Two views of the late 14th century cloisters at the former Franciscan friary in Askeaton, County Limerick. Founded by Gerald FitzGerald, third Earl of Desmond the friary is notable for the excellently preserved condition of this feature; each of its four still-vaulted sides features twelve pointed arches supported by cylindrical columns with moulded capitals.
Not necessarily the best photograph to have been shown here, but it gives some idea of an exhibition currently running at 5 Rutland Street, Limerick. The house dates from the 1770s and is one of a terrace that marks both chronologically and literally the onset of the city’s Newtown Pery district. After serving as a butcher’s shop, in recent years the premises – like its neighbours – has stood empty and neglected. However, overseen by conservation architect Cáit ni Cheallachain and historian Dr Ursula Callaghan, and as part of the local Irish Georgian Society chapter’s contribution to Limerick City of Culture leaks have been fixed, an outbreak of dry rot arrested, wallpaper stripped, paintwork cleaned (including all the staircase banisters), and the entire site given a fresh purpose: as a Pop Up Museum exploring aspects of Limerick’s rich cultural heritage from the Georgian era. This is an imaginative and exciting initiative showing what can be done in a building that otherwise risked becoming further prey to vandalism and decay. The Pop Up Museum is open at weekends from 10am to 5pm and on Wednesday evenings from 4pm to 9pm and runs until the end of this month: pop in while you can.
Some buildings announce their sense of worth on first sight, while others are more self-effacing and require discovery. Kilpeacon, County Limerick belongs to the second category, initially making little impression on the visitor who will only note a modestly-proportioned, wide-eaved villa and assume there is nothing more to find here.
Certainly the house’s exterior gives little indication of the riches within. Kilpeacon presents itself as a two-storey, three-bay property, the main walls faced in roughly dressed limestone, with the two ground floor Wyatt windows given red brick surrounds: this would originally have been concealed by rendering. Cut limestone is used sparingly except for the facade’s most notable feature, a single storey breakfronted and balustraded bow porch with carved Ionic columns, and for the surrounds of the aforementioned pair of Wyatt windows which have acanthus brackets and a patera decoration within their arches. Nevertheless, these elements are unlikely to alter the notion that this is a house of only passing architectural interest.
Kilpeacon dates from c.1810-20 and was built for a local land owner Edward Cripps Villiers. It appears that in the mid-17th century the estate had come into the possession of Sir William King, a Cromwellian soldier who in 1665 served as Mayor of Limerick (and in 1690 was Governor of the city, during which time he was held captive by the supporters of King James). Having been granted lands to the extent of 21,600 acres in the county, he settled at Kilpeacon on which stood a castle previously belonging to the royalist Sir David Bourke: in 1653 the latter, then aged 64, and his family were dispossessed of all their property. Although married to Barbara Boyle, daughter of the Bishop of Cork, Sir William King had no direct heirs. Therefore on his death in 1706 Kilpeacon passed to a pair of grand nephews, Richard and Edward Villiers: a marble monument to their great-uncle was duly erected in the local church and remains there to the present. The Villiers brothers also died childless and so the estate was in turn inherited by one of their nephews Joseph Cripps of Edwardstown, who added the Villiers name to his own. Edward Villiers who was responsible for building the present house appears to have been his grandson.
In Limerick: Its History and Antiquities (published 1866) Maurice Lenihan writes that ‘Kilpeacon Court’, which he describes as ‘exceedingly tasteful and beautiful’ was built by Edward Cripps Villiers at a cost of £12,000. Its design is customarily ascribed to Sir Richard Morrison, not least on the basis of strong similarities with several other houses for which he was responsible, in particular Bearforest, County Cork (1807-8) which likewise had a bowed entrance porch flanked by Wyatt windows, and Hyde Park, County Wexford (1807), although the latter instead has a tetrastyle Doric porch. Nevertheless, the links are strong enough to make the attribution to Morrison hard to refute.
The three houses have certain characteristics in common, especially a top-lit staircase hall from which radiate the main reception rooms. Kilpeacon is larger than one might suppose, since in addition to the staircase hall the ground floor holds an oval entrance hall, library, morning room, dining and drawing rooms, all of substantial proportions, while the first floor contained six bedrooms. This may look like a humble villa but it is actually a very decent-sized country house.
The surprise and delight of Kilpeacon lies in its decoration, far more elaborate than would be expected given its exterior reserve. This begins in the oval entrance hall where the heavily ornamented entablature breaks forward on both sides and is supported by three columns with composite capitals. The doors here, as elsewhere, are panelled and inlaid with the style varying from one room to the next. The stair hall rises to a glass dome and has a gallery running around three sides, barrel-vaulted corridors providing access to the bedrooms. As for the reception rooms, they also benefit from sumptuous decoration both in the plasterwork and the white marble chimneypieces which feature a variety of classical gods and goddesses. The drawing room ceiling, for example, is decorated with oval wreaths of flowers and foliage, the outermost entwined with shamrock.
The expense of building Kilpeacon must have been more than the estate could sustain, because by 1850 the place was being offered for sale. Lenihan reports that Major George O’Halloran Gavin, ‘late of the 16th Lancers, in which he served with distinction in India’ first bought the house and demesne of 429 acres that year and then in the following acquired an additional 250 adjoining acres, all from the Encumbered Estates Court. He paid £12,000, the same price as the house had cost barely a generation earlier.
Following his retirement from the army Major Gavin served as an M.P. for Limerick City. He died in 1880 and the estate passed to his son Montiford Westropp Gavin who played cricket for Ireland in 1890. In the 1911 census he is recorded as resident in the house with his wife, four daughters and four servants: he died in 1922 and five years later Kilpeacon was sold. It has since passed through a number of hands and of late has been offered for sale again. One must hope it finds a sympathetic new owner, ideally somebody who appreciates the house’s exceptional qualities cleverly concealed behind a plain exterior.
This weekend sees the Irish Georgian Society’s annual Traditional Building Skills exhibition take place at the Hunt Museum in Limerick. Visitors might care to look across the road to the current poor state of Patrick Street, including this house No.4, birthplace of the 19th century soprano Catherine Hayes. One of the most celebrated singers of her generation, she performed in opera houses throughout Europe (as well as giving a recital for Queen Victoria in Buckingham Palace in June 1849) before touring to the United States – where P.T. Barnum sponsored her concerts in California – Australia and India. She deserves to be better remembered today in her native city than the condition of this building and its neighbours would indicate.
For further information on the IGS’s activities in Limerick this weekend, see: http://www.igs.ie/uploads/IGS_2014_Traditional_Building_Skills_Brochure_May.pdf
Built on a small island in the river Deel, Askeaton Castle, County Limerick dates from 1199 when built by the Norman settler William de Burgo. It subsequently became a stronghold for the FitzGerald Earls of Desmond but while surviving assault during that family’s rebellions against the English crown in the 16th century the castle was eventually dismantled around 1650 by the regicide Colonel Daniel Axtel when he was crushing opposition to Cromwell’s forces in this part of the country. Even as a ruin, its remains continue to dominate the surrounding landscape.
In early June 1765 Faulkner’s Dublin Journal reported that the former M.P. Francis Bindon had ‘died suddenly in his chariot on his way to the country’ before going on to descrive him as having been ‘one of the best Painters and Architects this Nation has ever produced,’ as well as ‘a most Polite, wellbred gentleman and an excellent scholar which he improved by his Travels abroad.’
We know a certain amount about Bindon but some facts elude us, such as the date of his birth although this must have been around the end of the 17th century. He was the fourth of five sons and three daughters born to David Bindon, M.P. for Ennis and Dorothy Burton, whose family controlled the Ennis Parliamentary borough. Based at Clooney, County Clare, an estate they acquired in the 1660s, the Bindons were substantial landowners in that county and in neighbouring Limerick. Among Francis’ siblings, two brothers Henry and Thomas studied at Trinity College Dublin, the former becoming a barrister-at-law, the latter Dean of Limerick. The other two brothers David, who wrote on trade and commerce, and Samuel both served as M.P. for Ennis as indeed did Francis after 1761: even in the 18th century Irish politics was a family affair. However, of especial interest to us here is the fact that in 1716 Samuel married Anne, daughter of Thomas Coote of Coote Hill aunt of the distinguished architect Sir Edward Lovett Pearce.
Bindon was a successful gentleman amateur sans pareil: family wealth and connections meant he did not have to earn a living, yet he appears to have been highly productive throughout his life. It would seem he spent some time studying abroad: he is recorded as having been in Padua with his cousin Samuel Burton of Burton Hall, Co. Dublin, in October 1716. He is also believed to have attended the Academy of Painting run by Sir Godfrey Kneller in London between 1711-16. Returning to Ireland and settling in Dublin where he spent the greater part of his time thereafter, Bindon built up a substantial practice as a portraitist, no doubt aided by his family’s political links. Sitters included the Viceroy, Lionel Sackville, Duke of Dorset painted in 1734 and Jonathan Swift, Dean of St Patrick’s Cathedral painted four times by Bindon between 1735 and 1740. Many other well-connected clerics sat for him like Dean Patrick Delaney, Archbishop Hugh Boulter and Archbishop Charles Cobbe. Bindon was a member of the Dublin Society in 1733 (two years after its foundation) and that same year was given the freedom of the Guild of St Luke in Dublin (the city’s Corporation of Painter-Stayners). By 1758 failing eyesight had forced him to give up painting and the following year he drew up a will, leaving most of his possessions in Dublin and an annuity of £75 for life to Francis Ryan, a house painter of Dublin, who had lived and worked with him for many years.
In addition to working as a portraitist, Bindon was also an architect, his ties by marriage with Sir Edward Lovett Pearce being of use in gaining commissions. It appears that he collaborated on at least two projects with Richard Castle, who following Pearce’s death in 1733 had become as the country’s premier designer of country houses. The first of these was the now-ruined Belan, County Kildare (see Splendours and Follies, September 30th 2013), and the second Russborough, County Kildare where Bindon is considered to have been responsible for the interiors following Castle’s own death in 1751. A number of houses in his native County Clare are attributed to him including Carnelly, Newhall and Castlepark as well as two once fine residences in County Kilkenny: Woodstock (see Of Wonderous Beauty did the Vision Seem, May 13th 2013) and Bessborough (see In the Borough of Bess and Back to Bessborough, November 25th and December 2nd 2013). As an architect, Bindon was certainly not of the first rank, his work being derivative and dependent on a handful of leitmotifs. As the Knight of Glin wrote in an assessment of Bindon’s output, examined collectively ‘one cannot help noticing the solid, four square somewhat gloomy quality of many of them. They are often unsophisticated, naive and clumsily detailed but they nevertheless amount to a not unrespectable corpus, worthy to be recorded and brought in from the misty damps that surround so much of the history of Irish Palladianism.
And there is one piece of work that is rather special, namely that shown here today: Bindon’s design for John’s Square, Limerick. Work on this began in 1751, meaning it predates by a couple of years the earliest of similar developments in Dublin, Rutland (now Parnell) Square. John’s Square was a speculative scheme undertaken by two local men, John Purdon and Edmond Sexton Pery (future speaker of the Irish House of Commons) on a site in Limerick’s Irishtown which had never recovered from an assault by Williamite troops during the siege of the city in August 1690. Members of the local aristocracy and gentry when visiting Limerick had nowhere fashionable to stay, and New Square as it was originally called, was created to address this need. Eight houses (with a further two subsequently added) were built on three sides of the square, the fourth easterly side being occupied by the church of St John which still remains, although rebuilt in the mid-19th century and no longer in use for services.
Built at a cost of £630, John’s Square as designed by Francis Bindon consists of two L-shaped blocks of limestone-fronted houses each one identical to its neighbour and sharing certain features such as brick-lined oculi. Eight of the houses are three-bay, three-storey over basement, those at the extreme end of the north and south sides being larger and running to five bays. When the square was completed, Pery and Purdon both took a property, the other houses being let at £32 per annum. Original tenants included Vere Hunt from Curraghchase, William Monsell of Tervoe and Pery’s brother, the Rev. William Cecil Pery, later Bishop of Limerick.
In her 1991 book The Building of Limerick Judith Hill, having noted that the development of John’s Square ‘was Limerick’s first taste of fashionable urban architecture’ goes on to report that a surviving building account made by Pery for the scheme and dating from 1751 to 1757 ‘gives an insight into the materials used and the construction process at this date. Pery appears to have paid each worker separately, a role taken today by the building contractor. He not only paid those on the city site but also quarrymen, stone-cutters and turf carriers presumably operating locally but at a distance. Brick also seems to have been burnt locally for Pery paid for turf “in nine boats” and “the emptying of the boats and casting of turfs into the green brick yard”. He paid men for attending the fire, he paid for reeds for their shelter and for the loading, carriage and landing of kiln-loads of brick at Mardyke. … Brick was used in John’s Square for floors to the kitchen and the passage, the vaulting to the cellars, the internal partitions, as a dry lining to the exterior walls and as an infil for the stone oculi on the facades. There was sufficient faith in the strength and integrity of locally produced bricks to give them a significant structural role.’
Following the demolition of the old city walls, in 1765 Edmond Sexton Pery commissioned the Italian engineer Davis Ducart to design an urban plan for land he owned to the immediate south of Limerick: this became known as Newtown Pery. Its emergence spelled trouble for John’s Square as wealthy residents preferred to move to the newer quarter: typically both Pery and his brother the bishop acquired alternative residences on Henry Street.
Meanwhile John’s Square began going into decline. For example, one Sam Dixon opened a dye works to the immediate rear of his residence at the extreme end of the south side. On the opposite side there appears to have been a brewery established (behind what is today a butcher’s shop). In the 19th and early 20th centuries many of the houses became tenements, although No. 3 on the north side remained the residence of the rector of St John’s Church until 1922 (it is distinguished from all the other houses by a wider doorway with fanlight which one assumes was inserted in the late 1700s). By the 1960s many of the properties were vacant and there was talk of demolishing the entire square. Fortunately this did not come to pass and instead extensive restoration work was carried out in 1975 to coincide with European Architectural Heritage Year. Further improvements were undertaken more recently with the local authority laying down granite paving, upgrading lighting and introducing traffic calming measures.
Even if it never returns to fashionability, the future of John’s Square is now secure, although after all the money spent improving the area’s appearance it is a disappointment so many of the houses have inappropriate uPVC windows and other ill-considered alterations. Nevertheless, considering what might have happened here, one should rejoice this very important example of 18th century urban improvement still stands. To end, a photograph of John’s Square taken probably in the 1950s when its survival looked much less certain than it does today.
A plasterwork panel forming part of the stairwell decoration at Kilpeacon, County Limerick. The building’s external appearance makes it look like a modest-sized villa but this is an case of looks being deceptive since Kilpeacon proves a substantial country house. Dating from c.1810-20 its design is attributed to Sir Richard Morrison whose client would have been local land owner Edward Cripps; he assumed the additional surname of Villiers on inheriting property from an uncle who had died childless. This gentleman’s widow, Mrs Hannah Villiers, on her own death in 1821 left funds to build alms houses in Limerick city; designed by James Pain and still in use, these were originally intended ‘as an asylum for Protestant, or Presbyterian widows, who will each receive £24 per annum besides most comfortable accommodation.’
More about Kilpeacon in the coming weeks.