On this day in 1849 the wondrous Maria Edgeworth died at the age of 81. She is rightly best remembered for her 1800 novel Castle Rackrent, a remarkable work that had no precedent but many successors, both in Ireland and elsewhere. While nothing else in her output matched its originality, at the same time Edgeworth’s other Irish novels in particular The Absentee (1812) are worth reading for insights into the state of the country in the aftermath of the Act of Union. Her family home, and the place where she produced many of her books, was Edgeworthstown House, County Longford. From around 1770 onwards it was much enlarged and altered by her father Richard Lovell Edgeworth, the result notable for the distinctive interiors which he designed in an idiosyncratic fashion. The house still stands and has long been a nursing home run by a religious order: the last time I visited the nuns in charge seemed to have little knowledge of or interest in its most famous resident. Sadly the building today bears little resemblance to its appearance during Maria Edgeworth’s lifetime having been ruthlessly stripped of decoration and character. Below is an engraving showing the house’s library as it looked a few years after her death.
Writing to a friend in September 1795, the English Romantic poet Anna Seward, known during her lifetime as the Swan of Lichfield, reported ‘I must not conclude my letter without observing, that, on my second visit to the fairy palace [Llangollen Vale], a lovely Being cast around its apartments the soft lunar rays of her congenial beauty. — Mrs. Tighe, the wife of one of my friend’s nephews, an elegant and intelligent young woman, whom I should have observed more had his wife’s beauty been less. I used the word “lunar” as characteristic of that beauty, for it is not resplendent and sunny, like Mrs. Plummer’s, but, as it were, shaded, though exquisite. She is scarce two-and-twenty. Is it not too much that Aonian inspiration should be added to the cestus of Venus? She left an elegant and accurate sonnet, addressed to Lady E. Butler and her friend, on leaving their enchanting bowers.’
The ‘Mrs Tighe’ to whom Seward here refers was another poet, Mary Tighe, while ‘Lady E. Butler and her friend’ were the famous Ladies of Llangollen, and a house in Ireland, today a ruin, links them all together: Woodstock, County Kilkenny. Lady Elinor, who grew up in Kilkenny Castle, knew the place well since it was here in 1768 that she met her lifelong companion, Sarah Ponsonby. Lady Elinor was then aged 28, Miss Butler some fifteen years younger but they formed so close a bond that more than a decade later, braving the opprobrium of their respective families, and of society at large, they ran away together and set up home at Plas Newydd, near the Welsh town of Llangollen. Although living quietly and on a relatively modest income, they soon became famous and attracted visitors from throughout Britain and Ireland: Queen Charlotte wanted to see their house and persuaded George III to grant them a pension. Writers in particular were especially fascinated by the Ladies of Llangollen and among those who travelled to see them were Lord Byron, Wordsworth, Shelley, and Sir Walter Scott. Plus, of course, both Anna Seward and Mary Tighe.
Mary Tighe (née Blachford) was born in 1772, the daughter of a Church of Ireland clergyman who died when she was very young. Her mother Theodosia Tighe was an early supporter of John Wesley and Mary had a severely religious upbringing. At the age of twenty-one she married her first cousin Henry Tighe but it appears the union was not happy. In addition Mary soon began to manifest signs of the tuberculosis that would eventually kill her.
From an early age she had written both poetry and prose but only in 1805 was her long poem Psyche, or the Legend of Love privately printed in an edition of just fifty copies. Nevertheless, it brought her considerable fame: in the same year Thomas Moore wrote his own poem To Mrs Henry Tighe on Reading her Psyche which opens with the lines, ‘Tell me the witching tale again/For never has my heart or ear/Hung on so sweet, so pure a strain/So pure to feel, so sweet to hear.’
Psyche is a six-canto allegorical poem in Spenserian stanzas recounting the classical myth of the love between Cupid and Psyche, and the travails the couple must endure before they can achieve happiness. In sentiment it is of its own era and not of ours, but stylistically the work is highly accomplished and one can understand why it achieved such renown in the early 19th century. A year after the death of the poem’s lovely young author in 1810 a new edition of Psyche, along with some of her other verses, was published and this helped to cement Mary Tighe’s fame across Europe.
Mary Tighe spent the final months of her short life at Woodstock which belonged to her brother-in-law William Tighe. Wonderfully located on high ground above the village of Inistioge and the river Nore, the house dates from around 1745 and is believed to have been designed by the architect Francis Bindon for Sir William Fownes. Its north-east front of six bays and three storeys over part-raised basement is notable for having an elaborate central doorway comprising the door itself and two flanking windows immediately above which is a niche which originally contained a life-size statue, and an oculus over that again. So deep is the building that it has a small inner courtyard to light the central rooms.
Woodstock was inherited by Sir William Fownes’ grandson William Tighe and c. 1804 he was responsible for adding the flanking single-storey wings with pedimented breakfronts, the designer of these being local architect William Robertson. The interior was especially noted for its fine library and a couple of old photographs show ceilings with elaborate rococo plasterwork. The main hall contained a white marble figure representing Mary Tighe carved by the Tuscan Lorenzo Bartolini some five years after her death. This has gone but her mausoleum survives in the graveyard attached to the former Augustinian priory of St Columbkill is Inistioge. Inside the severe neo-classical limestone structure is another life size figure carved by the English sculptor John Flaxman and showing the recumbent poet with a small winged figure – Inspiration perhaps? – crouching beside her head.
Set on sloping ground, the gardens of Woodstock were originally laid out in the ‘natural’ style popularized by Capability Brown. However they were transformed in the middle of the 19th century by Lady Louisa Tighe, wife of another William Tighe; Lady Louisa was the daughter of the fourth Duke of Richmond and therefore the great-niece of the Lennox sisters who made such an impact on Ireland during the previous century (as anyone familiar with Stella Tillyard’s 1995 book Aristocrats will remember). Late in life, Lady Louisa who was born in 1803 recalled attending her mother the Duchess of Richmond’s legendary ball in Brussels, held three days before the Battle of Waterloo: ‘I well remember the Gordon Highlanders dancing reels at the ball. My mother thought it would interest foreigners to see them…some of the poor men who danced in our house died at Waterloo.’ (A piece of trivial information: four years after Waterloo, the Duke, by then Governor General of Canada, was bitten by a pet fox and subsequently died of rabies.)
Working with her then-head gardener Pierce Butler, Lady Louisa’s interventions at Woodstock were extensive, beginning with a series of three terraces to the immediate west of the walled garden. The middle of these three was aligned to the south with a large circular conservatory designed by the Dublin iron master Richard Turner. This work completed and Pierce Butler having died, Lady Louisa then embarked on another major project with her new head gardener Scotsman Charles McDonald: the creation of a winter garden to the immediate rear of the house. Consisting of four sunken panels each filled with elaborately planted parterres, its creation involved the removal of more than 200,000 cubic yards of soil and the building of massive granite embankments. Extant photographs indicate the style of these gardens to be of the kind now found only in municipal parks, with lines of bright bedding plants and even at Woodstock pathways of different coloured gravel. Less lurid elements elsewhere in the demesne included an arboretum, yew walk and rose garden, Monkey Puzzle and Noble Fir avenues, a grotto, rustic summer house and various other features.
Lady Louisa and William Tighe had no living children and although she remained in residence at Woodstock until her death in 1900 the estate passed to her husband’s nephew Frederick Tighe who in turn left it to his son Edward. Perhaps because Lady Louisa continued to live in the house, this branch of the family spent less time at Woodstock and once the War of Independence broke out the Tighes brought the house’s more valuable furniture and pictures to England. It proved a judicious move since the building was occupied first by members of the hated Black and Tans and then by the Free State Army. The latter left Woodstock on July 1st 1922 and the following day it was set alight, most probably by anti-Treaty forces. All the remaining contents, including the library and Bartolini’s statue of Mary Tighe, were destroyed in the blaze. It was, like so many similar occurrences of the period, an entirely gratuitous act of vandalism that did nothing other than rob Ireland of another part of her cultural heritage.
Woodstock has stood a ruin ever since, its external walls now needing support if they are not to fall down. In recent years Kilkenny County Council has undertaken extensive restoration of the gardens which are open to the public and much prized. The pity is that the once splendid house which was their centerpiece and source of meaning provided should remain a hollow shell. If only in memory of the poet Mary Tighe, Woodstock deserves better than its present condition.
*From the first Canto of Psyche.
A new biography of Mary Tighe by Miranda O’Connell has just been published by the Somerville Press.
In February 1879 Elisabeth, Empress of Austria, popularly known then and since as Sisi, arrived in County Meath. Unhappily married, restless and inclined to melancholy, she found distraction in hunting and it was this sport which brought her to Ireland. Throughout her six-week stay in the country she followed the hounds almost daily with the Ward Union, the Meath and the Kildare Hunts, always accompanied by the most proficient horseman of his generation Captain William ‘Bay’ Middleton, widely rumoured to be her lover. Her own animals not proving suitable for the Irish terrain, local owners lent or sold the Empress their mounts although the Master of the Meath Hunt Captain Robert Fowler of Rahinstown was heard to expostulate ‘I’m not going to have any damned Empress buying my daughter’s horse.’ Nevertheless before her departure, Elisabeth presented a riding crop to Fowler: it was sold by Adam’s of Dublin in September 2010 for €28,000.
During her 1879 visit and on a second occasion the following year the Empress stayed in an immense baroque palace that would not have looked out of place among the foothills outside Vienna. This was Summerhill, one of Ireland’s most remarkable houses the loss of which, as the Knight of Glin once wrote, ‘is probably the greatest tragedy in the history of Irish domestic architecture.’
Summerhill was constructed for the Hon. Hercules Langford Rowley who in 1732 married his cousin Elizabeth, daughter and heiress of Clotworthy Upton. It is generally agreed that work on the house began around this date, perhaps to commemorate the union. Also, although impossible to prove absolutely, the most widespread supposition is that Summerhill’s architect was Sir Edward Lovett Pearce. There are echoes in its design of Vanbrugh in whose office Pearce is thought to have trained. Indeed writing of the building in 1752 the Anglican clergyman and future Bishop of Meath Richard Pococke specifically described it as ‘a commanding Eminence, the house is like a Grand Palace, but in the Vanbrugh Style.’
There was already a residence in the immediate vicinity, the ruins of which survive to the present. Known as Lynch’s Castle, it is a late 16th century tower house probably occupied up to the time of Summerhill’s construction. The position selected for Rowley’s new house could scarcely have been better – the 19th century English architect C.R. Cockerell thought ‘few sites more magnificently chosen – the close of a long incline so that the gradual approach along a tree-lined avenue created the impression of impending drama. Finally one reached the entrance front, a massive two-storey, seven-bay block the central feature of which were four towering Corinthian columns, the whole executed in crisply cut limestone. On either side two-storey quadrants swept away from the house towards equally vast pavilions topped by towers and shallow domes.
We must imagine the original interiors of Summerhill to have been as superb as its exterior since little record of them survive. The house was seriously damaged by fire in the early 19th century and thereafter successive generations of the Rowley owners – it had passed to a branch of the Taylours of Headfort, the first of whom was elevated to the peerage as Baron Langford in 1800 after voting in favour of the Act of Union – never seem to have had sufficient funds to oversee a comprehensive refurbishment. In fact in 1851 the estate was offered for sale. However, some work was done on the house, including a new main staircase, in the 1870s, not long before Summerhill was taken by the Empress Elisabeth. A handful of photographs, reproduced in the invaluable Irish Georgian Society Records of 1913 and shown above give us an idea of the house’s decoration, not least that of the double-height entrance hall with its then-compulsory potted palms (just as the wall above the stairs carries an equally inevitable reproduction of Raphael’s Sistine Madonna). We know the drawing room and small dining room both contained elaborate plasterwork and there were clearly some splendid chimneypieces. The IGS Records also lists many significant paintings in the main rooms.
Before the end of the 19th century the large gothic mausoleum likewise built by Hercules Langford Rowley in 1781 not far from the house had fallen into a ruinous state; some of its exterior walls survive, along with a handful of their curious arched niches. Originally it contained a large memorial carved by Thomas Banks and commemorating the death of a beloved granddaughter, the Hon Mary Pakenham (Rowley’s daughter had married Lord Longford, another of whose children Catherine would in turn marry the Hon Arthur Wellesley, future Duke of Wellington). The Banks memorial was rescued from the mausoleum and moved into the main house at Summerhill, there seemingly safe from any damage.
On the night of 4th February 1922 the Rowleys were away but five staff remained in the house. When a knock came on the back door, the butler refused to open it but shortly afterwards he heard the door being knocked down. He and the others escaped through an exit in the basement and walked towards the farm; turning around, they saw flames rapidly spreading through the house which by morning was left a smoking shell.
It has never been ascertained who was responsible for the burning of Summerhill or why it was attacked in this way, but most likely as elsewhere during the same period it was perceived as representing the old regime and therefore a target for republicans. Afterwards, like other house owners whose property had suffered a similar fate, the Rowleys applied to the new Free State government for compensation, asking for £100,000 to rebuild Summerhill; initially they were offered £65,000 but by April 1923 this had been cut to £16,775 with the condition that at least £12,000 of the sum had to be spent on building some kind of residence on the site, otherwise only £2,000 would be given.
The compensation figure was later raised to £27,500 with no obligation to build but by then the Rowleys left the country (one member of the family had already declared ‘Nothing would induce me to live in Ireland if I was paid to do so…’). For the next thirty-five years Summerhill stood an empty shell. The late Mark Bence-Jones who saw the house during this period later wrote, ‘Even in its ruinous state, Summerhill was one of the wonders of Ireland; in fact like Vanbrugh’s Seaton Delaval, it gained added drama from being a burnt-out shell. The calcining of the central feature of the garden front looked like more fantastic rustication; the stonework of the side arches was more beautiful than ever mottled with red lichen; and as the entrance front came into sight, one first became aware that it was a ruin by noticing daylight showing through the front door.’ In 1947 Maurice Craig visited the site. His wonderfully atmospheric photographs from that time corroborate Bence-Jones’ description.
Seaton Delaval still stands, but Summerhill is no more. In 1957 the house was demolished, apparently without any objection. Today the site is occupied by a bungalow of the most diminutive proportions surrounded by evergreens which thereby obscure the view which made this spot so special. The difference in scale and style between the original house and its replacement would be hilarious was the loss of Summerhill not so tragic. The village at its former entrance gates gives visitors no indication that close by stood one of Ireland’s greatest architectural beauties. Indeed one suspects local residents themselves are mostly unaware of what they have lost since there is scant evidence of concern for the welfare of other old buildings in the vicinity.
If Summerhill still stood it could be a significant tourist attraction, bringing visitors to this part of the country, not least from Austria and surrounding countries where the Empress Elisabeth enjoys near-cult status. In other words, what went with the house was not just an important piece of Ireland’s architectural heritage but also the opportunity for local employment and income. It is typical, if perhaps the worst instance, of Ireland’s failure to appreciate the potential of her historic buildings, as well as their inherent aesthetic qualities. I think it was Bence-Jones who once called Summerhill Ireland’s Versailles but a more apt comparison would be with Marly, another vanished treasure now known only through a handful of images. As Shelley wrote in 1818,
‘”Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare…’
In 1760 James Caulfeild, Viscount Charlemont (he would be created first Earl of Charlemont three years later) wrote in his memoirs, ‘I quickly perceived and being thoroughly sensible it was my indispensable duty to live in Ireland, determined by some means or other to attach myself to my native country: and principally with this view I began those improvements at Marino which have proved so expensive to me.’ Wonderfully situated on rising ground looking south across Dublin Bay and towards the Wicklow Mountains, Marino was Lord Charlemont’s pocket estate just a couple of miles east of Ireland’s capital. At its heart were some 50 acres acquired by his stepfather Thomas Adderley on which the latter built a residence originally called Donnycarney House. This he presented in 1755 to Charlemont on the young man’s return from a Grand Tour lasting no less than nine years during which period, together with time spent in the customary European destinations, he had taken an extended voyage to Greece, Turkey and Egypt.
However, unquestionably the most important country visited by Charlemont was Italy and the painting above, painted in 1773 by Thomas Roberts, Ireland’s finest landscape artist of the 18th century, portrays the kind of arcadian Italianate view first proposed over 100 years before by Claude Lorrain and Poussin, complete with shepherd and flock of sheep. The picture furthermore gives expression to Charlemont’s ambition to improve not only the Marino estate but also the country of which it was part. This is embodied by the building at the heart, if not the actual centre, of the painting: a small temple or casino.
While in Rome during the course of his Grand Tour, Lord Charlemont came to know a number of artists such as Pompeo Batoni, whose wonderful portrait of him can now be found in the Yale Center for British Art. He also associated with Giovanni Piransi, the first four-volume edition of whose Antichitá Romane (1756) was dedicated to his Irish friend, ‘Regni Hiberniae Patricio’ although the two men subsequently quarrelled. But the link to Piranesi demonstrates Charlemont’s interest in architecture from an early age, also evidenced by his commissioning a design for a garden temple from Luigi Vanvitelli, today best-known for the enormous Bourbon palace of Caserta. Vanvitelli’s proposal for an Irish building was rejected on the grounds of expense, but another architect with whom Charlemont first became acquainted while in Rome produced a more satisfactory, if ultimately no less costly, scheme. This was Sir William Chambers, responsible not just for the casino in the grounds of Marino but also Charlemont’s superb townhouse in central Dublin (today the Hugh Lane Gallery of Modern Art). Despite designing both these buildings and Trinity College’s Chapel and Examination Hall it should be noted that Chambers never came to Ireland.
Work on the casino at Marino was not completed until the mid-1770s perhaps in part because its owner placed many other demands on his income and was therefore constantly short of funds. But even before completion the building’s exceptional merits were recognised, as can be testified by the number of artists who produced paintings in which it features. Aside from Thomas Roberts, there was James Malton whose watercolour dated 1795 is shown above, together with an engraving by Thomas Milton after Francis Wheatley which was produced twelve years before. Jonathan Fisher, James Coy and George Mullins were among those who also exhibited work depicting the casino during the same period. It is difficult to think of any other building, certainly one of the casino’s relatively modest proportions, that attracted as much notice in 18th century Ireland.
The sublime perfection of the casino at Marino – contained within a elaborately carved Portland stone exterior the Greek Cross plan measures just 40 by 40 feet yet contains 16 rooms spread over three floors, many of them with splendid plasterwork and inlaid floors – has been often described and analysed, and I do not intend to do either here. Less appreciated is the fact that this was just one of a number of ornamental buildings once found on Charlemont’s estate which he gradually extended to three times its original acreage. size. The main residence was Marino House seen above; the early 20th century photograph shows the principal facade behind which were two long wings creating a kind of rear courtyard; the rooms here included an important library and a gallery to accommodate some of the owner’s extensive book, picture and sculpture collection.
We know that Charlemont employed Matthew Peters to help with the design of the parkland at Marino. Born in Belfast, before settling in Dublin in the early 1740s he had worked as a gardener for his uncle who was employed by Lord Cobham at Stowe, Buckinghamshire. Given the influence exerted by Stowe’s park for many years hence, Peters’ presence there as a young man strikes me as highly important in the layout of Marino. In the evolution of garden design during the 18th century from French-style formality to the supposedly natural but carefully planned ‘English garden’ championed by Capability Brown (who also worked at Stowe), a slightly earlier alternative to the former was proposed. Best described as picturesque it is represented today by the likes of Stourhead in Wiltshire and Painshill, Surrey; can it be mere coincidence that the man responsible for the latter’s creation, the Hon Charles Hamilton, was born in Dublin the son of an Irish peer? At Stourhead and Painshill – both of which evolved around the same time as Marino – the park is treated as a series of rooms, each with its own character and focal point. Visiting them is like moving around a gallery holding different but complementary paintings and, I would propose, the same was once also true of Marino with the casino as the finest but by no means the only item meriting visitors’ attention.
So at Marino, Charlemont’s park once held an extensive series of buildings of widely divergent character. We have become so accustomed to the casino as the embodiment of neo-classicism it can come as a shock to discover that not far away on the same estate was a tall Gothic tower known as ‘Rosamund’s Bower.’ Dating from 1762, it stood at the end of a serpentine lake populated by ducks and swans. The tower’s front imitated a ‘highly ornamental screen, adorned with tracery and niches…a crocketed pinnacle conveying the idea of a spire’ while the interior, lit by stained glass windows ‘has been fitted up to imitate a nave, and side aisles of a cathedral.’ Two views of Rosamund’s Bower are shown above. It has been suggested that this structure was designed by Johann Heinrich Muntz, a Swiss-born painter and architect who was encouraged by Horace Walpole to move to England where he worked with Sir William Chambers. Marino House itself contained an ‘Egyptian Room’, so called because of its decoration, while elsewhere in the grounds could be found rustic hermitages, a root house and a moss house, together with such resting points as a covered gothic seat which, in a surviving drawing looks like a much-pinnacled bus shelter. A handful of drawings of the other structures at Marino were made by Thomas Roberts’ younger brother, confusingly called Thomas Sautelle Roberts. Two of them can be seen below and offer us a suggestion of how the grounds of Marino must have looked in the late 18th century.
The greater part of Marino as originally laid out no longer exists, and with it has gone the context in which the casino was intended to be seen and understood. Like so many Irishmen before and since Lord Charlemont spent beyond his means and left his heir heavily in debt. The family never recovered and even by 1835 the Dublin Penny Journal could remark that the estate’s grounds, to which Charlemont had always admitted the public – and in which he was mugged on a number of occasions – had ‘now lost its attraction – it has long been neglected’ while Rosamund’s Bower was ‘in ruins and a stranger seldom visits it.’ Furthermore the estate’s proximity to an expanding city made it vulnerable to encroachment. In the early 1880s the Caulfeilds sold the land to the Christian Brothers who initially occupied Marino House but eventually moved to other buildings put up in the grounds. In the 1920s Dublin Corporation acquired some 90 acres of the former estate and build almost 1,300 houses for local families; it was at this time that Marino House was demolished with almost nothing other than a couple of chimneypieces salvaged. The casino might likewise have been lost but thankfully its importance was recognised: in 1930 the building was taken into state care, the first post-1700 structure to be designated a National Monument. Now standing on just a few acres and surrounded on all sides by buildings of later date and lesser merit, today the casino is looked after by the Office of Public Works and open to the public.
The Casino at Marino is currently hosting an exhibition, The Absent Architect, until the end of April. For more information, see http://www.heritageireland.ie/en/dublin/casinomarino/
The photograph above was taken in autumn 1913 by John Cooke, then Hon. Treasurer of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, for presentation to the Dublin Housing Inquiry in November of that year. Showing Chancery Lane, off Bride Street, it is one of a number of Cooke’s images on exhibition until April 2nd in the Little Museum of Dublin, 15 St Stephen’s Green.
I imagine that for most people the photographs are of interest because they serve as a record of the dreadful conditions in which far too many Dubliners then lived: at the time the city enjoyed a dubious reputation for having the worst tenement slums in Europe. To me, however, the pictures also provide a poignant record of Dublin’s architectural losses: not a building featured in the photograph of Chancery Lane remains. Look at the handsome projecting lamp towards the end of the street, and the wonderful cut-stone doorway just beyond. Gone, all gone.
During the second half of the last century accommodation in large parts of the city centre was rightly improved, but was it absolutely necessary that this should have been at the expense of so much old housing stock? No structure, however dilapidated, is ever beyond repair provided sufficient will to restore it exists. I have always thought it was more because of what they symbolised rather than owing to their poor condition that so many buildings were torn down – and even today some continue to be at risk for the same reason.
We must learn to understand our architecture, not for what we believe it represents – whether that be British colonial rule or an expression of our yearning to be ‘modern’ – but for its inherent merits. These lost buildings, even in the shocking state seen here, could have been salvaged and preserved for future generations to appreciate. So too might have been the terrace seen towards the back of the photograph below. Another image by Cooke, it shows the rear of Summerhill, part of the Gardiner estate begun c.1733 but largely developed in the 1780s. I remember those immense brick houses, each with a splendid bow from which the original occupants were offered unimpeded views of Dublin Bay. Now none remain: after lasting for 200 years they were swept away in their entirety around 1980. No matter how much better housed, we are the poorer for their loss.
Photographs reproduced by permission of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland.