Seen in the Round

IMG_1499

On January 1st 1778 John Dawson, Viscount Carlow married Lady Caroline Stuart, daughter of the third Earl of Bute. Shortly before this occasion, Mrs Delany wrote of her as follows: ‘Lady Caroline is a genius in painting and musick, and has made a great progress in both; she has a clear, sweet voice, under good management, and less of the fashionable yell than most of her contemporarys. She is extremely good-humoured and sensible, but is one in whom many pleasing accomplishments are a little hurt by an awkward habit: she has no affectation, but a trick of a laugh at whatever is said or that she says herself.’ Fortunately we know a great deal more about Lady Caroline than this somewhat ambivalent description, as she was an ardent letter writer, especially to her youngest and favourite sibling, Lady Louisa Stuart. Their correspondence survives and was published in 1895 as Gleanings from an Old Portfolio. From her letters we learn that Lady Caroline was not altogether happy living in Ireland, separated from her family and old friends. It did not help that the house inherited by her husband failed to meet with her approval. Dawson Court stood on an estate in County Laois which had been acquired by Viscount Carlow’s grandfather, a clever banker called Ephraim Dawson who had married a Preston heiress and built the house for his bride. What might have sufficed at the start of the 18th century was no longer deemed good enough towards its close, and more than once Lady Caroline grumbles about the old building and its disadvantages. In August 1781 she writes, ‘we have had a storm of wind and rain to-day, that I really have been expecting this infirm house to give way, and dreamt of it all night, my fears were so strong… I have no pleasure in the place this summer, for, as nothing has been done in our absence, it is all in the greatest disorder, not a walk in the garden free from weeds, no water in the river, and the weather so bad that, in short, I comfort myself, as Miss Herbert says, with a good fire.’ That December, she complains again about problems caused by high winds: ‘I can hardly find a place to sit in to-day, being turned out of the drawing-room by smoke, and here’s a whirlwind in the library.’ One suspects that it was at least in part to put an end to her protests that around 1790 Lady Caroline’s husband, by now created first Earl of Portarlington, embarked on building a new residence.

IMG_1483
FullSizeRender
IMG_1510
Painted in Rome by Batoni in 1769 while on a Grand Tour, the future first Earl of Portarlington was a man of considerable artistic ability. According to George Hardinge, who visited Ireland in 1792 and 1793, Lord Portarlington ‘draws prettily & is a very ingenious architect… [he]draws in Sandby’s manner and almost as well – many of the views in Sandby’s work – (“The Virtuoso’s Museum”) are taken by the former, who has made a voyage pittoresque of Ireland worthy of immediate publication…’ Almost as great a patron of the arts as Lord Charlemont, Portarlington displayed his discernment by being one of the key supporters of James Gandon who he had met in the home of the aforementioned Paul Sandby and to whom he wrote from Ireland in 1779, ‘I do not see any architect of the least merit here.’ By 1790 Lord Portarlington had already commissioned from Gandon the design of a new church close by his estate at Coolbanagher (see A Very Conspicuous Object, December 28th 2015). Understandably he therefore turned to Gandon again when looking for a design for the proposed new house and so work commenced on what would prove to be the architect’s most important private commission. Evidently Lady Portarlington’s dislike of the old house was so great that the family demolished this building and moved into the new – named Emo Court – even though it was far from finished. And then disaster struck. In the autumn of 1798 her husband joined the army summoned to repel a French invasion in Mayo. In late November he wrote to his wife that ‘in consequence of a cold, I have had the most violent attack on my lungs; which was a dangerous situation for six days past, but I had last night a favourable change; which gives me great hopes of getting thro it…’ He died shortly afterwards and work on Emo Court came to a halt. The second earl initially seemed to promise well but proved a disappointment to the family, an army career stalling in 1815 when he somehow failed to join his company at the Battle of Waterloo until after much of the fighting had taken place: it would appear he had been enjoying himself too much and too late the night before. Thereafter he is generally described as giving himself up to dissipation, and the squandering of family funds, supposedly remarking on one occasion that he could not see what difference another nought would make to his financial obligations. He died in Londin in 1845 unmarried and unmourned, leaving title and estate – complete with unfinished house – to a nephew who also inherited debts running to some £600,000.

IMG_1512
IMG_1480

IMG_1493An account of Emo Court in the middle of the 19th century noted that ‘The principal apartments in the house are a grand reception saloon at the entrance, and a state drawing room, but these rooms, although built nearly sixty years rough bricks and stone still visible.’ Elsewhere could be found scaffolding and tools used on work begun but not concluded by the second earl who in the 1820s had employed the fashionable London architect Lewis Vulliamy and an otherwise little known trio of brothers called Williamson who ran a practice in Dublin. Between them, they had built a portico on the rear facade, decorated the dining room ceiling and designed the interior of the rotunda. It is the last of these that is shown here today, finally completed in around by yet another architect, William Caldbeck who also added that standard of the Victorian country house, a ‘bachelor’ wing. So what of this key space, aside from its basic form, can be attributed to James Gandon? The rotunda, otherwise known as the saloon, lies at a crucial juncture in the house, directly behind the entrance hall and between dining and drawing rooms. Here a series of marble pilasters capped with gilded Corinthian capitals rise to a coffered dome with glazed top. Niches between the pilasters would once have held statues and the floor is inlaid with elaborate parquet. The rotunda was intended to be the central point in an enfilade overlooking the gardens but could it ever have served any purpose, other than as a rather lovely meeting place while passing from one functional area to another? And again, what of its decoration can be considered based on Gandon’s intentions, and what those of the Victorian Caldbeck? It helps to compare the room with other near-contemporaneous examples, most obviously the saloon of Castle Coole, County Fermanagh designed by James Wyatt and dating from the same period. Again the walls are lines with Corinthian pilasters (scagliola) and there are round-topped niches (these holding Wyatt-designed stoves) the upper section of which has plasterwork which might have been Gandon’s aim for the Rotunda. Another, and closer, comparison can be made with Ballyfin, just a few miles away and designed in the early 1820s by the Morrisons, father and son. One suspects that in this instance, the incomplete work at Emo provided inspiration for Ballyfin’s top-lit rotunda (as the former’s library did for that at the latter) although here the walls are lined by Siena scagliola columns with Ionic capitals. So it seems reasonable to conclude that even if not executed by Gandon Emo’s rotunda displays his spirit.

IMG_1495

More on Emo Court in due course. With thanks to the Office of Public Works for permission to photograph the house’s interior.

 

A Very Conspicuous Object

FullSizeRender
In early February 1779 the church at Coolbanagher, County Laois, an old building of rough stone with straw-thatched roof, was maliciously set on fire and reduced to ruin. That same year the Hon John Dawson succeeded his father as second Viscount Carlow (he would be created first Earl of Portarlington in 1785). A man of considerable cultural interests, Lord Carlow played a key role in encouraging James Gandon to come to Ireland. When the English architect did so in 1781 he was duly invited to his patron’s country residence, Dawson Court which lay close by Coolbanagher: Lady Carlow’s correspondence records Gandon being with the family over Christmas 1781, together with the local rector, her brother-in-law the Rev. William Dawson. The following spring work began on a new church at Coolbanagher, designed by Gandon. Work progressed relatively slowly. In November 1783 Lord Carlow wrote to his wife, then in London, ‘The church has been neglected but now gets on apace, and I believe I shall have the whole body of it fit for roofing before the winter sets in. I shall not, however, put on the roof till spring.’ A month later, he advised her, ‘I have concluded my work at the church for this season. It will make a very conspicuous object to the new house and to the whole province of Leinster.’ Further time passed before Lady Carlow wrote in March 1785 to her sister, a regular correspondent, ‘We are going to have great doings here next week. The new church is to be consecrated on Tuesday; the Bishop and all the clergy in the neighbourhood are to attend, besides all the country, I suppose, and Lord Carlow will ask them all to dinner both on that day and on the next, as there are races within three miles of us. I own I am sorry to begin with this sort of work so soon, but there is no help for it.’ Shortly afterwards Gandon also designed a mausoleum for his patron and this lies to the immediate south of the building (see Preparing for the End last Wednesday, December 23rd).

IMG_7794
IMG_7777
IMG_7798
During a visit to Ireland in 1792 the English judge George Hardinge visited this part of the country and observed that Lord Carlow ‘has just built a most beautiful Church for his Parish upon his own Architecture and Wyatt himself might own it with pride as a work of his.’ Despite this mis-attribution, the church of St John the Evangelist in Coolbanagher has long been judged Gandon’s work, not least because a number of preparatory sketches from his hand survive which appear to show the evolution of ideas for the building. The initial concept suggests the entire church was intended as a kind of mausoleum, with a sarcophagus altar at the east end. This scheme was abandoned (and the more modest Portarlington Mausoleum erected immediately outside the building) and instead one adopted not unlike the courthouse concourse Gandon had designed for Nottingham a decade earlier. Everything from vestibule to vestry is contained within a single compact space, with the nave measuring a neat thirty feet wide by sixty feet long. This chamber is divided into three compartments articulated by alternate piers and niches, the former being carried up and across the barrel vaulted ceiling. Light is provided by Diocletian windows on the upper walls, these flanked by draped medallions. An arched and bow-fronted gallery at the west end was supported on slender Doric columns while presumably the altar table stood below a similar arch to the east. As Edward McParland has commented, stripped of all superfluous ornament, ‘when Coolbanagher was consecrated in 1785, there was no more nobly simple nor any more calmly grand church in the country.’ A view of the interior attributed to James Malton shows the building as Gandon intended (see above, the three figures in the foreground are supposed to represent the architect, Lord Carlow and the Rev. William Dawson).

FullSizeRender 3
FullSizeRender 4
FullSizeRender 2
Visitors to Coolbanagher church can still gain a sense of Gandon’s design, although this has since been the subject of some alteration. During the 19th century evangelical revival, the building must have seemed rather too pagan in character: more Roman bath (those Diocletian windows) than place of Christian worship. There also appear to have been problems with the roof, since it had to be repaired in 1822 and again in 1827. Radical alteration occurred in 1865 when, working on plans commissioned from Thomas Drew, a decision was taken by the rector and vestry to create an enlarged semi-circular chancel accessed by railings and containing a pulpit, reading desk and altar; the arch was given some gothic-spirited carvings presumably at the same date. Out too went the theatre-box gallery, and the old box pews, supposedly ‘to afford increased accommodation in the Church, so as to leave the aisle clear – which is at present inconveniently crowded.’ Finally the barrel ceiling went for good, replaced by the present pitched roof with exposed wood beams. More recently and reverting to the site’s original spirit, the late Major Cholmeley-Harrison commissioned urns (which were designed by Gandon but may never have been made) to be placed in the nave niches. Today the building represents a clash of cultures (not helped by the present colour scheme) in which Enlightenment idealism does battle with religious dogma, neither emerging victorious. Even so, Coolbanagher church remains, as Lord Carlow intended, a ‘very conspicuous object’ to the whole province of Leinster, if not to the entire country.

IMG_7818

Preparing for the End

IMG_7807
On the south side of the chancel wall at the church of St John the Evangelist, Coolbanagher, County Laois: the Portarlington Mausoleum. Like the main building, this was designed by James Gandon for John Dawson, second Viscount Carlow, and from 1785 first Earl of Portarlington, a notable patron of the architect. The mausoleum carries the date 1788 but Lord Portarlington did not die until a decade later. An instance of being well prepared for when the end comes…
More on Coolbanagher and its church on Monday.

On the Town X

IMG_7846
Mountmellick, County Laois is typical of many Irish towns in possessing a more distinguished past than its present circumstances would suggest. Originally a 15th century settlement beside the Owenass river, it underwent expansion after the second half of the 17th century when a number of Quakers arrived in the area. In 1659 the founder of the Society of Friends in this country, a former soldier called William Edmundson came to live close to Mountmellick, soon followed by several other members of the same faith. As a result of their presence and their industry, the town flourished and expanded as a centre for diverse industries so that in the 18th century it came to be known as the ‘Manchester of Ireland.’ In the years prior to the Great Famine of the 1840s, Mountmellick’s population grew to more than 4,500 the majority of them working in tanning and textile businesses run by such Quaker families as the Goodbodys and Pims. At the start of the 19th century there were three large mills and five breweries in the town, and employment provided by these supported the local population. In the mid-1820s a lace-making cottage industry was also initiated in Mountmellick and enjoyed similar success. Needlework was already being taught to girls attending the Quaker school in the town. This had opened in the centre of Mountmellick in 1786 and provided education for both sexes, albeit with different curricula. A government report of 1858 declared the institution ‘deserved the utmost praise and was the most credible managed school of its kind in Ireland.’ Before the end of the 19th century however, boys were being sent instead to Newtown, County Waterford and in 1921 the girls school was sold to the Roman Catholic Presentation Order of nuns.

IMG_7842
IMG_7882
IMG_7872
Like most of the Quaker families which first brought them into existence, the industries encouraging Mountmellick’s original growth have long since disappeared. Yet evidence of the town’s former prosperity can be found in abundance, not least in the central O’Connell Square, formerly known as Drogheda Square after the Moore family, Earls of Drogheda who owned land in the area. This is lined with large houses dating from the late 18th and early 19th centuries and testifies to Mountmellick’s commercial success. So too do many other buildings discovered on surrounding streets, such as the courthouse dating from 1839, a former town hall (now used as a parish hall) of some thirty years later and a Masonic Hall. The different religious denominations once found in the town are all recorded through their diverse properties including a Church of Ireland church which in its present form was built in 1828 to replace an earlier structure. In addition to the large Roman Catholic church, there is also a Methodist chapel, a former Presbyterian church (today a guest hostel), and naturally a large Quaker Meeting House. This however, has long since ceased to be used for its original purpose and is now a Church of Ireland Youth Hall. But the importance of the Quakers to Mountmellick’s development has not been forgotten, with a festival to their memory being held in the town last July. The local community clearly recognizes the benefits of living with such a distinguished history: preserving and celebrating its heritage surely represents one of Mountmellick’s best chances of enjoying a buoyant future. It is unlikely the industries of old will ever return and the town risks becoming a backwater while larger centres of population in the region like Portlaoise expand. Much of the old town remains – albeit in places falling into disrepair – and this ought to be promoted as a prime tourist destination for the Midland region. Compared with many other similar towns around the country Mountmellick is doing well but it has the potential to do even better.

IMG_7860

Apologies for this somewhat truncated On the Town: the Irish Aesthete has been on the road in the USA for the past week. Normal postings resume hereafter…

Puzzled at the Door

IMG_7867
Seen on Wolfe Tone Street in Mountmellick, County Laois: this cut limestone doorcase. From the 1650s onwards many Quakers settled in the town and in the 18th century developed it into a successful centre for textile production, which is why so many handsome houses from the period remain. However these buildings tend to be closer to the centre whereas Wolfe Tone Street is on the outskirts of Mountmellick and none of the other houses in the vicinity have anything as fine as this doorcase. Might it have come from another property – perhaps a country house – and been inserted into the present façade?

Off the Cuffe

IMG_7900
The remnants of Castlecuffe, County Laois its height exaggerated by distinctive Jacobean chimney stacks. The house was built in the early years of the 17th century by Sir Charles Coote, perhaps around 1610 to mark his marriage to Dorothea Cuffe from whom the property takes its name. The land on which Castlecuffe stands had previously belonged to the O’Dunnes and in the Confederate Wars of the 1640s it came under attack and was so badly damaged as to be rendered uninhabitable. The Cootes, on the other hand, thrived and diverse branches of the family established their presence around the country, as can still be seen in the fine houses still extant at Ballyfin, County Laois and Bellamont Forest, County Cavan.

IMG_7901

Garden Guardians

IMG_1049

Two pieces of statuary in the grounds of Ballyfin, County Laois. To the rear of the main block and flanked by obelisks, the figure of a river god reclines in a basin. The cascade behind him concludes in a Doric temple. Meanwhile in front of the house a pair of crouching sphinxes observe the arrival and departure of guests.

IMG_1019
For more about Ballyfin, see The Fair Place, July 21st 2014.