The Light Gleams an Instant

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Rays of light from an octagonal lantern are thrown onto a wall on the first floor landing of Turbotstown, County Westmeath light: in the centre is a circular gallery which in turn permits light to reach the ground floor inner hall. An ingenious piece of design as beautiful as it is practical and rightly attributed to Francis Johnston.

Dieu et Mon Droit

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Hanging high on the north wall and immediately below the pitch-pine roof of the nave in St Colman’s Cathedral, Cloyne, County Cork are the coat of arms of George I. According to a plaque nearby, in 1722 the cathedral chapter commissioned this work from a Mr Maguire. It was specifically requested the work be undertaken for a sum not exceeding £10.

A (Neo)Classic Design

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Although Robert Adam is today represented in Ireland by just one house – a suite of rooms at Headfort, County Meath – examples of work by his rival James Wyatt can be found throughout the country. Indeed as Wyatt’s most recent biographer John Martin Robinson has noted, despite the fact that the architect only crossed the Irish Sea once, in 1785, ironically a much higher proportion of his houses survive in Ireland than in England. Wyatt’s earliest Irish commission was for the design of the Dartrey Mausoleum, County Monaghan dating from c.1772 and therefore contemporaneous with the architect’s famous assembly rooms on London’s Oxford Street, the Pantheon, with which it shares many features albeit on a smaller scale (for more on the Dartrey Mausoleum, see A Shining Distinction on Earth, September 15th 2014). Thereafter for the next quarter century he never wanted for patrons here, aided by an excellent Irish agent, Thomas Penrose, member of a well-known Cork Quaker family. Ann engineer and architect, Penrose worked first with the Sardinian-born Davis Duckart before being employed by the Dublin Wide Streets Commissioners: in 1784 he was appointed Inspector of Civil Buildings in succession to the recently-deceased Thomas Cooley. It is indicative of the close working relationship between Wyatt and Penrose that elements of several buildings which the former designed are attributed to the latter. In any case, we know that thanks to Penrose’s presence in Dublin, Wyatt was able to send drawings from his London office to Ireland and be confident his intentions would be properly executed. The relationship only ended with Penrose’s death in 1792 but Wyatt’s appointment four years later as Surveyor General of the King’s Works in England meant he no longer had time for further Irish commissions.

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Even without his physical presence in the country, Wyatt’s impact on Ireland was substantial and long-lasting. His style of neo-classicism continued to be admired and emulated for decades after the architect’s death in 1813. One well-known example of this abiding influence is the set of hall seats Wyatt designed in 1797 for Castle Coole, County Fermanagh and manufactured by London cabinet maker William Kidd. Distinctive features such as splayed saber legs and corresponding arms means it is easy to trace other items copied from these seats, beginning with a set of six originally produced for Dunsandle, County Galway and possibly ordered directly from Wyatt. Thereafter cabinet makers took up the design and would sometimes alter it to make the seat into a broader bench: one such piece features in the soon-closing exhibition, Ireland: Crossroads of Art and Design, 1690-1840 at Chicago’s Art Institute. That particular example was made by the Dublin firm of Williams & Gibton possibly as late as 1842, in other words three decades after Wyatt’s death. John Martin Robinson points out other features from his architectural repertoire which entered into the Irish mainstream, ‘including his particular type of stucco arabesque, the use of Coade stone and the Wyatt tripartite form of sash window.’ The Wyatt window in particular became a staple of Irish domestic architecture, but as Robinson also observes, ‘There are dozens of surviving houses in Dublin with Wyatt-type stucco ceilings and wall decorations, which were probably not directly designed by him, and many country houses have Wyatt-derived rooms, which are not by Wyatt himself, but local craftsmen copying him.’ All of which makes it challenging to discern which buildings were indeed designed by the architect rather than by admirers.

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The list of extant houses for which we are confident Wyatt produced designs includes the likes of Lucan, County Dublin; Mount Kennedy, County Wicklow; Abbeyleix, County Laois; and Slane Castle, County Meath. Others like the Oriel Temple, County Louth have been considerably altered since first constructed and it is therefore difficult to appreciate how they were intended to look. However, one of Wyatt’s most significant interior schemes still to survive is for the Picture Gallery, or Great Room in Leinster House, Dublin; this space now serves as the Senate Chamber in Dáil Éireann. The building had been designed by Richard Castle in 1745 as a town residence for the future first Duke of Leinster. After the latter’s death in 1773, the second Duke was left with a large incomplete space in the north end of the building and therefore invited Wyatt to come up with a scheme for its decoration: in September 1776, having married the heiress Emilia St George the previous year, he wrote to his mother ‘Mr Wyatt has sent me…the most beautiful finishing for my Gallery at L. House which I shall prepare and hope to do next Spring as have the furniture ready for it.’ Dating from 1777, the resultant room is rightly judged to be one of the finest interiors of the period, its plasterwork sometimes attributed to the stuccodore Michael Stapleton although Conor Lucey has commented that the factors leading to such an attribution ‘are no longer wholly reliable.’ No matter, the end result as Robinson remarks ‘launched the taste for Wyatt’s neo-classical decoration’ and led to a flood of further commissions, one of them being the dining room at Westport House, County Mayo.

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Like Leinster House, the core of Westport House was designed by Richard Castle who in 1731 designed a new residence for John Browne, later first Earl of Altamont. Towards the end of Lord Altamont’s life he commissioned designs to extend the building from Thomas Ivory and while it is not certain whether these or other proposals were adopted, Westport House was enlarged towards the end of the 1770s. As often happened, it was left to a later generation to finish off the interior decoration of the newer parts of the property. In this case the third earl (subsequently created first Marquess of Sligo), a year after inheriting the family estates in 1780 invited Wyatt to come up with a scheme for Westport’s dining room. Drawings for the design remain in the house and show how faithfully the architect’s proposals, as can be seen in today’s photographs. The dining room at Westport is not unlike that at Curraghmore, County Waterford designed by Wyatt a couple of years earlier for the first Marquess of Waterford. In both instances the elaborate decoration of walls and ceiling is broken up by medallions featuring classical figures. But whilst those at Curraghmore are painted in colour and grisaille, the Westport figures are moulded in low relief. Given the blue colour scheme of the walls, the overall effect is not unlike stepping into the world of Josiah Wedgwood whose Jasperware was then deemed the height of fashionable popularity. Set inside square and rectangular plaster panels the medallions are both round and oval, sometimes with one, sometimes with several figures, sometimes cheerful (putti playing with bows and arrows), sometimes sombre (a woman elegantly leaning on a funerary urn). Their immediate frames are picked out in gold, as are other elements in the scheme such as festoons and garlands. The ceiling on the other hand has a more complex colour scheme incorporating shades of pink and cream and brown, providing a contrast to the walls’ blue tones. Dated February 1781, the original drawings have a scheme of green and white: the present polychrome colouring dates from a repainting exactly a century ago. Nevertheless, now over 230 years old Wyatt’s dining room at Westport House continues to delight and helps to explain why his work has for so long been admired in this country.

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Fine Dining

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A mahogany sideboard in the dining room at Ballywalter, County Down, with wine cooler beneath and a pair of knife urns on top. Above hangs a portrait of nine-year old Daphne Mulholland painted in 1900 by society artist W.E. Miller: she would later marry the ninth Earl of Darnley. Ballywalter was designed by Charles Lanyon in the late 1840s for Daphne’s great-grandfather, the Belfast businessman Andrew Mulholland (whose son would be  created Baron Dunleath)  and is one of the houses to feature in a new television series Lords and Ladles  beginning tomorrow, Sunday June 7th, on Ireland’s RTE One. In each programme three chefs will recreate an historic dinner in a different country house around Ireland: the Irish Aesthete is to be spotted consuming their efforts in several episodes…

At the Castle Gates

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The remains of the principal gate lodge at Castleboro, County Wexford. The main house (burnt in 1923) had been built around 1840 for the first Lord Carew to the designs of Daniel Robertson of Kilkenny. The single-storey lodge, marking the entrance of a new approach to the house through its parkland, dates from some twenty years later and features a tetrastyle Roman Doric portico. Sad to see this crisp limestone building slip into what appears to be irreversible decay.

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His Snug Little Farm

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The popular image of the Irish farm house has long been fixed in the global mind. Invariably consisting of just one storey, it has white-washed walls and a thatched roof, as well as an equally simple, mud-floored interior in which a turf fire is forever smoking. Few such houses exist anymore and no wonder: they were almost invariably dank, miserable places that bred ill-health and unhappiness. Fortunately some of the country’s larger, better-constructed farm houses have survived, although the majority of them are today abandoned and in a poor state of repair. On the other hand, in recent years some of these dwellings have been restored by those with enough imagination to recognise their inherent charm and potential.
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The Palladian house first introduced to Ireland in the early 18th century quickly became popular throughout the country and while intended for homes of the wealthy, the design was modified to suit the domestic requirements of all levels of society: even the humblest Irish farmhouse might contain echoes of its grander neighbours. In particular, the formal placement of outbuildings such as barns, sheds and byres around the main residence was borrowed from the Palladian model. These additional secondary structures were located to either side of a forecourt before the front door or else in a similar fashion to the rear. The second layout is seen at the farmhouse shown here. Located in County Cork, it is an archetype of the genre in its functionality and absence of superfluous decoration. It is impossible to date the building, since stylistically it could have been erected at any point between the late 18th and mid-20th centuries.

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From the start, farmhouses of this kind conformed to certain norms in all having the same thick walls made from rubble stone covered in render as well as small, almost square, windows and single pitch slated roofs. Inside they were equally understated with a narrow entrance hall leading to the best room, or parlour on the left (a room rarely used except on special occasions such as a visit from the parish priest) while to the right stood the family room and kitchen. A staircase would lead to several bedrooms on the first floor. The starkness of design led to the houses falling from favour in recent decades as Ireland grew more affluent and farming families sought a greater degree of comfort. Throughout the country large numbers of old properties were simply abandoned in favour of new bungalows and the majority of them fell into complete ruin. It takes a particular eye to recognize the merits of this housing type and fortunately the owner of the house in question possesses just such an eye.

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When the present owner first saw his home 18 years ago it had been unoccupied for more than two decades and, as he says, ‘the place was in rag order.’ Cattle had been permitted access to the ground floor which as a result had turned into a mess of churned mud. Neither plumbing nor electrical wiring had ever been installed and most of the windows were missing. Thankfully the slate roof had somehow survived but even so the restoration programme took some 12 months, with the owner acting as his own architect. Ten years ago he embarked on further building work to add a large kitchen at the back of the house, constructing it on the footprint of an old outbuilding. Just as much attention has been paid to the building’s surroundings: the owner has created a vegetable garden and planted an orchard containing forty different trees: apple, pear, quince, medlar and damson. Other sections of the garden are given over to pot with herbs and flowering plants.

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At all stages, while comforts such as bathrooms were added, the owner wisely never attempted to disguise his home’s relatively humble origins. So, for example, the original tongue-and-groove paneled ceilings have been retained. Likewise in the kitchen/dining areas the floor is covered in nothing grander than untreated concrete tiles, albeit they enjoy the benefit of underfloor heating; elsewhere plain seagrass matting has been used. On the first floor, the old doors and their surrounds were kept intact since these had been carefully ‘grained’ by a previous occupant to give the impression that they were made from expensive dark wood rather than cheap pine. And former residents would have appreciated some of the present furniture, such as the stained kitchen table surrounded by dark green chairs; timber was often painted in Irish farmhouses both to disguise the fact that different woods had been used in the same piece and to provide some very necessary colour. That was certainly the case with the large painted dresser dominating the kitchen. Once a staple in every Irish farmhouse, thousands of these pieces were thrown out of homes in the closing decades of the last century and whatever survives is now highly collectible. This example, with its paneled doors and carved board, is especially fine and acts as an ideal display unit for some of the owner’s substantial collection of John ffrench pottery. Seemingly destined to become a ruin like so many of its ilk, instead this old Irish farmhouse has been returned to vibrant life.

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Well Curlicued

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A rococo flourish of plasterwork on the wall of the staircase hall at Glasnevin House, Dublin. The decoration here is attributed to that unknown but clearly very talented craftsman, the St Peter’s Stuccodore. At Glasnevin he allowed his imagination free rein to cover walls and ceilings with embellishment of the highest order.
For more on Glasnevin House, see Misjudging a Book by its Cover, December 22nd, 2014.