A Life’s Work in Ireland

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In December 1880 William Bence Jones published The Life’s Work in Ireland of a Landlord Who Tried to Do His Duty. Although intended as an apologia, the book only brought further notoriety to a man already widely reviled here: the Cork Examiner described him as ‘the most thoroughly disliked man in the county.’ How did this come about? Bence Jones had inherited an estate in County Cork originally bought by his grandfather William Jones, son of an Archdeacon of Llandaff, who came to Ireland after marrying Elinor Winthrop whose father had been Mayor of Cork in 1744. Both William Jones and Bence Jones’ father, another William, were absentee landlords, never even visiting their property, but in 1838 when still in his mid-twenties he had settled on the estate after discovering his agent had been embezzling the family. Bence Jones devoted himself to improving the 4,000 acres in his possession, directly farming a quarter of the land while the rest was let to tenants. However, he expected higher rents to be paid as a result of his improvements and this is what led to trouble. Following a number of bad summers and poor harvests in the late 1870s, his tenants sought to have their rents reduced. Bence Jones refused the request and the Irish National Land League, founded in October 1879 with Charles Stewart Parnell as its President, became involved in the dispute. A grave was dug outside the front door of the Bence Jones house, he was sent threatening letters, then boycotted and the workers on his land forced to leave. His elder son and unmarried daughter, assisted by the butler and a gardener, took over responsibility for feeding and milking the estate’s herd of cattle while soldiers from the local barracks guarded the property. It was under these circumstances that Bence Jones wrote his book, hoping thereby to elicit sympathy for his circumstances. However within Ireland the opposite was achieved, not least thanks to his disparaging comments on the indigenous population. Eventually a new work force came over from Britain and Bence Jones with his family moved to London from whence he engaged in a war of words with the County Cork Roman Catholic priest and Land League supporter, Fr John O’Leary. Bence Jones died in 1882, and his fight with the Land League might have been the only way the family was remembered in Ireland had it not been for the literary career of his great-grandson, Mark Bence-Jones.

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The estate owned by William Bence Jones was called Lisselane and here he built a house in 1851-53 to the designs of English architect Lewis Vulliamy. Currently on the market with 315 acres for €9 million, Lisselane is usually described as being in the ‘simplified’ French chateau style, no doubt thanks to its Mansard roof and a corner turret. Sited on rising ground above the Arigadeen river, the house was extended by William Bence Jones’ son Reginald who bought a large glass conservatory made for the Cork Exhibition of 1902 and five years later knocked several rooms together to create a large library-hall lined from floor to ceiling with oak bookcases. Reginald had sold most of the estate under the terms of the Wyndham Act, using the money not only to improve his house but also to buy a smart Mercedes limousine with silver flower vases in the passenger compartment. Meanwhile his wife Ethel Bence Jones had the funds to improve the gardens at Lisselane: an existing terrace above the river was extended, the river itself widened, a rose garden created along with a bog garden, rock garden and American garden. Yet opportunity to enjoy these new features was limited: come the outbreak of the First World War, the house was closed up and then in the aftermath of the Troubles it was sold by the family. Reginald and Ethel Bence Jones’ younger son, Colonel Philip Bence-Jones, was an engineer who worked on the Blue Nile dam and had helped to rebuild the old Waterloo Bridge in London. The story is told that as a young soldier in the First World War he once told Winston Churchill he had got the wrong hat. ‘When Churchill looked doubtful, Bence-Jones threw the hat in the air and shot two holes clean through it with his revolver. “You’re right,” agreed the astounded Churchill.’ In 1925 Philip Bence-Jones married May Thomas, a Roman Catholic from Alexandria and converted to her faith; five years later their only child, Mark Bence-Jones was born.

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In 1934 Philip Bence-Jones was appointed head of the engineering school at Lahore and the family moved to India. On their return to Europe in 1945 they returned to the country of his birth and bought Annemount on the north shores of Cork Harbour. Four years later the house was destroyed by fire and so the family moved again, this time to Glenville Park. The land on which the house stands originally belonged to the Nagles whose main residence was Carrigacunna Castle overlooking the Blackwater river. Sir Richard Nagle was James II’s Attorney-General in Ireland and Speaker of the Irish House of Commons. In the aftermath of the Williamite Wars, this portion of the Nagle property passed to the Coppingers, an old Cork mercantile family: in 1319 Stephen Coppinger was Mayor of the city, and several of his descendants held this position as well as becoming Bailiffs and Sheriffs of Cork. The Coppingers remained Roman Catholic and could therefore only afford to build a relatively modest residence at Glenville, of two storeys and five bays fronted by a semi-circular courtyard with a gate at either end. At some point in the late 1770s/early 1780s they sold the place to Dr Edward Hudson, a successful dentist who otherwise lived at the Hermitage, County Dublin, a house renamed St Enda’s in 1910 when Patrick Pearse moved his school there.
At Glenville, Dr Hudson constructed a new house not far from the old one and at right angles to it, a three-storey, three-bay property with two-storey single bay wings on either side. This was subsequently inherited by his eldest son, the Rev. Edward Hudson an Anglican clergyman who became Dean of Armagh. On his death without children, Glenville passed to his brother William Elliott Hudson, a barrister renowned for collecting ancient Irish literature and music: he was also a composer whose work includes The Memory of the Dead (better known as ‘Who Fears to Speak of ’98). Following his death in 1853 Glenville passed to a nephew, Edward Kinahan who in 1887 was created a baronet and became Sir Edward Hudson-Kinahan. That same year he enlarged and remodelled Glenville to the designs of Dublin architect Sandham Symes. A new two-storey front was built onto the old house, thereby making it twice as deep as had previously been the case. The building was also considerably extended in length, the whole faced in grey cement. This is the house bought in 1949 by Colonel Bence-Jones from Sir Edward Hudson-Kinahan’s grandson.

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In April 1963 the late Mark Bence-Jones, doyen of Irish country houses and their owners, published an article in the Irish Times about the property his parents had bought fourteen years earlier. The piece is affectionate in tone, although he acknowledges that when there is rain, ‘the grey stucco of Glenville looks dark, almost forbidding. But the morning sun makes the long low facade and the gate piers in front of it turn almost pink; the lines of windows shimmer.’ The cement render can indeed the make the east-facing front of the building look harsh, but that impression disappears once inside the building which rambles in an agreeably disordered fashion. The entrance hall is twice its original size, the former entrance now marked by a large arch halfway down its length. To left and right, tall slender doorframes with segmental pediments lead to drawing room and dining room respectively, the latter’s walls still retaining their 19th century wallpaper in a now-faded yellow and grey and featuring an older inlaid marble chimney piece which may have survived the Victorian make-over. Beyond the drawing room is a smaller sitting room and behind this a pair of book rooms (not surprisingly the house is overflowing with books). In the dining room, its walls painted a Pompeian red by the Bence-Joneses, hang a variety of family pictures. Behind it lies the old inner hall with an immense fire place. From here a passage runs down to a single-storey bow-fronted pavilion, presumably built for use as a billiards room.
Back in the main block, to the rear of the entrance hall rises the staircase with its original arched window on the return and leading to a substantial first floor landing off which run sequences of bedrooms along north and south corridors. At the end of the north a short flight of steps descend into a chapel created from three small rooms by Colonel and Mrs Bence-Jones; it contains stained glass windows by Stanley Tomlin and Patrick Pollen, and a letter dated December 1949 from the then-Bishop of Cork granting permission for services to be held here whenever a priest stays in the house. Glenville Park was Mark Bence-Jones’ home until his death in April 2010 and remains a testament to his own life’s work in Ireland.

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Ready to Serve

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In the Butler’s Pantry at Ballysallagh, County Kilkenny, a cabinet filled with old glassware while (below) on an adjacent shelf antique platters and dishes await deployment for dinner. Dating from 1722, Ballysallagh was originally built for a branch of the Purcell family, allies of the powerful Butler clan, and is a perfect example of the medium-sized houses constructed for members of Ireland’s gentry during this period of extended peace in the country.

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More on Ballysallagh soon.

Of Unhappy Memory

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Shrule Castle, County Mayo was built c.1238 and was long a stronghold for the de Burgh family, one time Earls of Ulster. Having been subject to several assaults by rival forces in the 16th century, in 1610 it passed into ownership of Richard Burke, fourth Earl of Clanricarde who then leased castle and lands to one of the Lynches of Galway. It is associated with an unhappy incident during the Confederate Wars three decades later when, in February 1642, a group of English settlers including the Anglican Bishop of Killala, Dr John Maxwell, were held captive there. Although they expected to be escorted to Galway, the prisoners on leaving the castle were instead massacred on the orders of an Irish soldier Edmond Bourke, the numbers killed being estimated as many as sixty-five. The survivors were rescued and given protection by the Franciscans of nearby Ross Errilly Friary (for more on that building, see To Walk the Studious Cloisters Pale, July 14th last).

Another World

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Has this country ever produced a more self-regarding architect than James Franklin Fuller? In 1916 he published Omniana: The Autobiography of an Irish Octogenarian which includes five appendices, each one dedicated to quotes from press reviews of his earlier, fictional books (‘We have never read a story with greater pleasure,’ Bath Chronicle, ‘As charming as a summer day’s ramble along an unknown lane, rich in unexpected turns and windings,’ Graphic, and so forth). The work also features highlights from his alternative careers, among them being an actor with regional troupes in England; one stint, he informs readers, came to an end the afternoon he found himself in the wardrobe room with nobody except the leading actress who ‘suddenly called on me to enact the part of Joseph while she herself assumed the role of Potiphar’s wife. The result was the same as that recorded in the Scriptures. I fled precipitately – leaving the lady to lock up her theatre.’ Fuller also trained for a period as a mechanical engineer, and was briefly a part-time soldier (he enrolled for what was supposed to be a British legion in Italy under Garibaldi, but to his indignation wound up in the suburbs of London ‘a mere ordinary recruit’ and had to buy his way out of the army). During the course of these adventures and misadventures, Fuller trained in the offices of another Irish-born architect, Frederick William Porter and then worked briefly with several English architects, most notably William Burges and Alfred Waterhouse, before securing a position in 1862 as district architect with the Irish Ecclesiastical Commissioners with responsibility for the north-west region of the country.

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James Franklin Fuller was born in Kerry in 1835, the only son of what can best be described as minor gentry although given his preoccupation with pedigree it is unlikely this is the term he would have chosen. Two further appendices in his autobiography (‘Humour and geniality exude from every line,’ Liverpool Post and Mercury) outline his forebears in both maternal and paternal lines: with regard to the former, he was able to trace his ancestry back to Charlemagne no less, with the latter from Duncan, first King of Scotland. Attention is duly paid in the book’s opening pages to the importance of one’s family possessing the right quarterings, namely those that confer the right ‘to appear at Court functions, presided over by the Sovereign.’ Readers will be relieved to learn that Fuller had these. Later he engages in some consideration of how the newly-rich presume to claim coats of arms to which, in his eyes, they have no right.
The concern with pedigree and the perceived presumptions of arrivistes may explain why Fuller was to have trouble with one of his more important clients, Sir Arthur Edward Guinness, raised to the peerage in 1880 as Baron Ardilaun. Seven years before this elevation Fuller had been engaged by Sir Arthur to enlarge Ashford Castle, County Mayo but the relationship soon turned sour and he was replaced by another architect, George Ashlin (for more about Ashford and the Ardilauns, see Lady Ardilaun Requests the Pleasure…, October 6th last). Without specifically naming Sir Arthur, the following passage in Fuller’s autobiography makes perfectly clear his disdain: ‘Among my clients, at one time, was a multi-millionaire who has been made a lord. Somehow I could not bring myself to appraise him at his own evaluation, or to accept him as a super-man. I labelled him as something quite different. He had long been acclaimed a philanthropist, because of some large gifts for the benefit of the proletariat – gifts which secured him a title and affected his bank balance as much as a drop taken from the ocean affects its volume. We rubbed along for three or four years, until the friction became too acute and then we drifted apart. It was my fault no doubt and it was not wise from a worldly point of view. He lives and flourishes: so “nothing matters.” Nevertheless, the evolution of the plutocrat into the autocrat, and then into the aristocrat is an interesting study…’

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That Fuller always felt himself above the concerns of the insufficiently well-quartered becomes apparent thanks to another passage in his autobiography (‘A rich treat of wit and wisdom and shrewd observation,’ Truth). Following the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland in 1869 and the loss of his position as one of its district architects, he established his own office in Dublin. From here, he writes, ‘For over half a century I carried on successfully a very extensive practice as an architect; and during the whole of that time, I violated – or rather, persistently disregarded, all the conventional rules which are supposed to be inseparable from success…A few months after opening my offices I discarded the regulation copying-press and the regulation letter-book…The ‘correct’ thing to do with letters received, was to preserve, docket and to pigeon-hole them, in the case of each separate client; whereas nine out of ten of them went into my waste paper basket immediately after receipt. I only preserved, until the finish of the particular business in hand, those that I thought likely to be necessary. I used my own discretion with regard to letters written by myself, only keeping copies of a few…I hardly expect to be believed when I say that, in issuing cheques, I never troubled to fill in the corresponding counterfoils…I kept no ledgers or books of any sort: I could not see the least necessity for them.’ Amazingly Fuller claimed his singular behaviour was ‘to the uniform satisfaction of my clients’ although we have seen that this was certainly not the case with regard to Sir Arthur Guinness.

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Strangely, although Fuller covers a great many subjects in his autobiography (‘A delightful arm-chair companion,’ Daily Graphic), he scarcely mentions many of the buildings for which he was responsible. One of these is shown here, St Anne’s in Clontarf, Dublin. The original early Georgian house on the site was called Thornhill and owned by the Vernons who lived close by in Clontarf Castle. In 1835 Benjamin Lee Guinness, then head of the brewing dynasty, bought Thornhill and its immediately surrounding land: the estate was thereafter increased until it covered more than 500 acres.
Meanwhile the old house was renamed St Anne’s after an ancient well of the same title in the area and was somewhat enlarged. However, the photographs here are of the building after it had been further embellished by Benjamin Lee’s son, the aforementioned Sir Arthur Guinness, Lord Ardilaun who from 1873 once more employed Fuller for this purpose. As can be seen, the eventual house had the appearance of a gargantuan Italianate palazzo, with vast double-height, top-lit galleried hall and equally substantial winter garden reached after an enfilade of reception rooms. The surrounding gardens were similarly transformed with extensive planting of specimen trees and the creation of a sequence of follies including a Herculanean Temple on a mock-ruined bridge abutment which served as a tearoom for the family and a Pompeian Water Temple of Isis by the duckpond.
Even by the time work was completed at St Anne’s in the 1880s, the place had become an anachronism, out of scale and out of sympathy with the Ireland then beginning to emerge. After Lady Ardilaun’s death in 1925, the estate was inherited by one of her husband’s nephews, the Hon Benjamin Plunket, retired Bishop of Meath. Unable to afford its upkeep, in 1939 he sold St Anne’s and almost 450 acres of land to Dublin Corporation for £55,000. The enormous house designed by Fuller stood empty of its original contents and used by the Local Defence Force until gutted by fire in 1943; the ruins were demolished in 1968. By that time 200 acres of the estate had been given over to local housing, the remainder, including the walled garden, is now a public park. Perhaps it is as well Fuller did not dwell so much on the buildings he designed since in this case we are dependent on a collection of old photographs to recall what it looked like.

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It Shouldn’t Happen to a Bishop

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When Charles Este became Bishop of Waterford in 1740, he found his official residence in the city in ‘so ruinous a condition that part of it has fallen down … and what is left is so small and dangerous to live in..’ He therefore had to hire another house but wrote to his immediate superior, Archbishop Bolton of Cashel, requesting permission to build a new episcopal palace. The architect responsible for this building was German-born Richard Castle, but Bishop Este dying in 1745 and Castle six years later the work was finished by local man John Roberts (who would go on to design Waterford’s  new Anglican and Roman Catholic cathedrals). The palace is notable for its two facades being quite different on character. That on the garden side (above) is of eight bays with an elaborate pedimented breakfront treatment on the first floor. Meanwhile, the side facing the cathedral is simpler, with a Gibbsian doorway set into a rendered ground floor and the seven-bay first-floor being centred on a single pedimented window. These differences may be explained by the change of both client and architect (and fashion) before the building was completed. The Bishop’s Palace, having been beautifully restored, is today a museum focussing on Waterford’s 18th century history.

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Getting to the Bottom of It

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A limestone chimney piece and plaster overmantel located in the basement of Strokestown Park, County Roscommon. As now constituted, the house is mostly the work of Richard Castle in the 18th century and John Lynn in the 19th. We do know however, that an earlier building existed on the site, dating from the late 1700s. The survival of this chimneypiece, and indeed entire room, at the bottom of the present main block suggest that it was originally one of the main reception rooms. Thus when Strokestown was initially aggrandised, probably in the 1730s, additional storeys were added and what had been the ground floor became a basement.

After the Horses Have Bolted

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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