Spirituality as Spectacle

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The picture above was painted by the Drogheda, County Louth artist Bernard Tumalti in 1844. It shows the interior as it then was of the town’s principal church, St Peter’s and therefore serves as an invaluable record of how the building looked before it was subjected to a number of changes later in the century. Among the most significant of these was the removal of the box pews in 1865 and the insertion of stained glass in many of the windows, not least that the great east window which dates from the following decade. At some point also the handsome line of hanging brass candelabra shown by Tumalti were also lost, another misfortune. As a result of these and other alterations to the church, its original character is no longer as easily discernible, not least the element of baroque theatricality that was manifestly intended as part of the design and which must have transformed services into performances.
St Peter’s has likely been the site of worship for as long as there has been a settlement in Drogheda. Situated just three miles from the mouth of the river Boyne, this is said to be the place where St Patrick landed in c.432 and a little over 850 years later the Norman knight Hugh de Lacy built a motte and bailey on the existing Viking fort. Not far away St Peter’s was established by de Lacy and given to Welsh Augustinian canons. It subsequently grew – as did Drogheda – to be one of the largest churches in the country and although various changes were made to the structure, St Peter’s survived relatively intact until the town was besieged by Oliver Cromwell in September 1649. Many citizens took refuge inside the church, but to no avail as it was set on fire and, after the occupants had been massacred, subjected to looting. Nevertheless enough of the medieval St Peter’s survived for it to continued in use as a centre of worship for another century.

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According to the Vestry Minute Book, ‘In the Year one thousand seven hundred and Forty Eight, The old Parisk Church of Saint Peters Drogheda being in ruinous Condition and in danger of falling was Order’d to be pulled down which was done accordingly and a New Church begun to be Built in the room of the old one the same Year and Carry’d  on ‘till finish’d by the Several Contributions Subscribed and pay’d by the undernamed Persons, And a Cess [levy] of Three Hundred Pounds only lay’d upon the said Parish.’ The new St Peter’s is believed to have been designed by Hugh Darley, member of a family which across more than two centuries worked as builders, stone cutters and architects. Hugh Darley’s best-known building is Trinity College Dublin’s Dining Hall erected in the early 1760s to replace Richard Castle’s earlier hall which had twice collapsed during construction and was eventually demolished after its vaults fell in while an adjacent kitchen was being built. The entry on St Peter’s in The Buildings of North Leinster by Christine Casey and Alistair Rowan, having described the church as one of the best of its kind from the 18th century notes the handsome Palladian facade. This is of ‘three bays and two storeys of limestone ashlar, horizontally channelled, with a broad eaves pediment broken by the great central tower rising above it through two storeys. The tower is expressed as a giant round-headed entrance, a terse Diocletian window in the first floor and in the belfry stage corner pilasters, a round-headed opening, and above a Gibbsian bracketed oculus. Above all this rises a Gothic steeple added by Francis Johnston in the 1780s.’ The exterior of St Peter’s is austere and devoid of superfluous decoration. This makes the extravagance of its interior all the more surprising.

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The interior of St Peter’s is classical in design, a long hall with galleries along the west, north and south sides carried on octagonal oak piers: these are continued on the upper level as Ionic columns. The surprise comes when one looks east to the chancel, the walls of which are smothered in elaborate plasterwork featuring garlands of fruit and flowers, cornucopiae, clouds and  hovering above it all birds (possibly intended to represent eagles) with their wings spread wide. More late baroque than rococo in spirit, the chancel’s north and south walls are embellished with intricate plasterwork frames surrounding a pair of funerary monuments, one to Alderman Francis Leigh (d.1778), the other to the Rev. John Magee (d.1837). Both were evidently inserted some decades after the decoration had been completed and it remains a matter of conjecture who might have been responsible for this piece of bravura craftsmanship. Stylistic comparisons have been made between the plasterwork of St Peter’s and that in the drawing and dining rooms of Russborough, County Wicklow. Other parts of that house, most notably the saloon, have always been attributed to the Swiss-born Lafranchini brothers, Paolo and Filippo, who from the late 1730s onwards worked extensively in Ireland. However the character of Russborough’s drawing and dining rooms is more robust than that of the saloon, and it was art historian Joseph McDonnell in his 1991 book Irish Eighteenth Century Stuccowork and its European Sources who drew attention to the similarities between the decoration of these spaces and the church in Drogheda. McDonnell came up with the concept of ‘the St Peter’s stuccodore’ and more recently the same individual has also been credited with the plasterwork found in Glasnevin House, County Dublin. Across all these buildings the same vigorous ebullience is on display, suggesting the hand of someone who, like the Lafranchinis, came here from continental Europe.

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The chancel’s plasterwork indicates little concern with the religious and indeed seems more suited to a domestic setting: while it lifts the spirits, they are not necessarily raised above the temporal. A certain effort has been made to remind the congregation that it is present for devotional purposes: in the plasterwork above the east window is a small panel bearing an inscription in Hebrew from Isaiah and translated as ‘Holy, Holy, Holy, is the Lord of Hosts’ and the open volumes that feature on either side are presumably intended to represent the gospels or some other scriptural text. But St Peter’s, in its original incarnation, must have borne more than a passing resemblance to the theatre: this is religion as drama, with the chancel substituting for stage and the main body of the building for auditorium. At least one of the other funerary monuments celebrates this ambiguity, that to the immediate south which celebrates Henry Singleton, Lord Chief Justice of Ireland and Master of the Rolls who died in 1759: his memorial features an oval plaque in which a woman weeps over an urn, putti supporting an inscription and a portrait bust of the man himself sculpted by Thomas Hickey. As though conscious of the possibility for confusion between the sacred and profane, Hugh Darley designed the great east window in the gothic idiom, thereby leading the mind back to matters devotional. And that aspect was further accentuated by the reordering of the church over the course of the second half of the 19th century, notably the removal of the box pews (not unlike theatre boxes) and the insertion of stained glass into many of the windows. The effect was to play down the secular element, even if this was to the detriment of the decoration. St Peter’s remains a wonderful building and unquestionably among the very best churches erected here in the post-Reformation era. But imagine how much better it must have looked when painted by Bernard Tumalti in 1844.

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Welcome to My World

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Cupids play at the top of a blind niche in the rotunda of Townley Hall, County Louth, one of the loveliest houses in Ireland which has been discussed here on several occasions in the past (mostly notably Là, tout n’est qu’ordre et beauté* on June 10th last year). Today marks the second anniversary of The Irish Aesthete, the first post being made on September 24th 2012. Two years later the site remains busy with at least three postings each week and, I am happy to report, an ever-increasing audience. In 2012 The Irish Aesthete received an average 23 views per day: the site now generates more than 610 views daily. Interest comes from across the world, the majority of visitors understandably resident in English-speaking countries but during the last quarter there have been substantial numbers from Brazil, the Russian Federation, Turkey and Vietnam, among many others.
Whoever you are and wherever you live, thank you to all my readers for engaging with this site and for encouraging me to continue writing about Ireland’s architectural heritage, a subject dear to my heart and evidently to yours also. Your comments are always appreciated, although some of those written in more intemperate language may not be published (this site appreciates good manners). Please keep sending me your thoughts and responses, and in addition if you have suggestions for future subjects, I should be delighted to know of these: like all authors, I relish feedback.
Thank you once again, and I look forward to retaining your interest over the next twelve months.

Mr Speaker

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Most visitors to Collon, County Louth are likely to pass swiftly on their way, unaware the house on the north-east corner of the village’s crossroads has powerful links with a pivotal moment in our history when the country likewise stood at a crossroad: the 1800 Act of Union. This building, known as Collon House, was the birthplace and lifelong residence of John Foster, last speaker of the Irish House of Commons.
The Fosters are believed to have been of English origin, coming from Cumberland to settle in this country sometime around the time of Charles II’s Restoration: the name of a Samuel Foster appears in the Hearth Money return (by which one shilling was paid for every firehearth or stove in a dwelling) for the parish of Dunleer, County Louth in 1666. Samuel Foster’s son Anthony, named as a burgess of Dunleer in 1683, seems to have been a small tenant farmer in the area but his son John studied law, married well and started to acquire land, much of it formerly belonging to an impecunious branch of the Moore family. By the time of his death in 1747 he had built up an estate of some 6,000 acres. This property included Collon where around 1740 John Foster’s son, another Anthony, built the family residence. Land ownership conveyed power and thus with his election as an M.P. in 1737 Anthony Foster was able to wrest control of the Dunleer borough over which he and his son thereafter retained until the abolition of the Irish parliament. Trained as a barrister, from 1760 to 1766 Anthony Foster held the Office of First Counsel to the Commissioners of the Revenue, before being appointed Lord Chief Baron of the Court of Exchequer, retiring from this position a year before his death in 1778.

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John Foster’s biographer Anthony Malcolmson describes Anthony Foster as ‘an able man whose misfortune it has been to be overshadowed by an even abler son.’ This is evident in his enterprises in Collon and surrounding areas. Finding the land here in poor condition – he recalled it had been ‘a waste sheep walk, covered chiefly with heath, with some dwarf furze and fern’ – he carried out many improvements, not least through drainage. When the English agriculturalist Arthur Young published his Tour of Ireland in 1780 he called Anthony Foster a ‘great improver, a title more deserving estimation than that of a great general or a great minister,’ someone who had ‘made a barren wilderness smile with cultivation, planted it with people and made those people happy,’ altogether a man whose work on his estate was ‘of a magnitude I have never heard of before.’
Anthony Foster gained a patent to hold a weekly market in Collon as well as two annual fairs, and the grounds of his house, in which he built greenhouses in 1763 for the production of exotic fruits, became renowned for their variety of trees and shrubs: this interest in botany would be inherited by his son who is credited with introducing the copper beech to Ireland. However, all this land acquisition and improvement came at a price, and as early as 1740 John Foster the elder was concerned over his level of indebtedness. The family never managed to become solvent and by 1810 his grandson John was estimated to have debts of £72,000. As we shall see, this helps to explain the relative modesty of Collon House.

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John Foster was born in 1740, on other words precisely around the time Collon House was being built by his father. Like the latter, he sought to improve the family estate, developing a linen industry in the area, building mills and encouraging Protestant weavers to settle in Collon. Also following the example of Anthony Foster he studied law and was first elected to parliament in 1761. Noted for his interest in the economic and commercial betterment of this country, he was involved in successfully ‘regulating Ireland’s external trade with Great Britain, with other parts of the Empire, with the United States, and with France’. In 1777 he served as Chairman of the Committee of Supply and Ways and Means before succeeding his cousin and brother-in-law Walter Hussey de Burgh as Irish Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1784. In that year parliament passed his corn law, ‘granting large bounties on the exportation of corn and imposing heavy duties on its importation.’ According to the 19th century historian William Lecky, ‘This law is one of the capital facts in Irish history. In a few years it changed the face of the land and made Ireland to a great extent an arable instead of a pasture country.’
Foster only remained in the Exchequer a year before becoming Speaker of the Irish House of Commons in 1785, the final man to hold this position. His understanding of Ireland and her particular circumstances made him a leading opponent of the Act of Union. ‘I declare from my soul,’ he declared when the abolition of the Irish parliament was first proposed, ‘that if England were to give us all her revenues, I could not barter for them the free constitution of my country.’ He was forced to preside over the debate in the Commons for its own eradication, an occasion later recalled by Sir Jonah Barrington who wrote, ‘The Speaker rose slowly from that chair which had been the proud source of his honours and of his high character; for a moment he resumed his seat, but the strength of his mind sustained him in his duty, though his struggle was apparent.’ However, Foster refused to surrender the Speaker’s mace, declaring that “until the body that intrusted it to his keeping demanded it, he would preserve it for them.’ The mace was eventually offered for sale by his descendants in 1937 and bought by the Bank of Ireland. It has ever since remained in that organisation’s premises, the former Irish parliament building.

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It is often proposed as evidence of the Fosters’ prudence that they did not indulge in building a lavish country mansion. But the fact that they remained in Collon might just be due as much to ongoing indebtedness as to financial sagacity. And they were not without other properties, having a residence in central Dublin (essential for any member of Parliament) as well as one on the outskirts of the capital (Merville, now part of the University College Dublin campus, but its original owners remembered in the name of adjacent Foster Avenue). Furthermore in the 1770s a short distance from Collon they would build themselves a pleasure pavilion called Oriel Temple and John Foster leased in perpetuity another house in the county, Rathescar Lodge which likewise still stands although much enlarged.
Nevertheless, the principal Foster residence remained that in Collon which, as built by Anthony c.1740 was a exceptionally extended version of the traditional Irish ‘long house’, in this case running two storeys and eighteen bays. It seems to have comprised a series of long, low rooms, none very substantial. Many of these survive, as can be seen in the photographs above and testify to the determinedly modest condition of the family’s living conditions: when Anthony Foster invited a cousin to stay around 1766 he warned that a shared room should be expected, presumably due to the number of other guests due at the same time. Inside the design is determinedly simple, with surviving chimneypieces and cornicing almost devoid of decoration. The want of ostentation was not necessarily to everyone’s taste. Indeed John Foster’s own daughter Anna, Lady Dufferin later wrote that arrangements in Collon House were ‘so uncomfortable as soon to banish all visitors, even of our own family.’ This would change somewhat after Anthony Foster’s death when his son inherited the house and embarked on a programme of aggrandisement.

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The original Collon House ran east-west facing onto what is now the main road from Drogheda to Kells, County Meath but was then open countryside. Around the late 1770s John Foster enlarged the building at its western end, adding an additional storey to the final five bays and then to the immediate north creating a substantial entrance hall, high-ceilinged saloon and, behind these two, a stairhall lit by two big round-headed windows as it turns upon itself to climb to the upper floors. These windows look out on a courtyard around which run the various original outbuildings and service quarters. The proportions in John Foster’s addition are more generous, the cornicing and chimneypieces more elaborate but at the same time the earlier element of cautious restraint has not been forsaken: even in its late 18th century adjunct the house holds onto a certain self-effacement, all the more surprising since first Mrs Foster and then her husband were granted peerages.
The Fosters likewise held on to Collon House and its estate, although later generations, who became Viscounts Massereene, tended to spend the greater part of their time in County Antrim. Thus Collon House was neglected and indeed the more easterly part of the property internally separated from the main part of the building, hence today it runs to seven bays. In his biography of John Foster Anthony Malcolmson records that when he first visited the house in 1977 it was in ‘a fairly ruinous state.’ Having since changed residents a couple of times, Collon House has in recent years undergone extensive and meticulous restoration and, one suspects, now looks better than it did even when occupied by the Fosters. To give just one example the present owners panelled the dining room and thereby greatly improved its appearance; they have also created rather splendid gardens, a recollection of those made by Anthony Foster, as can be seen below. Today Collon House is in splendid shape. Visitors ought not to rush through the village but consider lingering there in order to experience the abiding spirit of the last Speaker of the Irish House of Commons.

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Collon House is now open for guests. Further information can be found at: http://www.collonhouse.com/index.html

Keep It Clean

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The ceiling of the former dining room at Townley Hall, County Louth, a masterpiece of neo-classical architecture designed by Francis Johnston c.1794 for his well-informed patron Blayney Townley Balfour. Very spare, very pure, this is design at its most ascetic and at the same time most refined. (For more information on Townley Hall, and especially its matchless staircase, see Là, tout n’est qu’ordre et beauté*, June 10th 2013)

Things Are Looking Up

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Two of the ceilings in Townley Hall, County Louth, that of the drawing room (above) and the entrance hall (below). Dating from the late 1790s Townley has been discussed here before, not least its rotunda stairhall (see Là, tout n’est qu’ordre et beauté, June 10th) but amply repays further visits. The neo-classical masterpiece of Francis Johnston, the house owes as much to the couple responsible for its commissioning – Blayney Townley and Lady Florence Balfour – as to the architect. As these photographs show, the purity of decoration throughout is flawless.

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Music has Charms

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One of the glories of Beaulieu, County Louth is its early 18th century double-height entrance hall. This features elaborate baroque carving in each of the spandrels above the hall’s doorcases. In their guide to the Buildings of North Leinster Casey and Rowan write that the carving represents ‘arms and weaponry’ but as the photographs above and below show, this is not always the case: these two arches are filled with musical instruments and with open sheets of instrumentation. In the peace that followed the end of the Williamite Wars, these carvings declare the moment had come to acknowledge, as William Congreve wrote around this time, that ‘music has charms to sooth a savage breast.’

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A Room with a View

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In this instance the view is on the ceiling and best viewed while lying on the floor. In the drawing room at Beaulieu, County Louth, the compartmental plasterwork ceiling climaxes in an oval central panel filled with painted canvas. Attributed to 18th century Dutch artist Willem van der Hagen, the trompe-l’œil scene extends upwards through a classical arcade and into the open air whence Icarus can be seen taking a tumble after flying too close to the sun. Hovering putti seem remarkably indifferent to the poor fellow’s fate.