Virtuosic

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Part of the ceiling decoration of 86 St Stephen’s Green, Dublin. As mentioned some weeks ago (see Highly Stylised, January 31st last), work on the house began in 1765, the architect responsible considered to be Robert West who also worked as a stuccadore. It therefore used to be thought that he was responsible for the plasterwork here, but diverse craftsmen are now deemed to have had a hand. Whoever created this convocation of swooping eagles certainly deserves recognition and praise since they are an example of virtuosic skill.

Celestial Heights

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A cherub hovers on the edge of an oval frame, one hand clutching a ribbon from which in turn is suspended a basket of fruit and flowers. Part of a ceiling now in one of the rooms on south-east range of Dublin Castle it was originally created for Mespil House situated on what were then the outskirts of the city in the early 1750s. The ceiling is attributed to the stuccadore Bartholomew Cramillion, best-remembered for his work in the chapel of Dublin’s Rotunda Hospital. When Mespil House was demolished in 1951, the ceiling and two others were rescued and subsequently installed in Dublin Castle. As the further detail below demonstrates, this is one of the most glorious examples of rococo plasterwork found in the country. The Irish Aesthete wishes all readers a Happy New Year and hopes you will reach such celestial heights in 2015.

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The Most Beautiful Room in Ireland?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

IMG_7981Since 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

 

Ready to Serve

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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.

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More on Ballysallagh soon.

Another World

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Has this country ever produced a more self-regarding architect than James Franklin Fuller? In 1916 he published Omniana: The Autobiography of an Irish Octogenarian which includes five appendices, each one dedicated to quotes from press reviews of his earlier, fictional books (‘We have never read a story with greater pleasure,’ Bath Chronicle, ‘As charming as a summer day’s ramble along an unknown lane, rich in unexpected turns and windings,’ Graphic, and so forth). The work also features highlights from his alternative careers, among them being an actor with regional troupes in England; one stint, he informs readers, came to an end the afternoon he found himself in the wardrobe room with nobody except the leading actress who ‘suddenly called on me to enact the part of Joseph while she herself assumed the role of Potiphar’s wife. The result was the same as that recorded in the Scriptures. I fled precipitately – leaving the lady to lock up her theatre.’ Fuller also trained for a period as a mechanical engineer, and was briefly a part-time soldier (he enrolled for what was supposed to be a British legion in Italy under Garibaldi, but to his indignation wound up in the suburbs of London ‘a mere ordinary recruit’ and had to buy his way out of the army). During the course of these adventures and misadventures, Fuller trained in the offices of another Irish-born architect, Frederick William Porter and then worked briefly with several English architects, most notably William Burges and Alfred Waterhouse, before securing a position in 1862 as district architect with the Irish Ecclesiastical Commissioners with responsibility for the north-west region of the country.

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James Franklin Fuller was born in Kerry in 1835, the only son of what can best be described as minor gentry although given his preoccupation with pedigree it is unlikely this is the term he would have chosen. Two further appendices in his autobiography (‘Humour and geniality exude from every line,’ Liverpool Post and Mercury) outline his forebears in both maternal and paternal lines: with regard to the former, he was able to trace his ancestry back to Charlemagne no less, with the latter from Duncan, first King of Scotland. Attention is duly paid in the book’s opening pages to the importance of one’s family possessing the right quarterings, namely those that confer the right ‘to appear at Court functions, presided over by the Sovereign.’ Readers will be relieved to learn that Fuller had these. Later he engages in some consideration of how the newly-rich presume to claim coats of arms to which, in his eyes, they have no right.
The concern with pedigree and the perceived presumptions of arrivistes may explain why Fuller was to have trouble with one of his more important clients, Sir Arthur Edward Guinness, raised to the peerage in 1880 as Baron Ardilaun. Seven years before this elevation Fuller had been engaged by Sir Arthur to enlarge Ashford Castle, County Mayo but the relationship soon turned sour and he was replaced by another architect, George Ashlin (for more about Ashford and the Ardilauns, see Lady Ardilaun Requests the Pleasure…, October 6th last). Without specifically naming Sir Arthur, the following passage in Fuller’s autobiography makes perfectly clear his disdain: ‘Among my clients, at one time, was a multi-millionaire who has been made a lord. Somehow I could not bring myself to appraise him at his own evaluation, or to accept him as a super-man. I labelled him as something quite different. He had long been acclaimed a philanthropist, because of some large gifts for the benefit of the proletariat – gifts which secured him a title and affected his bank balance as much as a drop taken from the ocean affects its volume. We rubbed along for three or four years, until the friction became too acute and then we drifted apart. It was my fault no doubt and it was not wise from a worldly point of view. He lives and flourishes: so “nothing matters.” Nevertheless, the evolution of the plutocrat into the autocrat, and then into the aristocrat is an interesting study…’

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That Fuller always felt himself above the concerns of the insufficiently well-quartered becomes apparent thanks to another passage in his autobiography (‘A rich treat of wit and wisdom and shrewd observation,’ Truth). Following the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland in 1869 and the loss of his position as one of its district architects, he established his own office in Dublin. From here, he writes, ‘For over half a century I carried on successfully a very extensive practice as an architect; and during the whole of that time, I violated – or rather, persistently disregarded, all the conventional rules which are supposed to be inseparable from success…A few months after opening my offices I discarded the regulation copying-press and the regulation letter-book…The ‘correct’ thing to do with letters received, was to preserve, docket and to pigeon-hole them, in the case of each separate client; whereas nine out of ten of them went into my waste paper basket immediately after receipt. I only preserved, until the finish of the particular business in hand, those that I thought likely to be necessary. I used my own discretion with regard to letters written by myself, only keeping copies of a few…I hardly expect to be believed when I say that, in issuing cheques, I never troubled to fill in the corresponding counterfoils…I kept no ledgers or books of any sort: I could not see the least necessity for them.’ Amazingly Fuller claimed his singular behaviour was ‘to the uniform satisfaction of my clients’ although we have seen that this was certainly not the case with regard to Sir Arthur Guinness.

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Strangely, although Fuller covers a great many subjects in his autobiography (‘A delightful arm-chair companion,’ Daily Graphic), he scarcely mentions many of the buildings for which he was responsible. One of these is shown here, St Anne’s in Clontarf, Dublin. The original early Georgian house on the site was called Thornhill and owned by the Vernons who lived close by in Clontarf Castle. In 1835 Benjamin Lee Guinness, then head of the brewing dynasty, bought Thornhill and its immediately surrounding land: the estate was thereafter increased until it covered more than 500 acres.
Meanwhile the old house was renamed St Anne’s after an ancient well of the same title in the area and was somewhat enlarged. However, the photographs here are of the building after it had been further embellished by Benjamin Lee’s son, the aforementioned Sir Arthur Guinness, Lord Ardilaun who from 1873 once more employed Fuller for this purpose. As can be seen, the eventual house had the appearance of a gargantuan Italianate palazzo, with vast double-height, top-lit galleried hall and equally substantial winter garden reached after an enfilade of reception rooms. The surrounding gardens were similarly transformed with extensive planting of specimen trees and the creation of a sequence of follies including a Herculanean Temple on a mock-ruined bridge abutment which served as a tearoom for the family and a Pompeian Water Temple of Isis by the duckpond.
Even by the time work was completed at St Anne’s in the 1880s, the place had become an anachronism, out of scale and out of sympathy with the Ireland then beginning to emerge. After Lady Ardilaun’s death in 1925, the estate was inherited by one of her husband’s nephews, the Hon Benjamin Plunket, retired Bishop of Meath. Unable to afford its upkeep, in 1939 he sold St Anne’s and almost 450 acres of land to Dublin Corporation for £55,000. The enormous house designed by Fuller stood empty of its original contents and used by the Local Defence Force until gutted by fire in 1943; the ruins were demolished in 1968. By that time 200 acres of the estate had been given over to local housing, the remainder, including the walled garden, is now a public park. Perhaps it is as well Fuller did not dwell so much on the buildings he designed since in this case we are dependent on a collection of old photographs to recall what it looked like.

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A Man of Acton

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Over the chimney piece in the dining room at Ballyfin, County Laois, an oil of Mary Anne, Lady Acton and her children painted in 1809 by the neo-classical artist Robert Fagan. Lady Acton’s husband, Sir John Acton, commander of the naval forces of Grand Duchy of Tuscany and prime minister of Naples in the late 18th century, was also her uncle: the couple had been permitted to marry by papal dispensation. The boy holding a bird to the right was their younger son, Charles Januarius Acton who, after being educated in England, returned to Italy where he became a priest. In 1837 Pope Gregory XVI made him Auditor to the Apostolic Chamber and two years later he became a cardinal. However, never very strong, he died in 1847 at the age of forty-four. Incidentally his nephew was the historian Lord Acton, best remembered for the observation, ‘Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.’ This was certainly not true of Cardinal Acton.

Going, Going, Gone

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Above is a photograph of the library at Bantry House, County Cork taken in the early 1970s for Irish Houses and Castles by Desmond Guinness and William Ryan. With its marble columns and pilasters topped by gilded Corinthian capitals below a compartmented ceiling, the room is part of the enlargement of the building undertaken by the second Earl of Bantry in the 1840s. Below is a photograph taken from much the same point and showing the room today: as is widely known, many of its remaining contents, along with those elsewhere in the house, are due to be sold this autumn.
I shall be speaking of Bantry House next Tuesday, August 26th when, as part of Heritage Week, I am giving a talk on Some Irish Houses and Demesnes at the Market House, Monaghan at 8pm, admission is free. For more information, see: http://www.heritageweek.ie/whats-on/event-details?EventID=296

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