Take Three

Door 2
This week the Irish Aesthete celebrates its third birthday. When first posting in September 2012, I had no idea that the project would develop as it has since done, nor that it would attract such a loyal following (and certainly not that I would still be doing this now). A sincere thanks to everyone who has been reading these pages over the intervening period, and for your support and encouragement which – as any writer can confirm – make such a difference. Your own contributions and comments continue to be most welcome although a courteous tone is necessary if you wish for a response.
Over the past three years many posts have been gloomy or dispiriting in character, reflecting the problems faced by Ireland’s architectural heritage, and its want of sufficient support from public and private quarters alike. But given today’s occasion demands a more celebratory spirit, here is a trio of historic houses which have been featured before, all of them restored and brought back to vibrant life thanks to the imagination and passion of their respective owners.

Rokeby Hall, County Louth which first featured here in February 2013 (Building on a Prelate’s Ambition) was built in the 1780s as a country retreat for then-Archbishop of Armagh Richard Robinson. As his architect Robinson chose Thomas Cooley who had already been responsible for many of the new buildings in Armagh, including the Archbishop’s Palace. Unfortunately Cooley died in 1784 and so his plans were handed over to the youthful Francis Johnston: born in Armagh, Johnston’s abilities had been noticed by Robinson who sent him as an apprentice to Cooley in 1778. The house’s severe limestone façade hides a more inviting interior, of three storeys over basement, since Rokeby contains a particularly generous attic concealed behind the parapet, centred on a circular room lit by glazed dome. A similar circular landing on the first floor provides access to the main bedrooms.
Descendants of the Robinson family remained in possession, although not necessarily in occupation, of Rokeby until the middle of the last century. Thereafter the property passed through a variety of hands often with unfortunate consequences. When the present owners bought the place in 1995, for example, the library had been stripped of its bookcases and divided in two with one half used as a kitchen. Over the past twenty years, a process of reclamation has taken place, driven by the correct balance of enthusiasm, commitment and ongoing research into the house’s history. Most recently the present owners have impeccably restored Rokeby’s mid-19th century conservatory.

The County Cork farmhouse shown above was discussed here in May 2014 (A Dash of Panache). when I noted that far too many such buildings in Ireland are abandoned to the elements ‘for no apparent reason other than the fallacious notion that they have ceased to be fit for purpose.’ This is especially true of the country’s older domestic dwellings, ripe for adaptation to contemporary use but instead deserted in favour of something newer – something which will in turn no doubt suffer the same fate. Indeed, one has only to venture into the countryside to see bungalows considered the ne plus ultra of modernity a few decades ago now drifting into a ruinous condition. More regrettably the same fate befalls far too many of Ireland’s handsome old farmhouses which with just a modicum of inventiveness could be given fresh leases of life as an alternative to their more common fate: mouldering into dereliction.
That looked the only prospect for this property until it was taken on by the present owner and brought back to life after a half-century of being left unoccupied. A low-key and sympathetic approach was adopted to the rescue programme. The old kitchen, for example, retains its original tiled floor and as much of the old ochre wall colouring as could be preserved; new cupboards have been sympathetically painted to harmonise with what was already in situ. A slightly more elaborate approach was taken to the decoration of two reception rooms to the front of the house – the chimneypieces here are clearly not original – but they share the same comfortable, unassuming character found throughout the building, as does the large glazed space that now runs along the ground floor. Chairs, tables and other items of furniture have been picked up over a period of time and during the course of extensive travels, none of them for great price. Most of the artwork was acquired in the same way or came via friends. The result serves as a model of how to transform an apparently unsalvageable old farmhouse into a comfortable and smart private residence

The double-height entrance hall of Gloster, County Offaly featured here last month (Spectacle as Drama) but the rest of this house merits equal attention. Gloster is believed to date from the third decade of the 18th century and to have been designed by Sir Edward Lovett Pearce, a cousin of then-owner Trevor Lloyd. The original two-storey building was of nine bays but two further bays were later added on either side making the facade exceptionally long. A series of terraces in front offer views to a lake and then mountains beyond, while another vista is closed by an arch flanked by obelisks. The sense of baroque theatre evident in Gloster’s siting continues indoors, and not just thanks to its spectacular entrance hall. To left and right run further rooms providing a wonderful enfilade rarely found in Ireland. These reflect changes in taste after the house was first constructed. The cornicing in the sitting room above, for example, is evidently from later in the 18th century as is the chimney piece but there is no sense of disharmony anywhere and diverse stylistic elements comfortably co-exist.
Gloster remained in the ownership of the Lloyds until 1958 when it was sold to the Salesian order of nuns who opened a convalescent home in the house and built a large school to the rear. When I first visited in the early 1980s the nuns were still in occupation but it was already evident that they were struggling to maintain the property. Indeed in 1990 they closed down operations and Gloster’s future looked uncertain, especially since it changed hands on a couple of occasions. Thankfully the present owners bought the place in 2001 and since then they have worked tirelessly and splendidly to turn around Gloster’s prospects. Inevitably, given the scale of the undertaking, this remains a work in progress. But already an enormous and admirable programme of restoration and refurbishment has been undertaken. Gloser demonstrates what can be done, even on limited means, provided the task is accompanied by sufficient courage and verve.

Door 1
My thanks again to all readers and followers of the Irish Aesthete for your ongoing support. Please encourage more people to become interested and engaged in Ireland’s architectural heritage. You can also discover me on Facebook (TheIrishAesthete), Twitter (@IrishAesthete), Pinterest (irishaesthete) and Instagram (The.Irish.Aesthete).

Spectacle as Drama

It was through reading more than thirty years ago Sacheverell Sitwell’s perpetually engaging book Southern Baroque Art (first published in 1924) that I first discovered the work of the Bibienas. From the mid-17th century onwards, four generations of this Tuscan family worked throughout Europe as artists and architects, but above all as theatre designers. In some instances they were responsible for the design of buildings in which theatrical and musical performances were held. (The best-known being in Mantua, and now called the Teatro Bibiena: by Antonio Bibiena it dates from the 1760s.) But they are now better remembered for their work on the stage side of the proscenium arch.
The family’s origins in this field lay with Giovanni Maria Galli da Bibiena, born outside Florence in 1625. A painter who studied with, and then worked as assistant to, Francesco Albani, he was based in Bologna at the time of his early death aged forty. His daughter Maria Oriana who remained in that city also became a painter, specializing in portraits and history pictures. Meanwhile her two brothers led more peripatetic lives, with Francesco designing theatres as far afield as Verona and Vienna. The latter city proved particularly important for the Bibienas since it was here that Maria and Francesco’s sibling Ferdinando and then his son Giuseppe became the most celebrated stage designers of the age.

Born in Bologna in 1656, Ferdinando Galli Bibiena spent some thirty years based in Piacenza working for the Duke of Parma. But in 1708 he travelled to Barcelona to organise the wedding festivities of the Habsburg Archduke Charles. When the latter became Charles VI, Holy Roman Emperor in 1711 Fredinando Galli Bibiena moved to Vienna where he designed elaborate theatre scenery and also oversaw court festivities. He returned to Bologna in 1716 but his second son Giuseppe remained in Vienna and in effect inherited his father’s position as the Emperor’s chief designer, remaining such until Charles VI’s death in 1740. Of the Emperor, Sitwell wrote ‘Music, like everything else, required a setting which would reflect honour on this Caesar, and so he retained in his service a whole race of Italians, to whom he entrusted the decorations of a theatre, a procession or a masque with the subsequent banquet. In this way a building which seemed to have the permanence of a Versailles could be put up in a few days, and by the next morning it had disappeared from the ground, as if by enchantment. The Bibiena family of Bologna were in command of the nocturnal army…It is as though the Italians, having matured their plans so far in earlier times, now that their imagination was unfettered and had the skill to play how it liked, found themselves without the money to realize their schemes, and so were forced to take opportunities abroad and produce in plaster and canvas that which they had planned in brick and marble.’

The Bibienas were renowned for the ingenious use of perspective in their stage designs, the ability to suggest infinite horizons within a severely limited space. In his work Ferdinando was the first to replace a central, vertical, axis with a diagonal, thereby increasing the impression of distance. He and his son created fantastically grand architecture intended to be dismantled within days of its construction. An examination of Giuseppe’s extant designs indicates that he developed his father’s initiatives in this field to produce complex interiors in which colonnaded passages seem to run in every direction and seemingly without ever coming to a close. Vaulted ceilings tower over the figures beneath, while the walls are smothered with ornament including niches, brackets and curvilinear frames. Against this painted backdrop figures would act out complex emotional dramas, often to texts written by another Italian, Metastasio who in 1729 was appointed Court Poet in Vienna: in the mid-18th century there was scarcely an opera composer in Europe not dependent on a Metastasio libretto (as late as 1791 Mozart used one for La Clemenza di Tito). Surely his lofty language and noble sentiments influenced Bibiena’s designs, and vice versa? The most celebrated castrato of the age Carlo Broschi, known as Farinelli, made his debut at the age of fifteen singing music composed by his teacher Nicola Porpora set to a text by Metastasio. When Farinelli (of whom it was said, ‘One God, one Farinelli’) sang in Vienna in 1731 – once more to music by Porpora and words by Metastasio – the Emperor advised he should cease trying to astonish listeners with his vocal prowess and instead engage their emotions through the purity of his tone; ‘you are too lavish of the gifts with which nature has endowed you; if you wish to reach the heart, you must take a more plain and simple road.’ Perhaps Charles VI felt there was already enough virtuosity on stage thanks to the designs of Giuseppe Galli Bibiena.

These notes on the Bibiena family are inspired by the room seen here today, the double height entrance hall at Gloster, County Offaly. The most perfect baroque interior in Ireland, it was almost certainly designed by Sir Edward Lovett Pearce in the early 1720s; he was a first cousin of the property’s then-owner Trevor Lloyd. Whether Pearce actually oversaw the execution of his work is more open to question as some of the detailing is not quite as refined as might otherwise have been the case. Even so, Gloster’s entrance hall is something of a coup de theatre, clearly intended to make an impact on anyone stepping into the space. The view from the front door is of walls heavily covered in plasterwork panelling, with a focus on the pedimented doorcase directly ahead; on either side of this are niches with fanlights above that match those of the facing doors. Obviously the hall’s height adds additional drama, and the feature is emphasised by a band of elaborate scrolling plasterwork positioned at what would be cornice level; the effect is to divide the vertical into two sections. Continuing up, the eye is next caught by a series of round-headed niches on either side wall which contain busts on plinths. These are matched on the entrance wall by three windows which ensure the hall is exceptionally bright: they are arched on the inside although rectangular on the exterior in order to match those on the rest of the thirteen-bay facade. Facing the windows are three arched balconies, part of a first floor gallery accessed via an inner hall that has flanking staircases to its rear. The gallery is a superlative piece of work. Entered through a screen of Doric columns and rising to a coffered, barrel-vaulted ceiling, it features a pair of monumental pedimented chimneypieces with glass in the upper sections so that one reflects the other. To one side of these run long corridors, barrel-vaulted like the landing, which lead to the main bedrooms and provide the ensemble with an additional sense of drama. Indeed it the combination of these passages and the balconies overlooking the entrance hall that particularly bring to mind the designs of Ferdinando and Giuseppe Bibiena. As a piece of design it evokes the grandeur and solemnity of Metastasio’s texts, combined with the virtuosity of Farinell’s singing in a fashion rarely seen in Ireland. It is easy to imagine baroque opera being played out in such a setting (what might the late Jean-Pierre Ponnelle have filmed in the house). These spaces have recently been redecorated by Gloster’s dedicated owners, who deserve accolades for all that they have already achieved here. The results are breathtakingly exciting and highlight the outstandingly theatrical quality of the architecture.


More about the glories of Gloster on another occasion…

Taking the Cure

A corner cabinet in Bedroom No.15 at Birr Castle, County Offaly. This is also known as the Conroy Room since it contains memorabilia associated with Sir John Conroy, quondam Comptroller to Queen Victoria’s mother, the Duchess of Kent: in the same year Victoria came to the throne, Conroy’s son Edward eloped with Lady Alicia Parsons, daughter of the second Earl of Rosse. On a table beneath the cabinet is a box holding a 19th century travelling pharmacy, including such supposed cures as Tincture of Rhubarb and Paregoric Elixir. The latter was an opiate first developed in the early 18th century as a cure for asthma.


On the Town V

Like so many Irish towns, Edenderry (from the Irish Éadan Doire meaning ‘hill-brow of the oak wood’) in County Offaly is effectively one long narrow street that dribbles away to an unsatisfactory conclusion at either end. It was ever thus: from the 18th century on visitors to Ireland have commented on the way urban settlements here were rarely planned but developed in a haphazard, higgledy-piggledy fashion. On occasion an improving landlord would try to impose order, and indeed this happened at Edenderry but not until long after the place had first come into existence. While there is a pre-Christian hill-fort in the area, it was really with the arrival of the Normans that permanent residential structures began to appear around what is now Edenderry. In 1325 John de Bermingham, first Earl of Louth (famous for having killed Edward Bruce – younger brother of Robert, King of Scotland – in 1318) founded a Franciscan Friary at Monasteroris to the immediate west of the town; little of it remains today. Although from the mid-14th century this part of the country was officially under the authority of the Earls of Kildare, in practice it came under the control of the O’Connors. They were likely responsible in the 15th century for what is now known as Blundell Castle, eventually destroyed by Jacobite forces in 1691; the ruins stand on a hill  above the town. In the middle of the previous century Offaly was shired as King’s County and its land granted to men loyal to the English crown, among them Sir Henry Colley whose father Walter had served as Principal Solicitor for Ireland and later as the country’s Solicitor-General. The connection with the Colley family meant that for sometime thereafter Edenderry came to be known as Coolestown. Henry Colley’s granddaughter Sarah married Sir George Blundell and so the land passed into the hands of his family, remaining with them until the death in 1756 of Montague, first and last Viscount Blundell. His only daughter Mary inherited the property as in turn did her only daughter, another Mary who in 1786 married Arthur Hill, second Marquess of Downshire.

Thanks to his marriage, the Marquess of Downshire acquired some 14,000 acres of land around Edenderry. He vigorously opposed the 1800 Act of Union and as a result earned the enmity of the London government which exacted retribution by depriving him of governorship of County Down and the colonelcy of the local militia, and dismissing his supporters from official posts. He died the following year; his widow blamed official hostility, but, having inherited an estate in England from a childless uncle, was somewhat consoled in 1802 by being created Baroness Sandys in her own right. Meanwhile her twelve-year old eldest son became heir to the Irish properties. It was he, the third Marquess of Downshire who after coming of age in 1809 left the most lasting visible impact on Edenderry. This was despite the fact that he inherited responsibility for his forbears’ considerable debts and that his mother continued to receive two-thirds of the rent from the Offaly estates until her death in 1836. Among his most notable legacies to the town is the large former Market House, designed by Thomas Duff in 1826 and built at a cost of £5,000. Today used as a courthouse and local authority office, this handsome cut limestone building has a five-bay pedimented facade and presumably once featured an open arcaded groundfloor and assembly room above. Standing in the middle of what is now called O’Connell Square, it is testament to Edenderry’s prosperous past as a market town, a history echoed by other buildings in the town. These include Blundell House, named after the former owners of the estate but erected to his own design in 1813 by James Brownrigg who like his father worked for the Downshires and acted as agent for the County Offaly estate. Of two storeys over half-raised basement, its groundfloor has an exceptionally wide door fanlight and Wyatt windows to either side. Lying to the immediate east is the town’s Quaker meeting house which dates from the first decade of the 19th century and replaced earlier premises on the site.

Lord Downshire’s engagement with Edenderry was not restricted to public buildings like the Market House: he also undertook to better the condition of the rest of the town, replacing mud cabins with slated, two-storey stone houses. Many of them remain and often carry a date from the early 1820s above the entrance
The materials used in the construction of these and other buildings were brought to Edenderry thanks to an initiative undertaken by his father: the creation of a branch of the Grand Canal into the town. Work began in 1797 and was completed with a harbour in 1802 at a total cost of £692 which was financed by the Downshires. The quays still lead right to the main street and conclude in a squared-off section surrounded by limestone wall. For much of the 19th century the canal provided a vital social and commercial link for Edenderry, and helped to bring prosperity to the region. The last barge left the quays here in 1962, around the same time that the railway at the other end of the town also closed. As with the canal, this was a branch line, known in its day as the Nesbitt Junction after a Miss Nesbitt who contributed £10,000 to its cost so that she could convey prize cattle to the Royal Dublin Society. Its buildings, erected in 1877 by the Midland Great Western Railway, remain although the little stone ticket office looks sadly neglected. The third Marquess’ contribution to the town’s development was commemorated a year after his death in 1845 with the erection of a statue to his memory sculpted by Joseph Robinson Kirk, son of Thomas whose figure of Nelson adorned the top of the pillar on Dublin’s O’Connell Street until blown up in 1966.

Like so many Irish towns, Edenderry is in seemingly irreversible decline, as the above photographs make clear. The outskirts, spread randomly and with no apparent forethought, are full of generic housing estates. One is currently being constructed at the immediate west end of the main street and has been given a name every bit as banal as the design of the supposedly ‘exclusive’ houses contained therein: Cedar Lawns. Meanwhile the centre of Edenderry slides ever further into decrepitude with a terrifying number of premises vacant and unkempt. Groups of listless youths – presumably residents of the aforementioned exclusive housing estates – drift along the pavements past properties that might entertain or engage them but instead exhibit empty windows. Even in O’Connell Square, while money has been spent on renovating the old Market House it is surrounded by properties with well-worn signs offering them for sale. For the moment Edenderry still has a post office and branches of the main banks: but for how much longer? The reality is that as the centre decays and householders travel elsewhere to spend their money, those banking businesses will find it no longer viable to maintain an operation here. They will duly close down and the standard outcry will ensue, yet this is the inevitable consequence of failure to maintain a vibrant town centre. The general tattiness and want of adequate maintenance is apparent everywhere, beginning with the ruins of Blundell Castle where the bars of a protective fence have long-since been wrenched off, if the quantity of mouldering empty beer cans discarded inside its walls can be taken as evidence. By failing to take care of Edenderry’s most ancient site, the local authority is sending out a signal of indifference which will noted by all those late-night drinkers, and everyone else as well. The same sense of apathy and disregard is emitted by every other building permitted to suffer neglect. Among the remaining retailers, the word Eden – a none-too-subtle pun on the town’s name – is often deployed. Frankly Eden lies well east, or west or anywhere else. Whatever one might think of absentee landlords and whatever his motivation, at least Lord Downshire tried to improve circumstances in Edenderry. Nobody today seems interested in following his example.


Return of the Native


On a table in the Gothic Saloon of Birr Castle, County Offaly, a porcelain figure looms over Cecil Beaton’s photograph of a former chatelaine Anne, Countess of Rosse. Home since 1620 to fifteen generations of the Parsons family, in the past couple of years Birr Castle has welcomed back Patrick, Lord Oxmantown, his wife Anna and their young children who were previously living in China. You can read more about their return to the ancestral seat in an article I have written for the May issue of Architectural Digest. For more, see http://www.architecturaldigest.com/decor/2015-05/birr-castle-tour-county-offaly-ireland-article