We are fortunate that so much of the interior decoration has survived in Powerscourt House, Dublin designed in the first half of the 1770s by Robert Mack for Richard Wingfield, third Viscount Powerscourt. The interior of the house has rightly been called ‘schizophrenic’ by Christine Casey owing to a rich and eclectic style derived from a number of hands. The stair hall was decorated by James McCullagh assisted by Michael Reynolds and for work here and in a number of other rooms in the building his bill ran to over £730. An exuberant mélange of arabesque scrolls, urns, acanthus leaves, palms and portrait medallions, the stair hall is one of the city’s most madcap pieces of ornamentation. Unfortunately it is also one of the most difficult to examine, being excessively cluttered with signage and retail bric-a-brac…
Viewing an old building, one is often so engaged absorbing the totality that details of design can be overlooked. How many visitors to Ballyvolane, County Cork, for example, pay much attention to the stairs? This house, originally built in 1728 by Sir Richard Pyne, was extensively modified in the second half of the 1840s by a descendant, Jasper Pyne. Evidently a new staircase was one of his additions but note how on the side of every tread is affixed a cast-iron putto in each of whose fists can be found a nail holding one of the balusters in place.
During this post-festive season, when evenings can seem especially long and monotonous, readers might like to consider occupying their time with the creation of a print room. This once-fashionable pursuit, which had its heyday in the second half of the 18th century, subsequently fell out of favour and only one intact example survives in Ireland: that at Castletown, County Kildare. The design and execution of print rooms was customarily left to women, although it evolved from the mostly-male habit of collecting valuable prints and storing these either in a cabinet or within albums. Later on prints might be hung in a chamber designated for the purpose, often kept shrouded in order the work avoided suffering light damage: while cheaper than paintings prints, especially those of larger dimensions could be expensive to produce. However, larger runs of prints in the 18th century, often reproductions of popular works of art, helped to bring down costs and make these pictures accessible to a broader market than had hitherto been the case. Cheaper prices led to greater disposability and the emergence of the print room, a phenomenon effectively unique to Britain and Ireland (although there were some instances of the vogue found in America).
Located behind the house’s main staircase and part of an enfilade on the ground floor overlooking the garden, Castletown’s Print Room was created in 1768 by Lady Louisa Conolly. She had been collecting pictures for at least the previous six years, and in addition had gained experience through assisting in similar ventures with her sister Emily, Countess of Kildare at nearby Carton and with Lady Clanbrassil at Cypress Grove House, Templeogue, County Dublin. Both these rooms have since been lost. The project was a long time in gestation: in 1762 she wrote to her sister Lady Sarah Bunbury, ‘I always forget to thank you my Dear for the Prints you sent me, I hope you got them of Mrs Regnier, for I have a bill there, the two little ones that you admired so, are the very things I wanted, that of Helen is charming. I have not had time to do my Print room yet.’ It is likely the reason the Print Room took so many years coming into existence is both because the Conollys were preoccupied with other work at Castletown and because Lady Louisa did not want to rush preparing the layout of what is a larger space than that customarily used for such a purpose: the ceiling here, for example, is twenty-five feet high. As a result, an awful lot of prints were needed. As late as February 1768 she was still writing to her sister Lady Sarah, ‘…any time that you choose to go into a print Shop, I should be obliged to you, if you would buy me five or Six large Prints, there are some of Teniers engraved by LeBas, which I am told are larger than the common size, if you meet with any, pray send me a few.’ Working out the design for this room was a complex business, particularly since border frames for each of the frames also had to be prepared, as well as garlands, trophies and other elements of the overall decoration.
When Lady Louisa finally came to embark on the scheme, the prints were duly cut out and then glued onto lengths of warm off-white painted paper. These in turn were attached to the room’s walls on battens overlaid with cloth. As Ruth Johnstone has noted, in many cases Lady Louisa ‘made editorial decisions based on the outside shapes of images.’ Accordingly she altered the original rectangular format of forty-six images to either an octagonal, oval or circular shape, or to a rectangle with a convex top. Most likely because of the need to create a visual balance based on size and shape there is no overriding theme to the pictures but rather they reflect mid-18th century taste. A handful of images were included for a specific reason. In central position between the two windows, for example, is a print of Van Dyck’s portrait of the children of Charles I, a group including Lady Louisa’s great-grandfather Charles II. In the same position on the opposite wall is a print taken from Sir Joshua Reynolds’ portrait of Lady Louisa’s sister, the aforementioned Lady Sarah Bunbury (the original painting, incidentally, is now in the collection of Chicago’s Art Institute). Providing a centrepiece on the east and west walls are prints of the era’s most famous actor, David Garrick, and the room also includes a portrait of William Pitt, Earl of Chatham, rather surprising since he was a political opponent of Lady Louisa’s brother-in-law Henry Fox, first Baron Holland. Otherwise the sources were diverse, with a fondness for both pastoral and classical subjects taken from the works of diverse artists including Teniers, Greuze, Jan Steen and Claude Lorrain. Despite such dissimilitude, Castletown’s Print Room conveys an impression of homogeneity thanks to its designer’s careful preparation. Anyone intending to embark on a similar enterprise will find these long winter evenings perfect for similarly thorough planning.
It was through reading more than thirty years ago Sacheverell Sitwell’s perpetually engaging book Southern Baroque Art (first published in 1924) that I first discovered the work of the Bibienas. From the mid-17th century onwards, four generations of this Tuscan family worked throughout Europe as artists and architects, but above all as theatre designers. In some instances they were responsible for the design of buildings in which theatrical and musical performances were held. (The best-known being in Mantua, and now called the Teatro Bibiena: by Antonio Bibiena it dates from the 1760s.) But they are now better remembered for their work on the stage side of the proscenium arch.
The family’s origins in this field lay with Giovanni Maria Galli da Bibiena, born outside Florence in 1625. A painter who studied with, and then worked as assistant to, Francesco Albani, he was based in Bologna at the time of his early death aged forty. His daughter Maria Oriana who remained in that city also became a painter, specializing in portraits and history pictures. Meanwhile her two brothers led more peripatetic lives, with Francesco designing theatres as far afield as Verona and Vienna. The latter city proved particularly important for the Bibienas since it was here that Maria and Francesco’s sibling Ferdinando and then his son Giuseppe became the most celebrated stage designers of the age.
Born in Bologna in 1656, Ferdinando Galli Bibiena spent some thirty years based in Piacenza working for the Duke of Parma. But in 1708 he travelled to Barcelona to organise the wedding festivities of the Habsburg Archduke Charles. When the latter became Charles VI, Holy Roman Emperor in 1711 Fredinando Galli Bibiena moved to Vienna where he designed elaborate theatre scenery and also oversaw court festivities. He returned to Bologna in 1716 but his second son Giuseppe remained in Vienna and in effect inherited his father’s position as the Emperor’s chief designer, remaining such until Charles VI’s death in 1740. Of the Emperor, Sitwell wrote ‘Music, like everything else, required a setting which would reflect honour on this Caesar, and so he retained in his service a whole race of Italians, to whom he entrusted the decorations of a theatre, a procession or a masque with the subsequent banquet. In this way a building which seemed to have the permanence of a Versailles could be put up in a few days, and by the next morning it had disappeared from the ground, as if by enchantment. The Bibiena family of Bologna were in command of the nocturnal army…It is as though the Italians, having matured their plans so far in earlier times, now that their imagination was unfettered and had the skill to play how it liked, found themselves without the money to realize their schemes, and so were forced to take opportunities abroad and produce in plaster and canvas that which they had planned in brick and marble.’
The Bibienas were renowned for the ingenious use of perspective in their stage designs, the ability to suggest infinite horizons within a severely limited space. In his work Ferdinando was the first to replace a central, vertical, axis with a diagonal, thereby increasing the impression of distance. He and his son created fantastically grand architecture intended to be dismantled within days of its construction. An examination of Giuseppe’s extant designs indicates that he developed his father’s initiatives in this field to produce complex interiors in which colonnaded passages seem to run in every direction and seemingly without ever coming to a close. Vaulted ceilings tower over the figures beneath, while the walls are smothered with ornament including niches, brackets and curvilinear frames. Against this painted backdrop figures would act out complex emotional dramas, often to texts written by another Italian, Metastasio who in 1729 was appointed Court Poet in Vienna: in the mid-18th century there was scarcely an opera composer in Europe not dependent on a Metastasio libretto (as late as 1791 Mozart used one for La Clemenza di Tito). Surely his lofty language and noble sentiments influenced Bibiena’s designs, and vice versa? The most celebrated castrato of the age Carlo Broschi, known as Farinelli, made his debut at the age of fifteen singing music composed by his teacher Nicola Porpora set to a text by Metastasio. When Farinelli (of whom it was said, ‘One God, one Farinelli’) sang in Vienna in 1731 – once more to music by Porpora and words by Metastasio – the Emperor advised he should cease trying to astonish listeners with his vocal prowess and instead engage their emotions through the purity of his tone; ‘you are too lavish of the gifts with which nature has endowed you; if you wish to reach the heart, you must take a more plain and simple road.’ Perhaps Charles VI felt there was already enough virtuosity on stage thanks to the designs of Giuseppe Galli Bibiena.
These notes on the Bibiena family are inspired by the room seen here today, the double height entrance hall at Gloster, County Offaly. The most perfect baroque interior in Ireland, it was almost certainly designed by Sir Edward Lovett Pearce in the early 1720s; he was a first cousin of the property’s then-owner Trevor Lloyd. Whether Pearce actually oversaw the execution of his work is more open to question as some of the detailing is not quite as refined as might otherwise have been the case. Even so, Gloster’s entrance hall is something of a coup de theatre, clearly intended to make an impact on anyone stepping into the space. The view from the front door is of walls heavily covered in plasterwork panelling, with a focus on the pedimented doorcase directly ahead; on either side of this are niches with fanlights above that match those of the facing doors. Obviously the hall’s height adds additional drama, and the feature is emphasised by a band of elaborate scrolling plasterwork positioned at what would be cornice level; the effect is to divide the vertical into two sections. Continuing up, the eye is next caught by a series of round-headed niches on either side wall which contain busts on plinths. These are matched on the entrance wall by three windows which ensure the hall is exceptionally bright: they are arched on the inside although rectangular on the exterior in order to match those on the rest of the thirteen-bay facade. Facing the windows are three arched balconies, part of a first floor gallery accessed via an inner hall that has flanking staircases to its rear. The gallery is a superlative piece of work. Entered through a screen of Doric columns and rising to a coffered, barrel-vaulted ceiling, it features a pair of monumental pedimented chimneypieces with glass in the upper sections so that one reflects the other. To one side of these run long corridors, barrel-vaulted like the landing, which lead to the main bedrooms and provide the ensemble with an additional sense of drama. Indeed it the combination of these passages and the balconies overlooking the entrance hall that particularly bring to mind the designs of Ferdinando and Giuseppe Bibiena. As a piece of design it evokes the grandeur and solemnity of Metastasio’s texts, combined with the virtuosity of Farinell’s singing in a fashion rarely seen in Ireland. It is easy to imagine baroque opera being played out in such a setting (what might the late Jean-Pierre Ponnelle have filmed in the house). These spaces have recently been redecorated by Gloster’s dedicated owners, who deserve accolades for all that they have already achieved here. The results are breathtakingly exciting and highlight the outstandingly theatrical quality of the architecture.
More about the glories of Gloster on another occasion…
A detail of the carved oak chimneypiece in the entrance hall of Salterbridge, County Waterford. Although the core of the present house was built around the middle of the 18th century, it was subject to several alterations and aggrandisements thereafter. Some of these are sufficiently documented but the date of other interventions remains unclear. In the case of the entrance hall carving, even though the craftsman responsible for the work is nameless we can be sure when he undertook this task since the panelling to the left of the chimneypiece carries the year 1884.
Although now a dormitory town, for centuries Carrigaline, County Cork was a small, single street village where the main employment came from local corn and flax mills. These were operated by successive generations of the Roberts family, of which the original member, the Rev. Thomas Roberts, moved from England to Ireland in the 1630s. Until 1927 his successors lived at Kilmony Abbey near Carrigaline but in 1784 William Roberts acquired a house called Mount Rivers which had been built some twenty years before by a wealthy Cork merchant James Morrison. The building is of unusual design since its facade originally had a recessed centre between two projections with curved corners. A scale model in the main bedroom shows what the building now looks like because in the 1830s the central space was filled in, a portico created and a third storey added to the house. However as a souveenir of its original and unique appearance the outer corners of Mount Rivers still retain their rounded windows and the ground floor porch is a convex-sided recess.
Mount Rivers never had much land attached and its owners were always businessmen, some more successful than others. Following the closure of the Carrigaline mills in 1928 the house’s then-owner Hodder Roberts converted some of his old industrial buildings into a pottery, having noted that bricks were already being produced not far away. He took a sample of Carrigaline clay to the English potteries at Stoke-on-Trent to see whether it would be possible to interest any of the established companies there in his project. Receiving no offers of support Roberts was about to leave when, through a local landlady, he met the young pottery designer Louis Keeling. The latter took the Irish clay and used it to make a teapot; today this item stands in the drawingroom at Mount Rivers. Initially employing just Louis Keeling and six workers, the Carrigaline Potteries proved to be an outstanding success and grew to have a 250-strong workforce. Demand for its wares meant that by the end of the 1930s it became necessary to import clay from the south of England, with boats travelling up the river Owenabue and docking at Carrigaline. While much of the output was strictly functional, it was also distinguished by the beautiful colour of the glazes, in particular a lustrous turquoise that remains highly distinctive.
Although the Carrigaline pottery business continued through various travails into the new millennium, after Hodder Roberts’ death in 1952 his family had little further involvement in the pottery. As for Mount Rivers, it passed to the present owner – the sixth generation of Roberts to live there – when his elder brother showed no interest in taking on the responsibility. By then the house had plenty of problems, since it had not been occupied by the family since the early 1950s but instead let to a succession of tenants: at one stage there were 15 of them were living on the groundfloor alone. When these all moved out in 1974 the local authority condemned Mount Rivers as being unfit for human habitation. Fortunately this did not deter the present owner, and nor did the amount of restoration work that lay ahead of him. One of the tenants, for example, drilled holes in the hall ceiling to release rainwater that had come into the house through gaps in the roof; as a result of the constant damp, the ceiling on the floor above had partially collapsed.
After taking on the role of Mount Rivers’ saviour, the present owner also started to salvage what he could of other buildings once belonging to members of his extended family. The weather slating on the exterior of Mount Rivers, for example, was rescued from a now-demolished house called Hoddersfield. Similarly the limestone step outside the backdoor came from the front door of another now-lost property, Britfieldstown which stood at a place directly associated with the family, Roberts Cove. Inside Mount Rivers spilling out of drawers and cabinets, and covering the top of every possible surface are innumerable items with some Roberts connection, the majority carefully tagged to advise on their origins. In truth, the present owner is an inveterate and assiduous collector, and objects linked to his family’s history provide only one of several outlets for his passion. A room on the top floor of Mount Rivers is filled with boxes containing tens of thousands of postmarks, mostly Irish. Then there is a collection of old signatures and anything to do with th Irish country house: letters, bookplates, sheets of note paper. Books fill every shelf and continue to be heaped on whatever surface might still have space; failing that, they are stacked on the stairs. Not everyone could live in this fashion but it clearly suits Mount Rivers’ current occupants. It also makes their house that rare and absorbing phenomenon: a living museum.
On top of a mahogany cabinet in the staircase hall at Killadoon, County Kildare stand these pieces of 18th century furniture. Perfect in execution, they are indistinguishable from other items of the same period except in size, being on a scale fit only for a doll’s house. Is that why they were made, or had they been produced by a furniture manufacturer to provide clients with an idea of what he could produce? No one seems sure although the drawing room at Killadoon contains a pair of sofas not dissimilar in design to that seen above.
More on Killadoon shortly.