The splendid gateposts of Sylvan Park, County Meath. The 18th century house here belonged to the Rowley family which had first settled in this country during the reign of James I and one branch of which was responsible for commissioning Summerhill, elsewhere in the same county (for more on Summerhill, see My Name is Ozymandias, April 1st 2013). In the mid-19th century Sylvan Park was occupied by Standish Grady Rowley, who owned an estate of more than 1,100 acres in the area. The property passed out of the family in the last century and was subsequently demolished, leaving just these cut limestone gateposts as a memento of its presence together with a decaying lodge tucked inside.
So much attention is paid to country houses, their owners, contents and staff that the importance of auxiliary buildings on an estate can be overlooked. One thinks, for example, of a television series like the ubiquitous Downton Abbey in which all scenes are filmed either within or in close proximity to the main house. Scarcely any notice is paid to the people and properties required to sustain this seemingly contained world. Yet a country house required a vast range of services, and premises in which these could take place, if it were to operate satisfactorily. In this way, the place would resemble a self-sustaining village – and require just as much working space.
Even if we insufficiently appreciate an estate’s outlying buildings today, this was certainly not the case in previous centuries, as can be testified by how well designed and constructed are the majority of farm and stable blocks. Indeed frequently when the main house has fallen down, supposedly secondary complexes remain standing. This is not surprising given their primary purpose was functional rather than decorative. Nevertheless, because these structures were substantial and potentially visible in the landscape, an architect was commonly commissioned for their design. And just as much care had to be taken over their layout as was the case with the main house: an ill-considered scheme could hinder the smooth running of an estate. Externally and internally all had to be fit for purpose. Of course, the problem now for many owners of such properties is finding what that purpose might be. What is to be done after the horses have, so to speak, bolted?
In 1762 James Fitzgerald, first Duke of Leinster wrote to Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, then living on the outskirts of London, offering him £1,000 to cross the Irish Sea and create a picturesque garden at Carton, County Kildare. The invitation was declined, Brown allegedly replying ‘he had not yet finished England.’ It should not be imagined, however, that as a result of his refusal to make the journey this country missed the opportunity for its parklands to undergo what a contemporary admirer called ‘Brownifications.’ The links between Brown’s English patrons and Ireland were plentiful: one of his earliest supporters, the sixth Earl of Coventry for whom he worked at Croome Court, Worcestershire from 1751 onwards, was married to the beautiful Maria Gunning from County Roscommon. Twenty years after he had started in the gardens of Stowe, Buckinghamshire in 1741 on an annual salary of £25, Brown’s gross income was £6,000 a year, allowing him to send his sons to Eton and later to underwrite the cost of one of them becoming an MP. And he was besieged by requests for his services, hence the inability ever to cross the Irish Sea. Landowners sought Brown not just for the redesign of their parks, but also of their buildings: beginning with Croome he was the architect of several country houses in England. But even more, in his capacity as a landscape designer he frequently produced drawings for the offices and yards which were needed to sustain an estate. And so, although he never saw it in person, one example of such an endeavour can be found in Ireland: the stables at Slane Castle, County Meath.
The lands on which Slane Castle stands have belonged to the same family since 1701 when they were bought by General Henry Conyngham, veteran in the service of William III at the Battle of the Boyne eleven years earlier. Soon afterwards General Conyngham built himself a residence, Conyngham Hall, on the foundations of an older castle formerly belonging to the Flemings. It was his grandson, another Henry Conyngham who, although largely absent from his Irish estates, around 1770 invited Capability Brown to produce a design both for the landscaping of the parkland at Slane, and also for a new stable block. In the collection of the Irish Architectural Archive in Dublin a drawing survives of Brown’s proposal for the latter. It is not unlike the finished building, but more elaborate than what we see today. For estate buildings Brown often liked to use the Gothick mode which he would likely have first seen at Stowe where James Gibbs’ Gothic Temple was begun around the time he started to work there. So at Slane he proposed, for example, quatrefoil windows above the arched openings on either side of the entrance, a line of gothic corbels beneath the breakfront cornice, and finials on top of the two extreme and centre castellations, not unlike those he designed a decade earlier for the Bath House at Corsham Court, Wiltshire. Minus those additional decorative elements and built of local limestone, the eventual stable block facade is a simplified version of Brown’s proposal but still clearly reflects his engagement with Gothick. Meanwhile the yard behind, for which an unattributed design also exists in the IAA is scrupulously utilitarian both externally and internally, but at the same time highly attractive.
At some date after he had commissioned the stables at Slane, Henry Conyngham asked Brown to come up with a design for the house in order to make it likewise more gothic in spirit. Perhaps this happened around the time he was created Earl of Mount Charles in January 1781, but unfortunately he died two months later (as did Brown two years after) and while a number of drawings exist (also in the IAA’s collection), the proposal was not executed. Conyngham’s nephew and heir, Francis Burton, second Baron Conyngham, subsequently invited James Wyatt to design the exterior of Slane Castle as it is today, and in turn his son (the first Marquess Conyngham) employed Francis Johnston to design the main rooms. Thus the only completed example of Capability Brown’s architectural practice at Slane, and indeed in Ireland, is the stable block. Unfortunately, like many such complexes on estates throughout the country, over the past century this one became increasingly redundant and began falling into disrepair. The good news is that the stables at Slane are about to find a new use: housing a whiskey distillery and visitors’ centre. Restoration work has already begun and the premises are expected to open by 2016. As his nickname suggests, Capability Brown would be delighted to see that a range of buildings he designed to serve one practical purpose have found another, and will thus continue to help keep an estate functioning successfully.
The tomb of George Montgomery in the graveyard of Ardbraccan, County Meath. Born in Scotland, he was a career cleric whose advancement was much assisted by his elder brother Hugh Montgomery, first Viscount Montgomery, one of the leading figures in the early 16th century Scottish settlement of Ulster. Both men had influence with James I and on the King’s accession to the English throne George Montgomery became Dean of Norwich. In 1605 he was appointed to his first Irish bishopric, that of Raphoe, to which were added Clogher and Derry. Four years later, on becoming Bishop of Meath, he gave up two of these, but held on to Clogher. He does not seem to have come to Meath until 1614 and showed little interest in diocesan affairs, dying in London around 1620/21. His body was then brought back to Ireland and buried at Ardbraccan where this tomb was subsequently erected to his memory. The main panel shows the bishop and two women, traditionally said to be his wife and daughter. However, since he married twice and his only child was married to Nicholas St Lawrence, tenth Lord Howth, might not the women instead represent his pair of spouses?
The column terminating a vista in front of Furness, County Kildare (see A Gentle Evolution, May 26th last). Originally this column stood in the parkland of Dangan, County Meath, once the property of Richard Colley Wesley, first Baron Mornington (and grandfather of the first Duke of Wellington). When Mrs Delany visited Dangan in 1749 she wrote that in the grounds ‘there is a fir-grove dedicated to Vesta, in the midst of which is her statue; at some distance from it is a mound covered with evergreens, on which is placed a Temple with the statues of Apollo, Neptune, Proserpine, Diana, all have honours paid to them and Fame has been too good a friend to the mentor of all these improvements to be neglected; her Temple is near the house, at the end of the terrace near where The Four Seasons take their stand, very well represented by Flora, Ceres, Bacchus and an old gentleman with a hood on his head, warming his hands over a fire.’ All now gone unfortunately, but the column – topped by a copy of Giambologna’s Mercury – was rescued in the last century and set up in the grounds of Furness to mark the 21st birthday of a previous owner.
A coved ceiling at Somerville, County Meath. As has already been mentioned (see Rise Above It All, April 19th), the house dates from c.1730 but underwent considerable alteration about 100 years later when the entrance was moved from south to north front and a new hall created. Although the room containing this ceiling is now classified as the dining room, an examination of its decoration, which certainly looks to be pre-19th century, reveals clusters of musical instruments in each of the four corners. Might it therefore originally have been intended to serve as a ballroom?
Part of the coved ceiling in the drawing room of Somerville, County Meath. The house dates from c.1730 when it was built for Sir James Somerville, Lord Mayor of Dublin in 1736 and also sometime M.P. for the city. Towards the end of the century, further work was carried out by Sir James’ grandson and it appears the neo-classical plasterwork was added at that time into a space then serving as entrance hall (the entire building was subsequently turned back to front, thereby making this the drawing room). The result is an extravagance of floral garlands and arabesques, ostrich plumes and decorative flourishes together with the family coat of arms, all set inside a sequence of panels. The exceptional quality of the workmanship has led to suggestions the ceiling may have been executed by Dublin stuccodore Michael Stapleton (1747-1801).
A detail of the plaster frieze running around the walls of the staircase hall at Ardbraccan, County Meath. We know that in 1773 James Wyatt produced drawings for the centre block of the house. These were commissioned by Henry Maxwell, Bishop of Meath whose brother Barry Maxwell, Earl of Farnham would likewise employ Wyatt to design a new house for him in County Cavan a few years later. In the event, the architect’s plans for Ardbraccan were modified to incorporate elements from schemes by both Thomas Cooley and Daniel Beaufort, the latter a gifted amateur who was also Rector of nearby Navan. However, the staircase hall’s plasterwork is distinctly Wyatt’esque and so it is surely not too fanciful to imagine that at least this part of his proposal was executed without intervention from other hands.