Remember Man That Thou Art Dust

 

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Scattered on the floor of the  rear hall at Bloomsbury, County Meath are the remnants of plasterwork fallen from the ceiling. Originally dating from the 17th century and named Mount Tisdall after its then-owners, the front section of the house was extensively refurbished in the 1740s. Then in the late 1850s the property more than doubled thanks to Richard Barnewell. In the present century a programme of work was begun on the building and then abandoned, and in recent years Bloomsbury has ignominiously slithered into decay. Given that in the Christian calendar today is Ash Wednesday, it seems an apposite image.
More on this house in the weeks to come.

An Appalling Vista

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For hundreds of years the Prestons were one of the most significant land-owning families in County Meath, their name deriving from the town of Preston in Lancashire whence they moved to Ireland in the early 14th century. Originally merchants, one of their number, Roger de Preston studied law, was appointed Justice in the Court of Common Pleas in 1327 and four years later became a Justice of the Court of King’s Bench. His son Robert likewise was a successful lawyer, becoming Irish King’s Serjeant around 1348 and Attorney General for Ireland in 1355. A few years afterwards rebellion against the crown erupted in Leinster, led by the Irish Aesthete’s more bellicose O’Byrne forebears in alliance with the MacMurrough-Kavanaghs: in the ensuing war Robert de Preston served as lieutenant to Edward III’s son Lionel, Duke of Clarence and was duly knighted for his efforts. Subsequently created Baron Gormanston, the title taken from lands he bought in Meath, he ended his career as Irish Chancellor of the Exchequer. His great-grandson Sir Robert Preston further improved the family’s circumstances, being appointed Deputy both to Sir John Dynham, the Lord Chancellor of Ireland and to the Lord Lieutenant Richard, Duke of York, son of Edward IV. In 1478 he was created Viscount Gormanston: his descendant the 17th Viscount is bearer of the oldest vicomital title in Ireland and Britain. Inevitably the Gormanstons were involved in the political and religious upheavals of the 16th and 17th centuries. Remaining true to their Roman Catholic faith and to Kings Charles I and James II (the seventh Viscount fought on the latter’s side at the Battle of the Boyne and then defended Limerick), they saw their lands forfeited by both the Commonwealth government and that of William III. Yet the ninth Viscount managed to regain possession of the majority of the Gormanston estate under the terms of the 1691 Treaty of Limerick, even if his right to a title was not recognised (that feat was only achieved by the twelth Viscount in 1800). As a result, the family returned to live in Meath where the main residence was Gormanston Castle. By the second quarter of the 18th century their position was sufficiently secure and their income sufficiently great for the tenth Lord Gormanston to build himself a hunting lodge in another part of the county at Whitewood.

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Among the collection of Gormanston papers now in the possession of the National Library of Ireland is a folio of architectural drawings including one showing plans for Whitewood in c.1735. This features not just the house and ancillary structures but also elements of the surrounding landscape as either intended or executed. The drawing is signed ‘By J. Sheridan’ but the identity of this person remains unknown. He may simply have been a draughtsman since the design of Whitewood has for long been attributed to Richard Castle, based on similarities with other houses from his practice, and to certain stylistic traits it shares with the likes of Gormanston Castle and Hazelwood, County Sligo. Whitewood, of course, is much smaller than either of these properties, as would befit its status as a secondary residence.
Constructed from cut limestone, the building has an east-facing three-bay facade of two storeys over raised basement. A shallow parapet partially conceals the hipped roof and two central chimneys. The north and south fronts are likewise of three bays while that to the west, which has a superlative view down to Whitewood Lake, is of five bays. The dominant feature of the exterior is a stone staircase which extends far out to the front, initial flights to north and south meeting to create what is almost like a viewing platform before they ascend over an arch and thereby reach the relatively modest door with plain fanlight. Inside the decoration is likewise devoid of superfluities. The main floor layout is symmetrical, with rooms to left and right of the narrow entrance passage, the stair hall behind likewise having spaces on either side. There are simple cornices, Kilkenny marble chimney pieces, fielded panels to the woodwork, flagged floors and well-worn limestone steps leading up and down. There is no pretension to grandeur here; this is a functional building.

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The significance of Whitewood lies not just in its being a rare survival of an Irish 18th century hunting lodge, but even more in its unique setting. The house lies at the centre of a meticulously selected and improved landscape not found anywhere else. Whitewood is set on top of a rise with spectacular views particularly to east and west: as has already been mentioned, the latter offers a prospect down to the lake. The view to the east is of equal consequence, dominated by a long, straight avenue leading to the entrance gates, beyond which the ground once more gently rises to woodland closing the horizon. On an axis with the house, the avenue appears on early maps of the area, suggesting it was most likely part of the original design of the property. This would be in keeping with taste of the time, such long straight approaches being in fashion for parkland design from the second half of the 17th century onwards. Usually of course they led to a substantial palace whereas the house at Whitewood is of modest proportions. Nevertheless a lot of effort was expended on its avenue which is a man-made construction, a raised earthwork some sixty-two feet wide with ditches supported by low stone walls on either side. One wonders if perhaps it was a relief work undertaken to give local employment during the great freeze and famine of 1740-41: this would explain why such a very substantial project was undertaken at Whitewood. A section of grass flanking the central drive is in turn closed by matching lines of Beech and other trees. Visitors arriving at the gates are thus introduced to an Arcadian park uninterrupted until it terminates in the remote distance with the house on raised ground. The impression is given at the gates that the avenue continues directly to the front door. In fact, while continuing much of the way, it then swings to the north, so that an open lawn protected by ha-ha immediately in front of the building offers its occupants an unspoilt outlook. Meanwhile the diverted route passes by a lodge and sundry buildings which would have been used in the management of this pocket estate.

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Whitewood remained part of the Gormanston estate until the last century, many of its residents being employees. Such was the case with the present owner’s family: his forebears were already living in the house when the Land Commission offered it for sale: with customary crassness, the same state organisation also proposed demolishing the historic building and replacing it with a bungalow. Thankfully the family which had, and continues to have, a deep attachment to the house, turned down this proposal. Thereafter they maintained Whitewood at the centre of what today continues to be a working farm. In a report on the property compiled in 2010, garden consultant Finola Reid observed that Whitewood is a rare surviving example of a small country house framed within its original demesne: ‘The creation of its designed landscape enabled the house to be experienced within an appropriate context and setting. The exceptional quality of taste and execution in the various built structures associated with the house, complemented by the carefully considered arrangement of tree plantings, plantations, and the long straight avenue directly connects the designed and natural landscape with the Palladian house at the core. There are few other surviving Irish 18th century landscapes contemporary with Whitewood and those that do survive are themselves highly significant and recognized as worthy of preservation.’
The present owner is well aware of his responsibilities as the present generation’s custodian of this significant part of Ireland’s architectural and landscape heritage. As well as undertaking a programme of conservation work on the main building, he has engaged in replanting the historic woodland and at present is restoring the original lodge. And yet the integrity of Whitewood and its setting is now threatened by a proposal to erect a series of wind turbines in the immediate vicinity. The scheme, submitted by a private company called Cregg Wind Farm Ltd, would see the installation of half a dozen such structures each up to 150 metres high. These would be located on land beyond, but directly in front of, Whitewood, towering over the entire region and thereby destroying a prospect unspoiled for centuries. Standing on the steps of the building, one would no longer see an idyllic natural landscape but six vast edifices.
Thankfully this grotesque proposal was refused by the Meath County Council last December. However the company has now appealed to the national planning authority, An Bord Pleanala, and submissions in relation to the appeal will be accepted until later this week. Finola Reid rightly described Whitewood as ‘a rare survivor and worthy of the highest level of protection.’ That protection must extend to the wider environment in which the house is located. The context in which the house and other elements exist needs to be fully understood and cherished. This site was not chosen at random: it was singled out and developed because of the outstanding character of the broader landscape in the area. Should that landscape be violated as Cregg Wind Farm Ltd proposes, then the fundamental character of Whitewood would be forever destroyed. And that would be an appalling vista.

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Line drawing by Liam Mulligan and watercolour by Jeremy Williams.

 

The Untriumphal Arch

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Arch Hall, County Meath, the house shown above, is a tantalising mystery. Who was the architect? When was it built? And for whom? Answers to all these questions, and others, have been proposed and while convincing they cannot be absolutely verified. Today what remains of Arch Hall stands on flat ground in the middle of open fields, and the greater part of the ornamental park with which it was once surrounded has been lost. A painting from 1854 by the Yorkshire-born artist James Walsham Baldock depicts the wife of Arch Hall’s then-owner Samuel Garnett and the couple’s two young sons on horseback with the house visible behind. Evidently at the time it was surrounded by a belt of mature trees but most of these have now gone leaving the building isolated and even more exposed to the elements than would otherwise be the case. At some date obviously it was abandoned and left to fall into ruin but – another question – when?

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Arch Hall appears to derive its name from the rustic arch lying some distance to the south of the house and serving as point of access to the original avenue. Placed on an axis and intended to offer an unexpected vista of the property, the arch is composed of a single broad entrance with pinnacle above and flanking buttresses. From this point Arch Hall looks like a very substantial building, but the impression is deceptive because despite rising three storeys over basement the house was only one room deep. Its most striking feature is the nine-bay facade which on either side concludes in cylindrical bows and is centred on a larger, three-bay semi-circular bow. This has a handsome stone pedimented Gibbsian doorcase but the rest of the building was constructed of locally-produced red brick. At some – also unknown – date in the 19th century, the exterior was covered in cement render marked out to imitate cut stone. Presumably at the same time the topmost storey windows were paired in Romanesque style and Italianate sills added, while the end bows were capped with conical roofs presumably in an effort to make the place resemble a French château. Inside the front door was a large hall with curved ends and reception rooms on either side, each measuring some five and a half metres square. These in turn gave access to small circular rooms in the front corners. Despite long exposure, the two end rooms retain traces of their decorative plasterwork, that on the western flank somehow still having a shallow saucer dome with plaster coffering and egg-and-dart moulding. Almost all the rear of the house has been lost, as well as part of the front wall, making Arch Hall’s long-term survival unlikely.

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For a number of reasons the design of Arch Hall is usually ascribed to Sir Edward Lovett Pearce. Believed to have been born at some date in the late 1690s in County Meath, Pearce was the son of an English general and an Irish mother (her father was Lord Mayor of Dublin in 1676-77). Most importantly for his son’s future career, General Edward Pearce’s first cousin was Sir John Vanbrugh. The latter appears to have had an influence on the young architect, if only stylistically, but Pearce’s work in Ireland was also shaped by time spent in mainland Europe in 1723-24 during which he studied Palladio’s buildings in the Veneto. Thus while essentially a classicist, he sometimes liked to feature elements of the baroque. Such is the case with Arch Hall if indeed it was designed by Pearce. Another Irish house, alas now also a ruin, with which it has strong similarities is Wardtown Castle, County Donegal. Built for John Folliott, Wardtown is deeper than Arch Hall but, as Maurice Craig noted in 1996, it shares ‘the Vanbrughian feature of cylindrical towers and semi-circular projections.’ In fact the design of the two houses is so alike, the inevitable conclusion is that either they were by the same hand or one was a copy of the other.

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So when was Arch Hall built, and for whom? Sir Edward Lovett Pearce died in 1733 so if he were the house’s architect, work on its construction would most likely have begun before that date. At the time, the townland of which it is part, Newtown-Clongill was owned part-owned by the Payne or Pain(e) family: a deed of 1714 records the transfer of 510 acres in the area from John Raphson to William Paine. In 1737 his granddaughter Anne Paine married Benjamin Woodward of Drumbarrow, near Kells, County Meath. Her settlement included the town and lands of Clongill and Newtown-Clongill. Somehow by the early 19th century the property had transferred into the ownership of another local family, the Garnetts who were associated with a number of houses in the county, not least Williamstown and Summerseat. The first of them to live at Arch Hall was John Pain Garnett, second son of Samuel Garnett of Summerseat. John Pain Garnett’s middle name would imply some kind of connection with the previous residents but there appears to be none: the Garnetts tended to marry cousins, or else members of the Rothwell and Wade families. Arch Hall was subsequently inherited by John Pain’s son, another Samuel Garnett who in 1841 married Marianne Tandy: it is she and the couple’s two sons who appear in the 1854 painting by James Walsham Baldock. Burke’s 1871 Genealogical and Heraldic History of the Landed Gentry of Great Britain & Ireland list the family as still in residence, but at some date thereafter they must have left and the place began its slide into dereliction. But when and why was Arch Hall permitted this most untriumphant end? So many unanswered questions…

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Keeper of the Gate

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First impressions count. Hence the entrance to any good house needs to make its mark. Above is one of the 18th century limestone pillars flanking the main gates at Ardbraccan, County Meath. Note how the rusticated blocks have been ribbed and how the cap has been further decorated with a carved drapery swag. As much attention was paid to the wrought-iron gates, each concluding in a spear-like finial. At the point where the pair meet, this is substituted by the bust of a man with flaming headdress: the keeper of the gate.
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Three Lost Beauties

 

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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 5Platten 2Platten 1Platten 3Platten 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.
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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.
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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.

 

 

Shine Kindly Light

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The main door at Upper Crossdrum, County Meath with its exceptionally handsome fan- and sidelights. The house dates from the third decade of the 19th century – a bill from 1820 exists with the building’s specifications and breakdown of costs – and appears to have been constructed for the Harman family, gentlemen tenants of the Loughcrew estate; it can therefore be classified as a farmhouse, albeit grander than the average. In an essay published in Volume XII of the Irish Georgian Society’s Irish Architectural and Decorative Studies journal Lynda Mulvin attributes the design of Upper Crossdrum to English architect Charles Robert Cockerell who was then working in the area, not just on the main house at Loughcrew but also other properties in the area.

The Remains of the Day

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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.

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