration from diverse sources: the floor here seemingly derives from Southern Spain’s Moorish architecture and is the most exotic in the country.

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Much more on Ballyfin in the coming weeks.