Spectacle as Drama

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…

Carve the Year with Pride

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.


An Assiduous Collector


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.


In Miniature

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.

At Waterloo Napoleon Did Surrender…

Reflected in a wall mirror, a portion of the rococo ceiling in the first floor garden front reception room at Mornington House, Merrion Street, Dublin. Built c.1765 and now part of the Merrion Hotel, the house was originally the town residence of the music-loving Garret Wesley, first Earl of Mornington and father of Arthur Wellesley, first Duke of Wellington. Tomorrow marks the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, so it seems appropriate to show this room which Wellington would have known well and which today carries his name.
Meanwhile next Saturday, June 20th there is to be a midsummer gathering to celebrate the Waterloo bicentenary at Dangan, County Meath, site of Lord Mornington’s country estate and childhood home of Wellington. The occasion will feature readings and music, including some of Mornington’s own compositions, as well as a roasted pig and, no doubt, one or two toasts. For tickets and more information about this event, telephone +353-46-9431458.

A (Neo)Classic Design

James Wyatt Drawing 2 ( LDR )
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.

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.

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.

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.


His Snug Little Farm

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.
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.

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.

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.

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.