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.
In early June 1741, the Dublin News-Letter carried the following notice: ‘The interest of the late Captain Hugh Montgomery’s new house on the south side of Stephen’s Green in this city of Dublin, being a term of 299 years from the 25th March 1738, subject to a yearly ground rent of £13.6s is to be sold by cant to the fairest bidder, by his executors, at the said house, on the 24th day of this instant at 11 o’clock in the forenoon. Where also will be exposed to sale some pictures and some household furniture that never have been used, and several pieces of fine Italian marbles, and also a neat Berlin chariot and one pair of Harnesses, as good as new, having been seldom used. A person will attend at said house on Monday next, and every day and till the day of sale, between the hours of eleven and three o’clock in the afternoon.’ The house in question still stands, at 85 St Stephen’s Green and contains a room that can rightly lay claim to be the most beautiful in Ireland.
Hugh Montgomerie (which was how he and his father spelled the family name) had a somewhat unconventional background, as has been explained in an essay on 85 St Stephen’s Green written by Loreto Calderón and Konrad Dechant carried in The Eighteenth Century Dublin Townhouse (ed. Christine Casey, Four Courts Press, 2010). His paternal line descended from Thomas Montgomery who settled in Ulster at the start of the 17th century and who was one of the first twelve burgesses of Newtownards, County Down. Hugh Montgomerie’s father, another Thomas, had as Calderón and Dechant note, a somewhat chequered career. While studying law in London he had repeatedly come to the relevant authorities’ attention for unruly behaviour and in 1684 was convicted and sentenced to death for having killed another man in the gardens of the Middle Temple. Curiously enough his older brother had likewise been found guilty of murder but thanks to the intervention of their father, Captain Hugh Montgomery of Drogheda, both men received a royal pardon. Furthermore, two years later Thomas Montgomerie was knighted by James II and not long afterwards sailed to Barbados where he had been appointed Attorney-General. His time on the island did not go well, in part because he was under suspicion for harbouring Jacobite and Catholic sympathies, and in September 1690 Sir Thomas returned to England where he was subsequently wounded in a duel. Hugh Montgomerie was one of five children born to Sir Thomas and Clemence Hovell, although the couple only married in 1714 – after the birth of their offspring and just a year before the death of Sir Thomas. Clemence Hovell had been previously married to Charles Stuart, son of Sir Nicholas Stuart, and her first husband only died in 1709; hence the illegitimacy of her children with Sir Thomas Montgomerie.
In 1738 Hugh Montgomerie married Mary Bingham, eldest daughter of Sir John Bingham of Mayo; the bride was described in the press at the time as ‘A lady of great beauty, extraordinary merit and a large fortune.’ Although he inherited a portion of his mother’s estates, it was presumably the last of Mary Bingham’s listed advantages that allowed Hugh Montgomerie in the year of his marriage to commission the design of a new Dublin residence from the era’s most fashionable architect, Richard Castle. Once more thanks to the industry of Calderón and Dechant we now know a great deal more about Castle’s background than was previously the case. To synopsise their findings, his real name was David Riccardo (or Richardo), one of four sons of an English-born Jewish merchant, Joseph Riccardo, and his second wife Rachel Burges (who had been born in Bombay). By 1708 the Riccardo family were living in Dresden where Joseph had been appointed Director of Munitions and Mines by Augustus ‘the Strong’, Elector of Saxony and King of Poland. Following the example of his father, the future Richard Castle is believed to have pursued an interest in engineering, travelling through France and the Low Countries before moving to England in 1725 where he is listed as a subscriber to the third volume of Colen Campbell’s Vitruvius Britannicus. From this fact one can deduce he most likely came into contact with the amateur architect Earl of Burlington and his circle. It is thought Castle moved to Ireland in 1728 at the invitation of Sir Gustavus Hume and soon after began working as a draughtsman for Edward Lovett Pearce, then preparing his designs for the new Houses of Parliament in Dublin.
For Captain Hugh Montgomerie, Castle designed what Christine Casey has described as a ‘dimunitive Palladian palazzo’ of three bays and two storeys with a Doric entablature, rusticated ground floor and a central, first-floor Venetian window flanked by sash windows with entablature-less segmental pediments. Those three windows light the great glory of the building, its saloon which provides superlative views northwards across St Stephen’s Green. But who would wish to look outwards when there is so much to see inside, especially since the saloon was impeccably restored in 1993. At that time the windows were returned to their original dimensions and the chimneypiece reconstructed. The greatest delight, however, lies overhead, thanks to the lavish ceiling attributed to the Ticinese siblings, Paul and Philip Lafranchini. The cove contains six oval frames with figures linked together by a frieze of putti playing with oak garlands. The similarities to another frieze created by Giuseppe Artari at Houghton, Norfolk have long been noted, and Calderón and Dechant point out that Hillington Hall, family home of Hugh Montgomerie’s mother, stood not far arway from Houghton. One might wonder also if Castle visited the house during his time in England, since its original architect was Colen Campbell. As for the main figures in the saloon of 85 St Stephen’s Green, the inspiration for several of these came from paintings by the 17th century French artist Simon Vouet in the Salon de Mars at Versailles. While various explanations of its iconography have been advanced, as Christine Casey has written, ‘Whatever about its meaning or lack of it, the ceiling is a vigorous example of the Late Baroque decorative style favoured by Castle for the interiors of his otherwise reticent Palladian buildings.’ Just as importantly, the diverse decorative elements come together to form a satisfyingly unified whole. Exuberance and restraint balance each other admirably to warrant neither gets the upper hand but instead work to create a harmonious whole. Captain Hugh Montgomerie scarcely had an opportunity to enjoy his splendid new Dublin residence since he died of consumption in May 1741 and, as has been noted, within a month the building was put up for sale. Somehow the house survived subsequent changes of ownership and use, and remains for us to enjoy today. Is the saloon of 85 St Stephen’s Green the most beautiful room in Ireland? Certainly it must rank high on anyone’s shortlist for this title.
Since the 19th century 85 St Stephen’s Green (and its neighbour No.86) has been under the care of University College Dublin and can be visited on request. For more information, see: http://www.ucd.ie/campusdevelopment/developmentprojects/programmeforpreservationofperiodhouses/newmanhouse
The 18th century soldier and politician Sir Boyle Roche is remembered for having once asked during the course of a debate in the Irish House of Commons, ‘Why we should put ourselves out of our way to do anything for posterity, for what has posterity ever done for us?’ His near contemporary, James Caulfeild, first Earl of Charlemont, could have provided a suitable riposte, since posterity has judged him a worthy patriot and citizen of this country. Above is a photograph of one of Lord Charlemont’s greatest legacies, the Casino he commissioned to the design of Sir William Chambers in the grounds of Marino, Dublin. The building appears on the cover of a volume dealing with architecture in the Royal Irish Academy’s new series on Art and Architecture of Ireland. This splendid five-volume project is due to be launched tomorrow in Dublin’s Mansion House by An Taoiseach, Mr Enda Kenny. No doubt kind words will be said all round, and no mention will be made of the cuts inflicted on the country’s cultural heritage by Mr Kenny and his government. Nobody will speak of the 40 per cent fall in the National Museum of Ireland’s annual grant-in-aid over the past five years (and the resultant failure to carry out essential maintenance works to the structure of the Natural History Museum thereby causing it to fall further into disrepair), or the 44 per cent diminution of the National Library of Ireland’s grant over the same period. And the subject of the 12 per cent drop in funding to heritage in the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht’s 2015 budget allocation is unlikely to feature in any speech made at tomorrow’s event.* Such is the nature of celebratory occasions, especially when politicians are present. So while nothing of import will be uttered tomorrow, we must derive comfort from the knowledge that posterity will have plenty to say about Mr Kenny and his cabinet colleagues, and their resolutely philistine ways.
*Before anyone points out this RIA project has been part-funded by the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, it should be noted that state support was agreed in 2008, three years before the present government came into office; the latter cannot therefore claim any credit for financial assistance committed to the volumes’ publication.
Evidence that if books do furnish a room, the appropriate effects also help. Two views of the library at Tullynally, County Westmeath. In the first, an oak side table in the gothic manner on which to rest a volume or two, in the second a set of mahogany steps to reach the upper shelves. Together they help to ensure time spent here is particularly agreeable. (For more about Tullynally and its library, see A Bibliophile’s Bliss, May 6th 2013).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.