An old photograph of the Large Drawing Room at Shelton Abbey, County Wicklow former seat of the Howards, Earls of Wicklow. At mid-height on either side of the double doors to the right can be seen canvases in rococo frames. These were two of a set of four views of Naples painted by Gabriele Ricciardelli who came to Ireland in the 1750s at the request of Ralph Howard. Along with the rest of the contents of the house the pictures were sold during a thirteen-day sale held on the premises in October 1950. I will be discussing the fate of these items, and many others beside, at midday next Friday, September 25th when I speak on A Century of Irish Country House Sales at the 50th Irish Antique Dealers’ Fair in the Royal Dublin Society. Admission is free and more information can be found by consulting www.iada.ie
Anyone familiar with the Irish Georgian Society will know that the original organisation of that name was established in 1908 with the specific intention of creating a record of the country’s 18th century domestic architecture. Five volumes were produced over successive years, the first four devoted to Dublin while the last, which appeared in 1913, made an attempt to provide an overview of country houses. Two years later, another work, Georgian Mansions in Ireland, appeared. This book, written by barrister and genealogist Thomas U. Sadleir and architect Page L. Dickinson, both members of the now-dissolved Irish Georgian Society, was intended to correct what they believed to have been a problem with the earlier work: namely that its compilers ‘laboured under a disadvantage, for they had but slight knowledge of the existing material.’ The two authors proposed that whereas the compilers of the Irish Georgian Society volumes were well informed about historic buildings in Dublin, ‘as regards the country districts, their number, their history and their situation were alike unknown.’ For Sadleir and Dickinson, writing almost a century ago, the contrast between historic properties in Dublin and the rest of the country could not have been more stark. The former’s large houses, ‘so far from being, as they once were, the residences of the rich, are too often the dwellings of the poor; at best, hotels, offices or institutions. But the country houses present a delightful contrast. Some, no doubt, have gone through a “Castle Rackrent” stage; but – as anyone who cares to consult the long list in the fifth Georgian volume must admit – the vast majority are still family seats, often enriched with the treasures of former generations of wealthy art-lovers and travelled collectors.’
It is unlikely the authors would have been able to write such words even a decade later, and certainly not today. ‘Irish houses seldom contain valuable china,’ they advised, ‘but good pictures, plate, and eighteenth-century furniture are not uncommon. How delightful it would be to preserve the individual history of these treasures! The silver bowl on which a spinster aunt lent money to some spendthrift owner, and then returned when a more prudent heir inherited; the family pictures, by Reynolds, Romney, Battoni, or that fashionable Irish artist Hugh Hamilton, preserved by that grandmother who removed to London, and lived to be ninety; the Chippendale chairs which had lain forgotten in an attic. Even the estates themselves have often only been preserved by the saving effects of a long minority, the law of entail, or marriage with an English heiress.’
Below are three houses featured in Georgian Mansions in Ireland, with a selection of the pictures included in the book. The line drawings are by the architect Richard Orpen, who had been in partnership with Dickinson before the outbreak of the First World War.
Platten Hall, County Meath dated from c. 1700 and was built for Alderman John Graham of Drogheda: Maurice Craig proposed the architect responsible was Sir William Robinson. Built of red brick and with a tripartite nine-bay facade, it was originally three-storied but the uppermost floor was removed in the 19th century. Alderman Graham’s son William Graham married the Hon. Mary Granville, second daughter of George, Lord Lansdown and cousin of the inestimable Mrs Delaney who visited Platten on several occasions during her first marriage (when she was known as Mrs Pendarves). Sadleir and Dickinson quote one of her letters from January 1733, in which she described a ball given in the house: ‘we began at seven; danced thirty-six dances, with only resting once, supped at twelve, everyone by their partner, at a long table which was handsomely filled with all manner of cold meats, sweetmeats, creams, and jellies. Two or three of the young ladies sang. I was asked for my song, and gave them “Hopp’d She”; that occasioned some mirth. At two we went to dancing again, most of the ladies determined not to leave Plattin till daybreak, they having three miles to go home, so we danced on till we were not able to dance any longer. Sir Thomas Prendergast is an excellent dancer – dances with great spirit, and in very good time. We did not go to bed till past eight; the company staid all that time, but part of the morning was spent in little plays. We met the next morning at twelve (very rakish indeed), went early to bed that night, and were perfectly refreshed on Saturday morning. …’ As for Platten when they knew it, Sadleir and Dickinson comment: ‘Like all early Georgian houses, the main entrance is on a level with the ground; it opens into the imposing hall, which contains a handsome grand staircase in three flights, supported by six Ionic columns, the floor being paved in black and white marble. The walls are panelled, and there are other symptoms of early construction; there is some tasteful decoration, the frieze being very richly carved, and displaying tiny figures, quite Jacobean in treatment. Note, too, the gallery, which we also illustrate, with its handsome balustrading, with ramps at the newels. Below the gallery the panels are in plaster.
Platten once afforded considerable accommodation, but one wing has been allowed to fall into disrepair, as its bricked-up windows show, and the excellent rooms in the basement are no longer utilized…the dining-room, a large apartment panelled in oak, which is to the right as we enter the hall; it has handsome high doors with brass locks, and the wainscot is ornamented with boldly carved fluted pilasters. There is a curious, probably early Georgian, mantel in white and grey marble.’
Platten Hall was demolished in the early 1950s.
The core of Turvey, County Dublin was built in the 16th century by the lawyer Sir Christopher Barnewell and the property thereafter passed down through various branches of the family across some 400 years. In the late 17th century the property was converted into a house of nine bays and two storeys with a gabled attic: the latter became an attic storey with a parapet and three lunette windows towards the middle of the following century. Turvey had an interesting Baroque entrance door with semi-circular pediment and urns. Inside there was excellent early Georgian panelling and a splendid rococo ceiling in the library.
Sadleir and Dickinson wrote of the building: ‘This mansion, situated in County Dublin, close to the village of Donabate, is probably one of the oldest houses now standing in Ireland. It is a plain building, having, like Platten Hall, suffered in appearance through the removal of its gabled roof. As it stands it is a seventeenth-century house, though part of an earlier structure which occupied the site would appear to have been incorporated. The original plan consisted of a centre block, in which was the entrance, with wings at right-angles to it at either side. But one of these, has been entirely removed, and the rest of the building considerably altered, apparently in the second quarter of the eighteenth century, to which most of the fire-places and nearly all the joinery, including the principal staircase, may be ascribed. There is another staircase, now disused, Jacobean in plan, with twisted balusters and a central well. Here and there are specimens of seventeenth- century panelling, but the panels in the reception-rooms are early Georgian. Formerly the house had three gables in front, but…these gables have had the spaces between them filled in, and the present parapet added. The semicircular windows belong to the same transformation. The size and position of the old gables and windows can be clearly traced in the attics, which are unusually large and really fine rooms, though for some reason never finished. The Georgian roof is carried in a single span over the main roof; it is supported by huge quern post trusses. In front of the house the ground-level has been raised; and, as we have seen in other houses altered at the same period, the hall-door is on what was originally the first floor. There is a secret room, the windows of which have been built up, which was apparently reached from a sliding-panel on the old staircase; but as the opening was blocked when the panelling was removed, there is now no way of access.’
Turvey was demolished, amid some controversy, by property company the Murphy Group in 1987.
Desart Court, County Kilkenny was built c.1733 for John Cuffe, first Lord Desart, its design attributed to Sir Edward Lovett Pearce. An example of Irish Palladian architecture, the house rose two storeys over basement and was linked to two-storey wings by niched quadrants. The centre block of seven bays was distinguished by a central feature of four superimposed engaged Doric and Ionic columns and a rusticated doorway beneath a first-floor rusticated niche; the garden front followed a somewhat similar pattern but only had engaged Ionic columns on the first storey. The interiors were notable for elaborate plasterwork ceilings in the entrance hall and drawing room, and for a pair of staircases with carved scroll balustrades.
Sadleir and Dickinson were understandably impressed with Desart Court, noting, ‘The three reception rooms facing south, of which the centre is the drawing-room, all communicate, that to the left being the boudoir. The drawing-room, a wellproportioned and nicely lighted apartment, has an elaborate rococo ceiling displaying much originality of design, and doubtless contemporary with that in the hall. Heads are introduced at intervals as well as masks; the latter an unusual feature, which we also found in the attic story at Florence Court. The colouring is cream, picked out with of the joinery has been renewed, though the window-seats remain. We cannot overlook the beautiful inlaid walnut cabinet of English or Dutch manufacture. The view from this room is particularly extensive. Another fine piece of furniture, but of Irish workmanship, is in the adjoining boudoir, which contains a Georgian mantel in Siena and white marble.
To the right of the hall lies the Library, containing some old-fashioned bookcases enriched with fluted pilasters, while to the left is the dining-room, a lofty, almost square, apartment ; neither retains any Georgian features. Desart Court is singular in its two handsome grand staircases situated at either end of the house, and corresponding in detail. Other houses, such, for instance, as Sopwell Hall, and possibly Cashel Palace, possessed this feature, but in no case in Ireland have we found the handsome carved scroll-work in oak, in lieu of balusters, such as we have here. In each case there is a dado of oak, but the decoration above is in plaster panels of early type. A lofty corridor, lighted by a lantern, gives access to the bedrooms, which, like those at Cashel, have high, narrow doors.’
Desart Court was burnt out by the IRA in February 1923 and its superlative contents all lost. Although the house was subsequently rebuilt under the supervision of Richard Orpen, this was razed to the ground in 1957.
Has this country ever produced a more self-regarding architect than James Franklin Fuller? In 1916 he published Omniana: The Autobiography of an Irish Octogenarian which includes five appendices, each one dedicated to quotes from press reviews of his earlier, fictional books (‘We have never read a story with greater pleasure,’ Bath Chronicle, ‘As charming as a summer day’s ramble along an unknown lane, rich in unexpected turns and windings,’ Graphic, and so forth). The work also features highlights from his alternative careers, among them being an actor with regional troupes in England; one stint, he informs readers, came to an end the afternoon he found himself in the wardrobe room with nobody except the leading actress who ‘suddenly called on me to enact the part of Joseph while she herself assumed the role of Potiphar’s wife. The result was the same as that recorded in the Scriptures. I fled precipitately – leaving the lady to lock up her theatre.’ Fuller also trained for a period as a mechanical engineer, and was briefly a part-time soldier (he enrolled for what was supposed to be a British legion in Italy under Garibaldi, but to his indignation wound up in the suburbs of London ‘a mere ordinary recruit’ and had to buy his way out of the army). During the course of these adventures and misadventures, Fuller trained in the offices of another Irish-born architect, Frederick William Porter and then worked briefly with several English architects, most notably William Burges and Alfred Waterhouse, before securing a position in 1862 as district architect with the Irish Ecclesiastical Commissioners with responsibility for the north-west region of the country.
James Franklin Fuller was born in Kerry in 1835, the only son of what can best be described as minor gentry although given his preoccupation with pedigree it is unlikely this is the term he would have chosen. Two further appendices in his autobiography (‘Humour and geniality exude from every line,’ Liverpool Post and Mercury) outline his forebears in both maternal and paternal lines: with regard to the former, he was able to trace his ancestry back to Charlemagne no less, with the latter from Duncan, first King of Scotland. Attention is duly paid in the book’s opening pages to the importance of one’s family possessing the right quarterings, namely those that confer the right ‘to appear at Court functions, presided over by the Sovereign.’ Readers will be relieved to learn that Fuller had these. Later he engages in some consideration of how the newly-rich presume to claim coats of arms to which, in his eyes, they have no right.
The concern with pedigree and the perceived presumptions of arrivistes may explain why Fuller was to have trouble with one of his more important clients, Sir Arthur Edward Guinness, raised to the peerage in 1880 as Baron Ardilaun. Seven years before this elevation Fuller had been engaged by Sir Arthur to enlarge Ashford Castle, County Mayo but the relationship soon turned sour and he was replaced by another architect, George Ashlin (for more about Ashford and the Ardilauns, see Lady Ardilaun Requests the Pleasure…, October 6th last). Without specifically naming Sir Arthur, the following passage in Fuller’s autobiography makes perfectly clear his disdain: ‘Among my clients, at one time, was a multi-millionaire who has been made a lord. Somehow I could not bring myself to appraise him at his own evaluation, or to accept him as a super-man. I labelled him as something quite different. He had long been acclaimed a philanthropist, because of some large gifts for the benefit of the proletariat – gifts which secured him a title and affected his bank balance as much as a drop taken from the ocean affects its volume. We rubbed along for three or four years, until the friction became too acute and then we drifted apart. It was my fault no doubt and it was not wise from a worldly point of view. He lives and flourishes: so “nothing matters.” Nevertheless, the evolution of the plutocrat into the autocrat, and then into the aristocrat is an interesting study…’
That Fuller always felt himself above the concerns of the insufficiently well-quartered becomes apparent thanks to another passage in his autobiography (‘A rich treat of wit and wisdom and shrewd observation,’ Truth). Following the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland in 1869 and the loss of his position as one of its district architects, he established his own office in Dublin. From here, he writes, ‘For over half a century I carried on successfully a very extensive practice as an architect; and during the whole of that time, I violated – or rather, persistently disregarded, all the conventional rules which are supposed to be inseparable from success…A few months after opening my offices I discarded the regulation copying-press and the regulation letter-book…The ‘correct’ thing to do with letters received, was to preserve, docket and to pigeon-hole them, in the case of each separate client; whereas nine out of ten of them went into my waste paper basket immediately after receipt. I only preserved, until the finish of the particular business in hand, those that I thought likely to be necessary. I used my own discretion with regard to letters written by myself, only keeping copies of a few…I hardly expect to be believed when I say that, in issuing cheques, I never troubled to fill in the corresponding counterfoils…I kept no ledgers or books of any sort: I could not see the least necessity for them.’ Amazingly Fuller claimed his singular behaviour was ‘to the uniform satisfaction of my clients’ although we have seen that this was certainly not the case with regard to Sir Arthur Guinness.
Strangely, although Fuller covers a great many subjects in his autobiography (‘A delightful arm-chair companion,’ Daily Graphic), he scarcely mentions many of the buildings for which he was responsible. One of these is shown here, St Anne’s in Clontarf, Dublin. The original early Georgian house on the site was called Thornhill and owned by the Vernons who lived close by in Clontarf Castle. In 1835 Benjamin Lee Guinness, then head of the brewing dynasty, bought Thornhill and its immediately surrounding land: the estate was thereafter increased until it covered more than 500 acres.
Meanwhile the old house was renamed St Anne’s after an ancient well of the same title in the area and was somewhat enlarged. However, the photographs here are of the building after it had been further embellished by Benjamin Lee’s son, the aforementioned Sir Arthur Guinness, Lord Ardilaun who from 1873 once more employed Fuller for this purpose. As can be seen, the eventual house had the appearance of a gargantuan Italianate palazzo, with vast double-height, top-lit galleried hall and equally substantial winter garden reached after an enfilade of reception rooms. The surrounding gardens were similarly transformed with extensive planting of specimen trees and the creation of a sequence of follies including a Herculanean Temple on a mock-ruined bridge abutment which served as a tearoom for the family and a Pompeian Water Temple of Isis by the duckpond.
Even by the time work was completed at St Anne’s in the 1880s, the place had become an anachronism, out of scale and out of sympathy with the Ireland then beginning to emerge. After Lady Ardilaun’s death in 1925, the estate was inherited by one of her husband’s nephews, the Hon Benjamin Plunket, retired Bishop of Meath. Unable to afford its upkeep, in 1939 he sold St Anne’s and almost 450 acres of land to Dublin Corporation for £55,000. The enormous house designed by Fuller stood empty of its original contents and used by the Local Defence Force until gutted by fire in 1943; the ruins were demolished in 1968. By that time 200 acres of the estate had been given over to local housing, the remainder, including the walled garden, is now a public park. Perhaps it is as well Fuller did not dwell so much on the buildings he designed since in this case we are dependent on a collection of old photographs to recall what it looked like.
Monday’s piece on Kingston College (see God Bless the Kings, September 1st) seems to have excited some interest, so readers might be interested to know what became of the King family’s adjacent residence, Mitchelstown Castle. This building, shown above, dated from the early 1820s when the third Earl of Kingston demolished the old house, replacing it with an immense castle designed by James and George Pain and costing in the region of £100,000. With 60 principal rooms, including a 93 feet-long gallery, drawing room, three libraries, morning room and vast dining room, Lord Kingston entertained lavishly until 1830 when, his candidate of choice having failed to win a local by-election, he lost his mind and had to be taken to England where he died towards the close of the decade. The fourth Earl followed his father’s example by being both a reckless spendthrift and then descending into madness. Ultimately the castle was occupied by the fifth Earl’s widow and her second husband, and by the latter alone after his wife’s death. In the summer of 1922 he was driven from the building by anti-Treaty forces who, on their departure, set the castle on fire: it has since been proposed that this only happened after the building’s valuable contents – including the King silver, family portraits and furniture – had been looted from the property. Although efforts were later made to seek compensation the sum offered by the Irish Free State was insufficient to allow Mitchelstown Castle be reconstructed. Instead its cut stone was sold to the Cistercian monks of Mount Melleray, County Waterford who used it to build a new abbey. As can be seen below, the site on which the castle stood is today occupied by the Dairygold Food Co-Operative Society’s factory, which like the earlier building dominates the horizon, albeit in a somewhat less attractive fashion.
‘To delight in the aspects of sentient ruin might appear a heartless pastime, and the pleasure, I confess, shows the note of perversity.’ From Italian Hours (1873) by Henry James.
‘I salute you, lonely ruins. While your aspect repulses with a secret fear the gaze of the vulgar, my heart finds in contemplating you the charm of a thousand sentiments and thoughts. How many useful lessons and touching reflections do you not offer to the spirit which knows how to consult you!’
From Les Ruines, ou méditations sur les révolutions des empires (1791) by Constantin François Chasseboeuf, comte de Volney.
‘I do love these ancient ruins
We never tread upon them but we set
Our foot upon some reverend history;
And, questionless, here in this open court,
Which now lies naked to the injuries
Of stormy weather, some men lie interr’d
Lov’d the church so well, and gave so largely to ’t,
They thought it should have canopied their bones
Till dooms-day. But all things have their end;
Churches and cities, which have diseases like to men,
Must have like death that we have.’
From The Duchess of Malfi (1612) by John Webster.
‘The ideas aroused within me by ruins are lofty. Everything vanishes, everything perishes, everything passes away, only the world remains, time alone endures. How old is this world! I walk between these two eternities…What is my ephemeral existence compared to that of this crumbling stone?’
From Denis Diderot’s Salon (1767).
‘At fifteen I went with the army,
At fourscore I came home.
On the way I met a man from the village,
I asked him who there was at home.
That over there is your house,
All covered over with trees and bushes.
Rabbits had run in at the dog-hole,
Pheasants flew down from the beams of the roof.
In the courtyard was growing some wild grain;
And by the well, some wild mallows.
I’ll boil the grain and make porridge,
I’ll pluck the mallows and make soup.
Soup and porridge are both cooked,
But there is no one to eat them with.
I went out and looked towards the east,
While tears fell and wetted my clothes.’
Chinese poem by an unknown author, translated by Arthur Waley (1919).
‘What are our woes and sufferance? Come and see
The cypress, hear the owl, and plod your way
O’er steps of broken thrones and temples, ye
Whose agonies are evils of a day! A world is at our feet as fragile as our clay. . . .
Then let the winds howl on! Their harmony
Shall henceforth be my music, and the night
The sound shall temper with the owlets’ cry,
As I now hear them in the fading light…’
From Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (1812-1818) by Lord Byron.
‘Where rev’rend shrines in gothic grandeur stood,
The nettle, or the noxious night-shade spreads;
And ashlings, wafted from the neighboring wood,
Through the worn turrets wave their trembling heads.
I left the mantling shade in moral mood . . .
Sigh’d, as the mould’ring monuments I viewed.
Inexorably calm, with silent pace,
Here Time has pass’d What ruin marks his way!
This pile, now crumbling o’er its hallow’d base,
Turn’d not his step, nor could his course delay.’
From Poems chiefly Pastoral (1766) by John Cunningham.
‘Fall’n, fall’n, a silent heap; her heroes all
Sunk in their urns; behold the pride of pomp.
The throne of nations fall’n; obscur’d by dust;
Ev’n yet majestical; the solemn scene
Elates the soul, while now the rising Sun
Flames on the ruins in the purer air
Towering aloft upon the glittering plain,
Like broken rocks, a vast circumference;
Rent palaces, crush’d columns, rifled moles…’
From The Ruins of Rome (1740) by John Dyer.
‘…Since first these ruins fell, how chang’d the scene!
What busy, bustling mortals, now unknown,
Have come and gone, as tho’ there nought had been,
Since first Oblivion call’d the spot her own.
Ye busy, bustling mortals, known before,
Of what you’ve done, where went, or what you see,
Of what your hopes attain’d to, (now no more,)
For everlasting lies a mystery.
Like yours, awaits for me that common lot;
‘Tis mine to be of every hope bereft:
A few more years and I shall be forgot,
And not a vestige of my memory left.’
From Elegy on the Ruins of Pickworth (1818) by John Clare
‘Amidst the gloom arose the ruins of the abbey, tinged with a bright ray, which discovered a profusion of rich Gothic workmanship; and exhibited in pleasing contrast the grey stone of which the ruins are composed, with the feathering foliage that floated round them. . . . The imagination formed it, after the vision vanished.’
From Observations on the River Wye, and several parts of South Wales, etc. relative chiefly to picturesque beauty; made in the summer of the year 1770 (1782) by William Gilpin.
Today an unremarkable suburb of Dublin, Tallaght was for many centuries a frontier settlement, marking the edge of the Pale beyond which the Irish Aesthete’s more bellicose ancestors were inclined to engage in assault and pillage. A monastery had been established here in the eighth century by St Maelruan but it was sacked by the Vikings in 811 and suffered sundry other attacks thereafter. However, the religious link meant that when Tallaght came under the authority of the Archbishop of Dublin in 1179, a castle was built and this in turn became an archiepiscopal retreat. The old castle having fallen into dilapidation, it was largely rebuilt soon after 1729 by then-Archbishop John Hoadly but within a century this property too was deemed no longer suitable for habitation: in 1821 Archbishop Lord John Beresford disposed of the property by act of parliament and it passed into private hands. Another programme of rebuilding followed before the place was acquired in 1856 by members of the Dominican order whose St Mary’s Priory remains on the site still, incorporating a single tower of the original castle.
The engraving above shows the archiepiscopal palace not long before it ceased to serve this function and was largely demolished. A contemporaneous account by James Norris Brewer offers fascinating information about its appearance, the palace described as being ‘a spacious, but long and narrow, building, composed of the grey stone of the country, and is destitute of pretensions to architectural beauty. The interior contains many apartments of ample proportions but none that are highly embellished.’ These included a hall measuring twenty-one foot square and lit by two tiers of windows, and a drawing room thirty-three feet wide and twenty-one feet wide. All now long gone and recalled only by a handful of images such as this one.
A 1792 print by James Malton of the Tholsel in Dublin. Seemingly the word Tholsel derives from the old English ‘toll’ meaning tax and ‘sael’ meaning hall, and it was thus a place where taxes and the like were paid. But in the mediaeval city it also served as court house, custom-house, guildhall and merchants’ meeting place. By the 17th century the original Tholsel had fallen into disrepair and in the 1680s was replaced by the structure seen here, standing on Skinner’s Row (opposite Christ Church Cathedral). This baroque building had an open arcade on the ground floor where mercantile business could be conducted, and a chamber for council meetings of Dublin Corporation upstairs. Its façade was adorned with two niches containing statues of Charles II and his brother the Duke of York (later and briefly James II) behind which rose a tower and weather vane. However, by the time Malton’s print was published the towner had been taken down and early in the following century the entire building was demolished, its functions superseded by Thomas Cooley’s Exchange (now City Hall) on Dame Street, and the City Assembly House on South William Street where the local authority preferred to meet. Next Wednesday evening, May 21st, I shall be introducing a talk by Andrew Bonar Law on Malton’s Irish prints to be given in the self-same City Assembly House, now headquarters for the Irish Georgian Society. For further information, see: http://www.igs.ie/events/detail/the-irish-prints-of-james-malton-lecture-by-andrew-bonar-law