Ray of Light

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The inner hall of Kilrush, County Kilkenny. A branch of the St Georges settled here in the 17th century but for a long time the family lived in a late mediaeval tower house which was refurbished and enlarged. Finally in the second decade of the 19th century and following his marriage, Arthur St George commissioned a new residence from local architect William Robertson. Its most striking feature is the space shown here which looks as though it might have  been designed by Sir John Soane. Via a substantial staircase, the inner hall leads to the first-floor landing at the centre of which is a circular well-gallery surrounded by Doric columns and pilasters. Thanks to this being topped by a glazed dome the opening sends a broad pool of light into the hall below: notice the shadow of the gallery’s balusters thrown onto the far wall.

Change is Constant

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It has long been commented that Mountainstown, County Meath is mis-named since its location in the midst of flat countryside is near neither a mountain nor a town. One ill-tempered Englishwoman in the 1840s wrote ‘At the beginning of this month we came to a place called Mountainstown, which name it must have been received from the inveterately stupid and perverse disposition of the Natives, because the place is situated in a low and flat Country, and there is not a Mountain to be seen within the Horizon.’ In fact the denomination most likely derives from an Anglicisation of the Irish for ‘Beside a Bog.’ It has borne the name for hundreds of years since the house here, soon due to celebrate the tercentenary of its construction, has always been known as Mountainstown. It is believed to have erected around 1720 for Richard Gibbons whose father Samuel acquired the estate in the late 17th century: in the same year he made a visitation of his diocses, Bishop Anthony Dopping of Meath recorded ‘Mr Gibbons and his wife came here in xmas 1693.’ Mr Gibbons’ son Richard is likewise recorded as being at Mountainstown in Faulkiner’s Dublin Journal in 1745, by which time the house would have been well finished.

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The oldest part of Mountainstown is a stocky rectangular block with six bay front, of two main storeys with dormer attic above and basement below. Kevin Mulligan has described the building as occupying ‘the middle ground between farmhouse and mansion’ and like others employed the terms bucolic and naive when speaking of its design. Mountainstown’s facade is its most immediately striking feature, a determined effort on the part of Richard Gibbons to display awareness of current architectural trends even if these were employed in a somewhat unsophisticated manner. Four slender Ionic pilasters ascend to the top of the building but without the intervention of an entablature and frieze; instead they meet the roofline via a narrow moulded cornice. The two central pilasters support a pediment but again appear too slight for the task. The raised entrance is reached by flights of stone steps with iron work railings on either side, the Venetian doorcase once more being flanked by pairs of pilasters with sidelights above which sit half-urns while over the door itself is a stone cartouche featuring the arms of the Pollocks, the family that followed the Gibbonses at Mountainstown. The latter remained in possession of the estate until 1796 when it was sold to the John Pollock who had already been renting for some time.

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The history of Mountainstown’s next owners represents a familiar trajectory from merchant class to gentry, a route to which many families formerly aspired. The first John Pollock moved from Scotland to Ireland in 1732 and settled in Newry where he became involved in the burgeoning linen trade. His son continued in the same business and was commemorated by a tombstone in St Mary’s, Newry declaring he and his wife Elizabeth had been ‘parents of eleven children all of whom they lived to see established in the world.’ One of those children, another John, became a successful solicitor in Dublin and was appointed Transscriptor of the Court of the Exchequer. He also acted as agent for the Hills, Marquesses of Downshire, among the country’s largest landowners: at one time they had 115,000 acres, mostly but not exclusively in County Down. Hence being their agent was a profitable occupation and allowed John Pollock first to rent and then to buy Mountainstown although he retained a townhouse in Dublin’s Mountjoy Square so that his business could continue. Married to the daughter of a London banker, around 1811 he extended Mountainstown by adding a two-storey wing to the south-west of the older building. The ground floor of this new section contains a large drawing room with canted bay window and beyond it an equally substantial dining room. To the immediate right of the facade is a long kitchen wing and behind this lies a very substantial stable yard added by the next generation.

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Mountainstown is thus of two periods and two parts, each complementing the other. While the later portion of the house is relatively plain and very much in the Regency taste with deep tripartite windows, high ceilings and understated plasterwork, the earlier reflects the more ostentatious taste of the period in which it was built. The entrance hall, stairs and first floor landing retain their original decoration, moulded plaster panels with lugged heads forming tabernacle frames beneath a dentil cornice. The handsome stairs are wide and shallow, Doric balusters supporting the handrail and the side of each tread adorned with carved curls of foliage. As with the facade, this decoration represents the original builder’s interest in showing he was au courant with the latest fashions. The most unexpected feature can be found almost immediately inside the front door: what looks to be a death mask set into the ceiling. It is commonly believed that the man shown is Samuel Gibbons, perhaps placed here as an act of filial piety on the part of his son Richard. The rooms in the front portion of the house are noticeably smaller than those added in the 19th century, and some have angled corner chimneypieces: a marble panel on that in the former morning room featuring a knight in armour.

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In the mid-1820s Mountainstown was inherited by Arthur Hill Cornwallis Pollock, named after his father’s patron, Arthur Hill, second Marquess of Downshire. Almost twenty years before he had been sent on a tour of Europe by his parents, presumably keen that their heir have the upbringing of a gentleman. Having visited France and Italy, he travelled as far as Russia, spending time at the Imperial court in St Petersburg with his friends Lords Royston and Somerton, before finally returning home in the second half of 1807. Four years later he married a cousin and devoted the rest of his life to agriculture and country pursuits. It was Arthur who created the spacious yard immediately to the north of the main house as he often won medals for his animals at agricultural shows. The Pollocks were always keen on hunting and Arthur had his own pack of hounds at Mountainstown as did many of his neighbours: eventually these were amalgamated into the Clonghill Hunt which later became the Meath. And so it has gone on until now, when the present generation has decided the moment is right to pass Mountainstown on to another family, perhaps one that will remain in the house for as long as have the Pollocks. It is always sad to see an historic property come on the market, especially in Ireland where relatively few families have stayed in the same place for so long. However, one should remember the words of Disraeli who in 1867 observed, ‘Change is inevitable in a progressive country. Change is constant.’ Whatever one’s personal feelings, the proposed departure of the Pollocks from Mountainstown, like that of the Gibbonses before them, is a reflection of that necessary change.

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Return of the Native

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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

Perfection in Miniature

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‘The townland, and chief part of the demesne of Ledwithstown, are in this parish (Shruel), though the dwelling house and offices are in the parish of Kilcommack. It has been long the residence of a respectable family of the name of Ledwith, who possess a considerable property in this neighbourhood.’ A Statistical Account, or Parochial Survey, of Ireland, 1819.
In 1976 Maurice Craig wrote of Ledwithstown, County Longford, ‘there can be few houses of its size in Ireland more thoroughly designed, and with internal decoration so well integrated.’ The house has long been attributed to Richard Castle and is one of three such properties considered to have been designed by the architect, the other two being Gaulstown, County Westmeath (see Gallia Urba est Omnis Divisa in Partes Tres, February 24th 2014) and Whitewood Lodge, County Meath (see An Appalling Vista, February 9th last). In their form and composition this triumvirate demonstrates a steadily growing assurance, with Ledwithstown displaying by far the greatest sophistication and thus inclining to the idea that it was the latest, probably dating from the second half of the 1740s (Castle died in 1751). Relatively little is known of the building’s history, other than that until 1911 it was owned, although not always occupied, by the Ledwith family who settled in the area around 1650. Members of that now-vanished class, the gentry, the Ledwiths played their part in local society as Grand Jurors and High Sheriffs but otherwise came little to public notice. The same is true of their former home, which despite its considerable charm, can be passed unnoticed on the public highway: again like Gaulstown and Whitewood, Ledwithstown lies at the end of an exceptionally long, straight drive.

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As with Gaulstown and Whitewood, Ledwithstown is a three-bay house of two storeys over a semi-raised basement. With all three the main entrance is approached by a flight of stone steps; in this instance, the supporting walls splay out to create the impression of a ceremonial approach to the door. In the case of the other two properties, the doorcase is relatively plain, of cut limestone with a fanlight (that at Gaulstown also has side lights). Ledwithstown’s south-facing doorcase is altogether more elaborate, a cut-stone tripartite Tuscan design incorporating tetrastyle pilasters resting on rusticated base and surmounted by carved pediment. Such an entrance immediately indicates this is a building with greater aspirations than those of its siblings. In other respects, however, the facade of Ledwithstown is closer in spirit to Whitewood than to Gaulstown, sharing the same heavy parapet wall concealing the greater part of a slated roof with a pair of substantial chimneystacks (those at Gaulstown are at either gable end). Likewise Ledwithstown and Whitewood have raised corner quoins which add further gravitas to the building, the most striking differences between the two being that Whitewood’s facade is of cut stone (as opposed to roughcast render over rubble stone) and Ledwithstown’s first floor fifteen-pane sash windows share the same proportions as those one storey below (their equivalents at Whitewood are smaller).

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The interior design and decoration of Ledwithstown is much more elaborate than either of the two houses with which it bears comparison. Although measuring just forty-eight by forty-seven feet, it can be considered a country house in miniature, the layout being identical to that found in many larger properties. There are, for example, two staircases, that to the west, of carved wood, serving only the ground and first floors while secondary service stairs of stone to the east also descend to the basement area. Immediately inside the entrance hall are doors to left and right providing access to the former morning room and study; a matching pair to the rear open to the staircases while one in the centre of the back wall leads to the drawing room. Here and in the adjacent dining room, the walls retain their mid-18th century plaster panelling, that in the drawing room being especially fine with a combination of lugged and round topped panels topped by swags or baskets of fruit and shells. Similarly the main staircase, lit by a round-topped window, has timber wainscoting and leads to a panelled first floor landing with egg-and-dart and dentil cornicing; one of the rooms on this level is entirely panelled in wood and others still contain their shallow limestone chimney pieces. The basement likewise keeps much of its original character with a sequence of rooms opening off a central stone-flagged and vaulted central passage.

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In 1911 Ledwithstown was bought from the original family by Laurence Feeney. However, following his premature death just six years later, the house was let to a variety of tenants none of whom took care of the property; seemingly a brother and sister who lived there for a while removed all the door and shutter knobs, while another family allowed the chimneys to become blocked and then knocked holes in the walls to permit smoke escape. In 1976 Maurice Craig described Ledwithstown as being ‘unhappily in an advanced state of dilapidation, perhaps not beyond recovery’ and two years later Mark Bence-Jones wrote that the place was ‘now derelict.’ However, around this time the original Laurence Feeney’s grandson, likewise called Laurence, married and he and his wife Mary began to consider the possibility of restoring Ledwithstown.
The couple, together with their children, initiated work on the house and in 1982 they were visited by Desmond Guinness. Soon afterwards the Irish Georgian Society offered its first grant to Ledwithstown, the money being put towards replacing the roof. Further financial aid from the IGS followed, along with voluntary work parties to help the Feeneys in their enterprise. By 1987 Ledwithstown had a new roof and parapet and was once more watertight. Inevitably sections of the reception rooms’ plaster panelling and other decoration had been lost to damp, but enough remained for it to be copied and replaced. The same was true of the main stair hall and sections of the first floor wood panelling, all of which was gradually replaced: when new floors were installed on this level in 1990 surviving panelled walls had to be suspended in mid-air to facilitate the removal of decayed boards. Ledwithstown demonstrates that even the most rundown building can be saved provided the task is approached with enough commitment. Today, more than thirty years after they embarked on their mission, the Feeneys remain happily living in what is, above all else, a family home. So too are both Gaulstown and Whitewood Lodge, making this another trait all three houses share.

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Flying High

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More superlative rococo plasterwork by Robert West, this time in the double cube former ballroom of Castlemartyr, County Cork. The room was added to the existing house in the second half of the 1760s by Richard Boyle, second Earl of Shannon. The house remained in the family until the beginning of the last century and more recently has become a hotel. Anyone in the area should remember that at present this room contains many of the original Boyle portraits which formerly hung here and have now temporarily returned to their former home.

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Made to Last For Ever

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‘It were also to be wished that even our gentlemen would in their country-seats imitate Colonel Newburgh, a great improver in the Co. of Cavan, who as well as several others, does not only use stucco work, instead of wainscot, but has arched his fine dwelling-house, and all his large office-houses, story over story, and even all their roofs in the most beautiful manner without any timber.’
Samuel Madden, Reflections and Resolutions Proper for the Gentlemen of Ireland, Etc. 1738.
‘This seat, for beauty and magnificence, may vie with any in Ireland. There is an ascent to it by several terraces from the river, which are adorned with ponds, jets d’eau, fruit and flowers. The house is about 140 feet in front – it is made to last for ever – the roofs and all the apartments being vaulted, and curiously finished with stucco work; and yet scarce any house in Ireland has so brisk and lively an aspect – the just mixture of the brick and hewn stone, and the proportion of the parts adding life to one another; the large court and offices also behind it are all vaulted. It is not easy to pass by this fine seat without delaying at it, but to do justice to the house, its various apartments, gardens, vistas, avenues, circular walks, roads and plantations rising to the tops of all the hills around, would require a description that would draw me too far from my present design.’
Rev. William Henry, Upper Lough Erne, 1739.
‘The affairs of Ireland being sometime happily settled, the gentlemen of the country now began to quit their cottages, and build mansion houses, suitable to their estates and fortunes. The arts hitherto unknown in Ireland, architecture in particular, began to receive encouragement; of which no gentleman of private fortune gave juster and more useful specimens than Mr Newburgh. His dwelling house as well as offices being arched throughout, in the upper as well as lower stories are thereby of course, free from the danger and power of fire. The compliment that the late Dean Swift paid to Mr Newburgh on the planning such a singular but useful edifice, was as uncommon, as there is reason to believe it sincere, viz. That it was not only the best, but the only house he had seen in Ireland.’
Particulars relating to the Life and Character of the Late Brockhill Newburgh Esq. ,1761.

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As part of James I’s plantation of Ulster, in 1609 John Taylor of Cambridge received a grant of 1,500 acres in an area of County Cavan called Aghieduff. Here he established the town of Ballyhaise and, according to a mid-19th century report, ‘built a strong Bawn of lime and stone for his own residence, on the site of the present castle, which, from it position, commanded the ford over the river.’ Further English and Scottish settlers were encouraged to move into the area and when Nicholas Pynner undertook his government-commissioned survey of the province’s plantation in 1618-19 he found eighteen such families living at Ballyhaise ‘and everything around the infant colony appeared in the most prosperous condition.’ The disturbances of the 1640s were a setback to the enterprise but by the time of Charles II’s restoration to the throne in 1660, Ballyhaise’s settlement was once more progressing. John Taylor had married the daughter and heiress of Henry Brockhill of Allington, Kent and their elder son was duly christened Brockhill Taylor; he served as Member of Parliament for the borough of Cavan in the 1630s. On his death he left no son but two daughters one of whom, Mary inherited the Cavan estate. She married Thomas Newburgh and the couple had several sons, the second of which, Colonel Brockhill Newburgh, was the next owner of Ballyhaise since his elder brother died in 1701 without heirs. During the Williamite Wars, Colonel Newburgh had raised a company of soldiers and participated in several battles in support of what would prove to be the winning side. In 1704 he was appointed High Sheriff of Cavan and served as an M.P. from 1715 to 1727, as well as acting as chairman of the local linen board. However it is for the building projects he undertook on his Ballyhaise estate that Colonel Newburgh is best remembered. In 1703 he and another local landowner rebuilt the bridge here as an eight-arched stone structure, and during the same period he also embarked on a grand scheme to lay out a new town, described after his death as being ‘in the form of a Circus, the houses all arched, with a large circular market house in the center; a building, in the opinion of some good judges, not unworthy the plan of Vitruvius or Palladio; and which (if we may be allowed to compare small things with great) bears no distant resemblance to the Pantheon at Rome, but with this difference, without the opening of the convex roof at the summit, contrived to give light to the latter.’ Unfortunately in 1736 the market house collapsed and had to be rebuilt; in 1837 it was reported to be ‘an arched edifice built of brick and of singular appearance.’ It has since gone and the present market house, with ill-considered uPVC windows, does little to improve what remains of Colonel Newburgh’s once-elegant and innovative programme of urban planning.

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The near-contemporaneous accounts carried above give us an idea of Colonel Newburgh’s ambitious developments of his own house and grounds at Ballyhaise, and the impact these made on visitors to the area. The gardens, it is clear, were an elaborate baroque arrangement of ‘ponds, jets d’eau, fruit and flowers’ spread across a sequence of terraces that descended to the river before the land rose up once more on its far side. As for the house, its architect has long been the subject of speculation. It used to be attributed to Castle, but given that Colonel Newburgh is believed to have been born c.1659 (and died in 1741) and that certain elements of the building, not least the red brick used in its construction, are associated with Sir Edward Lovett Pearce, he now seems more likely to have been responsible. Ballyhaise was probably constructed on the site and incorporated parts of an earlier dwelling dating back a century to around the time of John Taylor’s arrival; one imagines this to have been defensive in character. Colonel Newburgh’s house, on the other hand, projects its owner’s assurance and the more tranquil character of the time.
The core of the building was of two storeys over half-basement, and of seven bays. As already mentioned red brick was used except for the three centre bays which are of limestone with Ionic over Doric pilasters below a full entablature supporting a pediment. The narrow entrance is reached at the top of a flight of steps, a garland of carved flowers fitted beneath the door case’s segmental pediment containing a scallop shell. In 1746 the architect and designer Thomas Wright who was then visiting Ireland as a guest of Lord Limerick (see Do the Wright Thing, July 28th 2014) made a sketch of the front of Ballyhaise as it then was. This can be seen above and indicates the house was the centrepiece of a Palladian scheme extended on either side by quadrants before terminating in pavilion wings. None of this remains today and the interior has likewise undergone changes since first completed when it was vaulted throughout, allegedly as a precaution against fire. What remain largely unaltered are the entrance hall and rooms immediately on either side; one of these, the so-called Peacock Room, contains wall paper from the first half of the 19th century, covered in varnish at some later date but otherwise in good condition. To the rear of the entrance hall is the room which best evokes Colonel Newburgh’s house, a small oval saloon. Its walls covered in plaster panelling beneath a shallow coffered dome, the saloon contains a simple Kilkenny marble chimneypiece and two windows on either side of what surely must once have been an opening onto a balcony at the centre of the projecting bow.

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Ballyhaise remained in the possession of the Newburgh family until around 1800 when it was sold to William Humphreys, a Dublin merchant who had made his fortune in the wood trade. By then the house must have looked very old-fashioned and it was therefore subjected to a complete overhaul. The quadrants and wings were demolished and the main block extended on either side to hold drawing and dining room respectively, both lit by generous tripartite windows. The contrast between these and the original early 18th century windows is only one of a number of incongruities, accentuated on the exterior by the unmistakable difference in tone of brick. Inside rather narrow passages provide access to the main reception rooms which are large and mostly plain although the overdoors carry floral friezes. The main staircase, squeezed into too tight a space, leads to the first floor former bedrooms which are also simple although some, such as that immediately above the oval saloon, retain their Georgian decoration and chimney piece. Mr Humprheys’ heirs enjoyed the advantages of his wealth for barely a century before it ran out and the house was once more sold, this time to the state which in 1905 bought the estate to run as an agricultural college. Ballyhaise has served this purpose every since, a mixed blessing for the place. Inevitably there have been losses, not least to the surrounding parkland where no evidence of Colonel Newburgh’s fantastical gardens survive; of course, these may well have been swept away when the property was modernised by Mr Humphreys. Recent additions to the building stock in the grounds are pedestrian in design, but the old stable blocks remain and have suffered relatively little compromise. And most importantly the house itself survives and has of late benefitted from remedial works, particularly to the roof. Not all is as was when Colonel Newburgh embarked on his improvements but the words of the Rev. William Henry written in 1739 still ring true: Ballyhaise appears to have been ‘made to last for ever.’
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