A Call to Action

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Last November the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht launched a document called An Action Plan for the Sustainable Future of the Irish Historic House in Private Ownership. In her Introduction Minister Heather Humphreys observed that these properties ‘are an important part of our social, cultural and architectural heritage,’ as well as being ‘an essential thread of our national story and a great source of local community pride.’ Furthermore historic houses are ‘a vital attraction for both local and foreign visitors and they play an important role in stimulating economic development, particularly at community level.’
Last Thursday members of the Browne family announced that Westport House, County Mayo where they and their forebears have lived for almost 350 years, is to be placed on the open market. The financial difficulties faced by the Brownes, arising from a bank loan (and its attendant guarantees) taken out in 2006 by the late Jeremy Sligo, have been well known for some time. (Incidentally, they demonstrate yet again how in this country while a borrower can be penalised for making an ill-advised decision, the relevant lender suffers no such retribution). Westport’s predicament demonstrates how fragile is Ireland’s remaining stock of historic properties, how vulnerable to the vagaries of shifting circumstance, precisely because so few safeguards or supports exist to ensure they can weather past and future storms.
Westport House perfectly conforms to Minister Humphreys’ designation of the Irish historic property being a source of local pride, an attraction for domestic and overseas visitors and a key player in stimulating regional economic development. A report commissioned last year by Mayo County Council found the house and grounds attracted 162,000 visitors annually and contributed €1.7 million to the fiscal purse and local economy, with 60 per cent of respondents citing the Browne family home as their main reason for visiting Mayo. It is vital to the well being of the area, and the Brownes deserve applause for making this so.
Over the past year there have been plenty of reports, meetings, analyses and consultations over Westport’s plight. The time for talk has now come to a close. Decisive action needs to take place, the estate and house ought to be preserved, and the values espoused in its recent document by the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht made manifest. Otherwise, yet again, we will witness the diminution of Ireland’s heritage, and the loss of another ‘essential thread of our national story.’

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Towering Above

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The round tower at Meelick, County Mayo. Once part of a religious foundation attributed to St Broccaidh, the tower is believed to date from the 10th century. It stands 21.5 metres high and has lost its conical cap but retains a doorway some 3.5 metres above the present ground level. Attached to the base is a likely contemporaneous tombstone with interlaced cross and border, and the inscription OR DO GRIENI (‘A prayer for Griene’).

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Without Permission

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Demonstrating that a laissez-faire attitude towards building without first securing the relevant permission is no recent phenomenon in Ireland: Burrishoole Priory, County Mayo. This Dominican house was established in 1469 by Richard de Burgo, who then resigned his secular position as Lord of Turlough and entered the priory where he remained until his death four years later. Unfortunately neither he nor the friars had thought to seek Papal approval before settling at Burrishoole, an omission that could have resulted in excommunication. However in 1486 Innocent VII instructed the Archbishop of Tuam to pardon their presumption and the occupants were allowed to remain in situ. They continued to do so even after the Reformation , a certain number of Dominicans recorded as remaining at Burrishoole into the 18th century on the site. It was only in 1793 that the church roof collapsed, thereby ensuring it became the ruin seen today.

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A (Neo)Classic Design

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Although Robert Adam is today represented in Ireland by just one house – a suite of rooms at Headfort, County Meath – examples of work by his rival James Wyatt can be found throughout the country. Indeed as Wyatt’s most recent biographer John Martin Robinson has noted, despite the fact that the architect only crossed the Irish Sea once, in 1785, ironically a much higher proportion of his houses survive in Ireland than in England. Wyatt’s earliest Irish commission was for the design of the Dartrey Mausoleum, County Monaghan dating from c.1772 and therefore contemporaneous with the architect’s famous assembly rooms on London’s Oxford Street, the Pantheon, with which it shares many features albeit on a smaller scale (for more on the Dartrey Mausoleum, see A Shining Distinction on Earth, September 15th 2014). Thereafter for the next quarter century he never wanted for patrons here, aided by an excellent Irish agent, Thomas Penrose, member of a well-known Cork Quaker family. Ann engineer and architect, Penrose worked first with the Sardinian-born Davis Duckart before being employed by the Dublin Wide Streets Commissioners: in 1784 he was appointed Inspector of Civil Buildings in succession to the recently-deceased Thomas Cooley. It is indicative of the close working relationship between Wyatt and Penrose that elements of several buildings which the former designed are attributed to the latter. In any case, we know that thanks to Penrose’s presence in Dublin, Wyatt was able to send drawings from his London office to Ireland and be confident his intentions would be properly executed. The relationship only ended with Penrose’s death in 1792 but Wyatt’s appointment four years later as Surveyor General of the King’s Works in England meant he no longer had time for further Irish commissions.

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Even without his physical presence in the country, Wyatt’s impact on Ireland was substantial and long-lasting. His style of neo-classicism continued to be admired and emulated for decades after the architect’s death in 1813. One well-known example of this abiding influence is the set of hall seats Wyatt designed in 1797 for Castle Coole, County Fermanagh and manufactured by London cabinet maker William Kidd. Distinctive features such as splayed saber legs and corresponding arms means it is easy to trace other items copied from these seats, beginning with a set of six originally produced for Dunsandle, County Galway and possibly ordered directly from Wyatt. Thereafter cabinet makers took up the design and would sometimes alter it to make the seat into a broader bench: one such piece features in the soon-closing exhibition, Ireland: Crossroads of Art and Design, 1690-1840 at Chicago’s Art Institute. That particular example was made by the Dublin firm of Williams & Gibton possibly as late as 1842, in other words three decades after Wyatt’s death. John Martin Robinson points out other features from his architectural repertoire which entered into the Irish mainstream, ‘including his particular type of stucco arabesque, the use of Coade stone and the Wyatt tripartite form of sash window.’ The Wyatt window in particular became a staple of Irish domestic architecture, but as Robinson also observes, ‘There are dozens of surviving houses in Dublin with Wyatt-type stucco ceilings and wall decorations, which were probably not directly designed by him, and many country houses have Wyatt-derived rooms, which are not by Wyatt himself, but local craftsmen copying him.’ All of which makes it challenging to discern which buildings were indeed designed by the architect rather than by admirers.

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The list of extant houses for which we are confident Wyatt produced designs includes the likes of Lucan, County Dublin; Mount Kennedy, County Wicklow; Abbeyleix, County Laois; and Slane Castle, County Meath. Others like the Oriel Temple, County Louth have been considerably altered since first constructed and it is therefore difficult to appreciate how they were intended to look. However, one of Wyatt’s most significant interior schemes still to survive is for the Picture Gallery, or Great Room in Leinster House, Dublin; this space now serves as the Senate Chamber in Dáil Éireann. The building had been designed by Richard Castle in 1745 as a town residence for the future first Duke of Leinster. After the latter’s death in 1773, the second Duke was left with a large incomplete space in the north end of the building and therefore invited Wyatt to come up with a scheme for its decoration: in September 1776, having married the heiress Emilia St George the previous year, he wrote to his mother ‘Mr Wyatt has sent me…the most beautiful finishing for my Gallery at L. House which I shall prepare and hope to do next Spring as have the furniture ready for it.’ Dating from 1777, the resultant room is rightly judged to be one of the finest interiors of the period, its plasterwork sometimes attributed to the stuccodore Michael Stapleton although Conor Lucey has commented that the factors leading to such an attribution ‘are no longer wholly reliable.’ No matter, the end result as Robinson remarks ‘launched the taste for Wyatt’s neo-classical decoration’ and led to a flood of further commissions, one of them being the dining room at Westport House, County Mayo.

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Like Leinster House, the core of Westport House was designed by Richard Castle who in 1731 designed a new residence for John Browne, later first Earl of Altamont. Towards the end of Lord Altamont’s life he commissioned designs to extend the building from Thomas Ivory and while it is not certain whether these or other proposals were adopted, Westport House was enlarged towards the end of the 1770s. As often happened, it was left to a later generation to finish off the interior decoration of the newer parts of the property. In this case the third earl (subsequently created first Marquess of Sligo), a year after inheriting the family estates in 1780 invited Wyatt to come up with a scheme for Westport’s dining room. Drawings for the design remain in the house and show how faithfully the architect’s proposals, as can be seen in today’s photographs. The dining room at Westport is not unlike that at Curraghmore, County Waterford designed by Wyatt a couple of years earlier for the first Marquess of Waterford. In both instances the elaborate decoration of walls and ceiling is broken up by medallions featuring classical figures. But whilst those at Curraghmore are painted in colour and grisaille, the Westport figures are moulded in low relief. Given the blue colour scheme of the walls, the overall effect is not unlike stepping into the world of Josiah Wedgwood whose Jasperware was then deemed the height of fashionable popularity. Set inside square and rectangular plaster panels the medallions are both round and oval, sometimes with one, sometimes with several figures, sometimes cheerful (putti playing with bows and arrows), sometimes sombre (a woman elegantly leaning on a funerary urn). Their immediate frames are picked out in gold, as are other elements in the scheme such as festoons and garlands. The ceiling on the other hand has a more complex colour scheme incorporating shades of pink and cream and brown, providing a contrast to the walls’ blue tones. Dated February 1781, the original drawings have a scheme of green and white: the present polychrome colouring dates from a repainting exactly a century ago. Nevertheless, now over 230 years old Wyatt’s dining room at Westport House continues to delight and helps to explain why his work has for so long been admired in this country.

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The Glory of Gothic

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The Venetian Gothic entrance portico at Turlough Park, County Mayo. Ruskinian in its inspiration, the house was built in 1865 for Charles Lionel FitzGerald whose family had been settled on the estate since the mid-17th century. Designed by Sir Thomas Newenham Deane, it replaced an earlier 18th century residence, the remains of which can still be seen in the grounds. Turlough Park is now a branch of the National Museum of Ireland and contains that institution’s folklife collection.

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