For the Present II

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Russborough, County Wicklow has featured more than once on this site and why not since it is often judged to be the most beautiful country house in Ireland. Dating from the 1740s, Russborough was commissioned by Joseph Leeson, a wealthy brewer who in 1763 became first Earl of Milltown. His architect was German-born Richard Castle and work on the project seems to have proceeded fast because in his 1746 A Tour through Ireland William Chetwood found at Russborough ‘a noble new house, forming into perfection’, adding ‘if we may judge of the picture of the outlines, we shall, when finished, see a complete beauty’. This indeed has proven to be the case. Just as lovely is the newly-published Russborough: A Great Irish House, its Families and Collections. Written by William Laffan and Kevin V Mulligan, the book covers over 300 years of history, travelling far in various directions but always returning to the building that lies at its core. And this is as it should be, the authors noting how the approach to the house is carefully managed ‘so that the main block is completely concealed, the first views taking in a finely articulated cupolaed gateway, the east wing and then its distant counterpart. These low ashlar-fronted blocks – to the east the kitchen wing, to the west the stables – are impressive in their own way, given deep plans with broad fronts, attractively articulated with Ionic pilasters to the centre bays and urns punctuating the parapets, but the void between seems to offer the greater distraction and an inducement to progress further. Once revealed in its entirety, the visual power and complexity of the composition, its symmetry and poise, is simply captivating…The viewer’s instinct is to draw back immediately so as to take in everything as one comes to realise the full extent of the plan. A symmetrical expanse, drawn out on either side beyond the wings to encompass a further complex of buildings on each side, is laid out to achieve a façade that extends from end to end a distance of some seven hundred feet.’ Scholarly and engaging (a too-rare combination) the prose is matched by James Fennell’s splendid and copious photographs, making this the most complete work yet produced on a single Irish house. An essential addition to any library this season.
Russborough: A Great Irish House, its Families and Collections is published by the Alfred Beit Foundation, €50.

An Irish Childhood

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‘A four-year-old child sits on her father’s knee, in the pony-trap, holding the reins. She is conscious of the touch of his hand guiding her own, the rough texture of the sleeve of his jacket, the pony’s silvery white haunches moving to the rythym of a steady trot, its alert pricked ears, the polished harness, the rings, buckles and mounts. Presently at a curve of the avenue Mount John comes into view: solid, cream-coloured house, its low-pitched blue lead roof just visible above the parapet. From this angle it is partly hidden by trees – among them a copper beech, a tall bluish green Wellingtonia tapering to a point, a monkey puzzle and a walnut tree. Only when the trap has passed between the white gate-posts on the half-circle of gravel, to the left the pleasure ground, to the right a weeping ash, can one see to advantage the sash windows – two either side the hall-door, matched by similar pairs above and an additional window over the fanlight; the slim Ionic pillars; the oak door and the shining brass knocker that on closer inspection reveals itself as a Greek urn narrowing to the base where the hand takes hold.’

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‘Mount John was built in the early seventeen hundreds. Like many other Irish houses belonging to the same period – when the settlers began to embellish the country that hitherto they had ravaged, building themselves homes of distinction – it combines solidity with a spacious elegance. The walls are thick – in places several feet in width. I remember a great bulge by the landing window; another in the bathroom wall in which, if I am to believe an old cottager – he worked for my father and still lives on the Wicklow road – part of the Russian crown jewels are concealed.
In common with other houses designed not in isolation, but in a manner that has regard for the landscape – house and landscape making a single picture – it is seen at its best from a distance. There is a pleasing view from the road, through a gap between beeches and limes – the house standing above a sweep of lawn, set about by trees and shrubs, and, beyond it, a glimpse of mountains. Even so it looks smaller than it is – an illusion created by a facade broken by the relatively few flat windows. Inside, one is taken unawares by the spaciousness, whether it be the airy hall, the curving staircase, or the rooms with their high ceilings, pleasant proportions and the light coming in the tall windows. It seems to hold within itself something of the largeness and the quiet of the countryside.’

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‘The drawing-room was a golden room. The curtains were old-gold with a flutter of white muslin, rhe carpet a similar, deeper shade. The sun poured in the tall windows of which two faced east, the third south on to the pleasure ground – picking out the gilded oval frames enclosing portraits of my Hamilton grandparents and over the mantelshelf a gilt-edged mirror. There was a sofa upholstered in a rich gilded brocade; two yellow wooden chairs with painted on the back of each a bouquet of flowers tied with a ribbon – the tiny blossoms picked out in red and blue and violet; and in front of the piano a stool with ends similarly decorated. My mother’s Sheraton writing desk stood in one corner, and in the window as you came into the room there was a Sheraton table massed in spring with daffodils in a crystal bowl, in summer with golden-pink Gloire de Dijon roses, in autumn with chrysanthemums. I remember on the same table a tortoise-shell paper knife, a busby chain, regimental badges, a pair of spurs and a number of small silver objects that included a windmill, a filigree round table with chairs to match, a poodle dog with a leg missing. The white Adam’s mantelshelf was decorated with a carving of two gryphons staring at each other and on the side panels acanthus flowers rising on twirling stems from a Greek urn.’

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‘It is an evening in spring. The hall-door is open – as it often was, so that the house used to be permeated with the scents and freshness of the garden. The light is a pale silver, as after rain. A breeze sirs one of the West African fetish masks (relics of my father’s soldiering days) making it sway and scrape against the red-washed wall above an oak table on which there is a black-and-gold lacquer tray for visiting cards and, behind this, a pair of elephant’s tusks crossing each other. My mother comes in from the garden with violets in her hand. She holds them out to me to smell, then lays them on the table and sighing (not plaintively, but as if in satisfaction at a task well done) slips her slender, ringed hands out of a pair of crumpled gardening gloves. Spring in childhood has become crystallised in this memory of the open door, the silvery light, the scraping of the fetish mask against the wall, my mother holding out the violets.’

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‘A path ran north of the house through the shrubbery to the faded greenish blue garden door set in a wall and opening on to a box-edged path arched with ramblers. To the right was a deep border brilliant with flowers: maroon and lemon and sapphire columbines – these backed by a hedge of beech on the further side of which was a paddock where my mother kept her poultry. There were more flowers to the left of the path: deep blue cornflowers, love-in-a-mist, sweet Williams, bachelors’ buttons, flame-bright montbretia and a double row of sweet-peas. And, beyond these, raspberries and currants and strawberry beds. There was an apple tree with a twisted trunk and crumpled lichen-coated branches. Overnight – so it used to seem to us – it became in the spring a could of blossom soon to drift away upon the wind.’

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The above extracts are taken from Elizabeth Hamilton’s 1963 memoir An Irish Childhood, telling the story of a period before the First World War when she and her family lived at Mount John, County Wicklow. The author’s parents had both grown up in County Meath but her father, as a younger son, did not inherit property there and so bought another small estate. For many years owned by generations of Archers, Mount John appears to have been built over several phases, the rear portion probably being the earlier part to which the east-facing front with its large reception rooms was added some time around 1800. A feature of the facade is its finish of vertically hung slate, which have long been painted white. On either side of this section of the building are bows, that to the north two-storeys high, that to the south (off the drawing room) single-storey.
Financial circumstances forced Elizabeth Hamilton’s parents to leave Mount John in early 1914 and her book is an evocation of a lost Arcadia, a magical world she recalled for the rest of her life. An Irish Childhood, with its charming line drawings by Norah McGuinness, is too little known; the work provides readers with an insight into life in Ireland across all sections of society just before the onset of the upheavals that so changed this country. Many years later the author returned to Mount John and, having walked once more around the place where she had been born and spent her earliest years, she wrote ‘As I went through the white gate into the dusk it was as though there had been a transference of time. A moment belonging to a past beyond the reach of my memory, yet familiar from hearsay, had stepped forward into the present…’

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Mount John, County Wicklow is now for sale, and waiting to be brought back to the condition so redolently described by Elizabeth Hamilton. For more information, see: http://www.sherryfitz.ie/resi/buy/7-bed-Farms-and-Estates-For-Sale-by-Private-Treaty-Newcastle-Mount-John-House-Newcastle-Co.-Wicklow-propertydetail.aspx?id=328894&ST=1&pc=1

La nature est un temple*

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This small domed stone temple was originally erected around 1740 by Sir Compton Domville on his estate at Templeogue, Dublin. Later moved to Santry Court, it was lying in pieces on the ground when discovered in the late 1940s by architectural historian Maurice Craig. He encouraged Oonagh Guinness to rescue the monument and re-erect it at Luggala, County Wicklow on the shores of Lough Tay. In recent years her son Garech has further restored the temple and replaced its lost ball finial.

*from Baudelaire’s Correspondences.

In Gilt and In Glory

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One of a pair of 18th century rococo gilt pier glasses that hang in the first-floor back drawing room of 5 Clare Street, Dublin, now used for board meetings by the National Gallery of Ireland. The two have belonged to the NGI since the early 1900s after being included in the Milltown Gift, that is the bequest made to the institution by Geraldine, Countess of Milltown following the death of her husband the seventh Earl. Previously the pier glasses had been part of the decoration of the saloon at Russborough, County Wicklow for which it is believed they were commissioned some time around 1750. We do not know who was responsible for carving them, but the craftsmanship is certainly superb. When the Countess of Kildare visited in 1759, she reported to her husband that ‘the house is really fine and the furniture magnificent.’ Since much of that furniture was of similar calibre, her praise was more than justified.

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Read All About It

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In the library at Russborough, County Wicklow an open page of James Malton’s A Picturesque and Descriptive View of the City of Dublin displayed in a Series of the most Interesting Scenes taken in the Year 1791. In 1799 Malton, an architectural draughtsman by training, published in a single volume his series of twenty-five engravings showing key buildings in the Irish capital, noting ‘The entire of the views were taken in 1791 by the author, who, being experienced in the drawing of architecture and perspective, has delineated every object with the utmost accuracy; the dimensions, too, of the structures described were taken by him from the originals, and may be depended upon for their correctness.’ Malton’s images remain one of our most important sources of information about the appearance of Dublin at the end of the 18th century.
For more about Russborough, see my article on the house in the September issue of American Elle Decor: http://www.elledecor.com/design-decorate/interiors/irish-heritage?click=main_sr#slide-1

The Irish Aesthete Recommends III

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The drawing room at Rossana, County Wicklow as painted by Maria Spilsbury Taylor (1777-1823) an English artist who moved to Ireland after marrying an Anglican clergyman and thereafter became friendly with the Tighes of Rossana, known for their religious fervour. Rossana was originally built around 1742 by William Tighe but extended later in the century when wings were added. One of these contained the drawing room with the elaborate panelling seen above and often attributed to Grinling Gibbons (which would suggest it came from another, earlier, building). In the last century the wings were demolished and the panelling taken to the United States.
Rossana was a house well-known to poet Mary Tighe (née Blachford) who often stayed there, although she would die in March 1810 at Woodstock, County Kilkenny (see Of Wondrous Beauty Did the Vision Seem, May 13th). Mary Tighe is the subject of a new biography by Miranda O’Connell which brings this once-famous author of the six-canto allegorical poem Psyche back to public attention after a long period of unjustified neglect. Acknowledged as much for her beauty as her literary skills, Tighe’s early death transformed her into a figurehead of the Romantic Movement. Miranda O’Connell’s book not only considers the poems but also places her subject in the context of Ireland before and after the Act of Union, a fascinating period in the country’s history. Much to be recommended, it also contains many fascinating pictures and photographs.
Mary Tighe by Miranda O’Connell is published by Somerville Press (see http://www.somervillepress.com).

You Ain’t Nothin’ But a Hound Dog

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A couple of details of the plasterwork on the main staircase at Russborough, County Wicklow. The walls here are smothered with flamboyant but finely finished decoration – thought to be the work of Irish stuccodores – celebrating the delights of the hunt, hence the profusion of hounds’ heads together with trophies of the chase. Russborough will be hosting a Hints of History festival this coming weekend. For more information, see http://www.russboroughhouse.ie/images/downloads/hintsofhistory.pdf

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