The Untriumphal Arch

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Arch Hall, County Meath, the house shown above, is a tantalising mystery. Who was the architect? When was it built? And for whom? Answers to all these questions, and others, have been proposed and while convincing they cannot be absolutely verified. Today what remains of Arch Hall stands on flat ground in the middle of open fields, and the greater part of the ornamental park with which it was once surrounded has been lost. A painting from 1854 by the Yorkshire-born artist James Walsham Baldock depicts the wife of Arch Hall’s then-owner Samuel Garnett and the couple’s two young sons on horseback with the house visible behind. Evidently at the time it was surrounded by a belt of mature trees but most of these have now gone leaving the building isolated and even more exposed to the elements than would otherwise be the case. At some date obviously it was abandoned and left to fall into ruin but – another question – when?

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Arch Hall appears to derive its name from the rustic arch lying some distance to the south of the house and serving as point of access to the original avenue. Placed on an axis and intended to offer an unexpected vista of the property, the arch is composed of a single broad entrance with pinnacle above and flanking buttresses. From this point Arch Hall looks like a very substantial building, but the impression is deceptive because despite rising three storeys over basement the house was only one room deep. Its most striking feature is the nine-bay facade which on either side concludes in cylindrical bows and is centred on a larger, three-bay semi-circular bow. This has a handsome stone pedimented Gibbsian doorcase but the rest of the building was constructed of locally-produced red brick. At some – also unknown – date in the 19th century, the exterior was covered in cement render marked out to imitate cut stone. Presumably at the same time the topmost storey windows were paired in Romanesque style and Italianate sills added, while the end bows were capped with conical roofs presumably in an effort to make the place resemble a French château. Inside the front door was a large hall with curved ends and reception rooms on either side, each measuring some five and a half metres square. These in turn gave access to small circular rooms in the front corners. Despite long exposure, the two end rooms retain traces of their decorative plasterwork, that on the western flank somehow still having a shallow saucer dome with plaster coffering and egg-and-dart moulding. Almost all the rear of the house has been lost, as well as part of the front wall, making Arch Hall’s long-term survival unlikely.

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For a number of reasons the design of Arch Hall is usually ascribed to Sir Edward Lovett Pearce. Believed to have been born at some date in the late 1690s in County Meath, Pearce was the son of an English general and an Irish mother (her father was Lord Mayor of Dublin in 1676-77). Most importantly for his son’s future career, General Edward Pearce’s first cousin was Sir John Vanbrugh. The latter appears to have had an influence on the young architect, if only stylistically, but Pearce’s work in Ireland was also shaped by time spent in mainland Europe in 1723-24 during which he studied Palladio’s buildings in the Veneto. Thus while essentially a classicist, he sometimes liked to feature elements of the baroque. Such is the case with Arch Hall if indeed it was designed by Pearce. Another Irish house, alas now also a ruin, with which it has strong similarities is Wardtown Castle, County Donegal. Built for John Folliott, Wardtown is deeper than Arch Hall but, as Maurice Craig noted in 1996, it shares ‘the Vanbrughian feature of cylindrical towers and semi-circular projections.’ In fact the design of the two houses is so alike, the inevitable conclusion is that either they were by the same hand or one was a copy of the other.

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So when was Arch Hall built, and for whom? Sir Edward Lovett Pearce died in 1733 so if he were the house’s architect, work on its construction would most likely have begun before that date. At the time, the townland of which it is part, Newtown-Clongill was owned part-owned by the Payne or Pain(e) family: a deed of 1714 records the transfer of 510 acres in the area from John Raphson to William Paine. In 1737 his granddaughter Anne Paine married Benjamin Woodward of Drumbarrow, near Kells, County Meath. Her settlement included the town and lands of Clongill and Newtown-Clongill. Somehow by the early 19th century the property had transferred into the ownership of another local family, the Garnetts who were associated with a number of houses in the county, not least Williamstown and Summerseat. The first of them to live at Arch Hall was John Pain Garnett, second son of Samuel Garnett of Summerseat. John Pain Garnett’s middle name would imply some kind of connection with the previous residents but there appears to be none: the Garnetts tended to marry cousins, or else members of the Rothwell and Wade families. Arch Hall was subsequently inherited by John Pain’s son, another Samuel Garnett who in 1841 married Marianne Tandy: it is she and the couple’s two sons who appear in the 1854 painting by James Walsham Baldock. Burke’s 1871 Genealogical and Heraldic History of the Landed Gentry of Great Britain & Ireland list the family as still in residence, but at some date thereafter they must have left and the place began its slide into dereliction. But when and why was Arch Hall permitted this most untriumphant end? So many unanswered questions…

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For the Present II

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Russborough, County Wicklow has featured more than once on this site and why not since it is often judged to be the most beautiful country house in Ireland. Dating from the 1740s, Russborough was commissioned by Joseph Leeson, a wealthy brewer who in 1763 became first Earl of Milltown. His architect was German-born Richard Castle and work on the project seems to have proceeded fast because in his 1746 A Tour through Ireland William Chetwood found at Russborough ‘a noble new house, forming into perfection’, adding ‘if we may judge of the picture of the outlines, we shall, when finished, see a complete beauty’. This indeed has proven to be the case. Just as lovely is the newly-published Russborough: A Great Irish House, its Families and Collections. Written by William Laffan and Kevin V Mulligan, the book covers over 300 years of history, travelling far in various directions but always returning to the building that lies at its core. And this is as it should be, the authors noting how the approach to the house is carefully managed ‘so that the main block is completely concealed, the first views taking in a finely articulated cupolaed gateway, the east wing and then its distant counterpart. These low ashlar-fronted blocks – to the east the kitchen wing, to the west the stables – are impressive in their own way, given deep plans with broad fronts, attractively articulated with Ionic pilasters to the centre bays and urns punctuating the parapets, but the void between seems to offer the greater distraction and an inducement to progress further. Once revealed in its entirety, the visual power and complexity of the composition, its symmetry and poise, is simply captivating…The viewer’s instinct is to draw back immediately so as to take in everything as one comes to realise the full extent of the plan. A symmetrical expanse, drawn out on either side beyond the wings to encompass a further complex of buildings on each side, is laid out to achieve a façade that extends from end to end a distance of some seven hundred feet.’ Scholarly and engaging (a too-rare combination) the prose is matched by James Fennell’s splendid and copious photographs, making this the most complete work yet produced on a single Irish house. An essential addition to any library this season.
Russborough: A Great Irish House, its Families and Collections is published by the Alfred Beit Foundation, €50.

Keeper of the Gate

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First impressions count. Hence the entrance to any good house needs to make its mark. Above is one of the 18th century limestone pillars flanking the main gates at Ardbraccan, County Meath. Note how the rusticated blocks have been ribbed and how the cap has been further decorated with a carved drapery swag. As much attention was paid to the wrought-iron gates, each concluding in a spear-like finial. At the point where the pair meet, this is substituted by the bust of a man with flaming headdress: the keeper of the gate.
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For the Present I

 

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This is the first in a short series of suggestions for gifts this season. David Hicks’ Irish Country Houses: Portraits and Painters is the successor to his 2012 book, Irish Country Houses: A Chronicle of Change. Like the latter, he features a number of properties from each of Ireland’s four provinces but here the conceit (using that word in the old-fashioned sense) is hanging the story of a building on a portrait, the kind of device once loved by film directors as a means of introducing audiences to what might otherwise be too unfamiliar territory. It works just as successfully here and means the text is as much social as architectural history.
Certain artists’ names recur, not least that of William Orpen who is represented in five of the 18 houses featured and they tend to date from the late 19th/early 20th centuries. The buildings on the other hand, span a broader chronology, from 16th century Castle Taylor, County Galway to Kilteragh, the County Dublin Arts and Crafts house designed by William Douglas Caroe in 1905 for that consummate patriot, Sir Horace Plunkett: it was burnt out by the IRA in January 1923. Another house, featured on the cover, is Curraghmore, County Waterford, home of the Marquis of Waterford. The main block of Curraghmore has at its core a mediaeval tower house, and in this lies the billiard room with a rococo ceiling of the late 1740s, its decoration attributed to the Lafranchini brothers. (The picture below comes not from Hicks’ book but from the Sadleir and Dickinson volume featured here on Monday). The Irish Georgian Society has recently made a grant to assist in the conservation of this plasterwork.
Handsomely produced and with many excellent photographs taken by the author, Irish Country Houses: Portraits and Painters adds further to the genre especially when it covers places not hitherto the subject of much attention. It looks well and reads well: for what more could one wish?
Curraghmore 6Irish Country Houses: Portraits and Painters is published by Collins Press, €39.99.

Three Lost Beauties

 

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Anyone familiar with the Irish Georgian Society will know that the original organisation of that name was established in 1908 with the specific intention of creating a record of the country’s 18th century domestic architecture. Five volumes were produced over successive years, the first four devoted to Dublin while the last, which appeared in 1913, made an attempt to provide an overview of country houses. Two years later, another work, Georgian Mansions in Ireland, appeared. This book, written by barrister and genealogist Thomas U. Sadleir and architect Page L. Dickinson, both members of the now-dissolved Irish Georgian Society, was intended to correct what they believed to have been a problem with the earlier work: namely that its compilers ‘laboured under a disadvantage, for they had but slight knowledge of the existing material.’ The two authors proposed that whereas the compilers of the Irish Georgian Society volumes were well informed about historic buildings in Dublin, ‘as regards the country districts, their number, their history and their situation were alike unknown.’ For Sadleir and Dickinson, writing almost a century ago, the contrast between historic properties in Dublin and the rest of the country could not have been more stark. The former’s large houses, ‘so far from being, as they once were, the residences of the rich, are too often the dwellings of the poor; at best, hotels, offices or institutions. But the country houses present a delightful contrast. Some, no doubt, have gone through a “Castle Rackrent” stage; but – as anyone who cares to consult the long list in the fifth Georgian volume must admit – the vast majority are still family seats, often enriched with the treasures of former generations of wealthy art-lovers and travelled collectors.’
It is unlikely the authors would have been able to write such words even a decade later, and certainly not today. ‘Irish houses seldom contain valuable china,’ they advised, ‘but good pictures, plate, and eighteenth-century furniture are not uncommon. How delightful it would be to preserve the individual history of these treasures! The silver bowl on which a spinster aunt lent money to some spendthrift owner, and then returned when a more prudent heir inherited; the family pictures, by Reynolds, Romney, Battoni, or that fashionable Irish artist Hugh Hamilton, preserved by that grandmother who removed to London, and lived to be ninety; the Chippendale chairs which had lain forgotten in an attic. Even the estates themselves have often only been preserved by the saving effects of a long minority, the law of entail, or marriage with an English heiress.’
Below are three houses featured in Georgian Mansions in Ireland, with a selection of the pictures included in the book. The line drawings are by the architect Richard Orpen, who had been in partnership with Dickinson before the outbreak of the First World War.
Platten 5Platten 2Platten 1Platten 3Platten Hall, County Meath dated from c. 1700 and was built for Alderman John Graham of Drogheda: Maurice Craig proposed the architect responsible was Sir William Robinson. Built of red brick and with a tripartite nine-bay facade, it was originally three-storied but the uppermost floor was removed in the 19th century. Alderman Graham’s son William Graham married the Hon. Mary Granville, second daughter of George, Lord Lansdown and cousin of the inestimable Mrs Delaney who visited Platten on several occasions during her first marriage (when she was known as Mrs Pendarves). Sadleir and Dickinson quote one of her letters from January 1733, in which she described a ball given in the house: ‘we began at seven;  danced thirty-six dances, with only resting once, supped at twelve, everyone by their partner, at a long table which was handsomely filled with all manner of cold meats, sweetmeats, creams, and jellies. Two or three of the young ladies sang. I was asked for my song, and gave them “Hopp’d She”; that occasioned some mirth. At two we went to dancing again, most of the ladies determined not to leave Plattin till daybreak, they having three miles to go home, so we danced on till we were not able to dance any longer. Sir Thomas Prendergast is an excellent dancer – dances with great spirit, and in very good time. We did not go to bed till past eight; the company staid all that time, but part of the morning was spent in little plays. We met the next morning at twelve (very rakish indeed), went early to bed that night, and were perfectly refreshed on Saturday morning. …’ As for Platten when they knew it, Sadleir and Dickinson comment: ‘Like all early Georgian houses, the main entrance is on a level with the ground; it opens into the imposing hall, which contains a handsome grand staircase in three flights, supported by six Ionic columns, the floor being paved in black and white marble. The walls are panelled, and there are other symptoms of early construction; there is some tasteful decoration, the frieze being very richly carved, and displaying tiny figures, quite Jacobean in treatment. Note, too, the gallery, which we also illustrate, with its handsome balustrading, with ramps at the newels. Below the gallery the panels are in plaster.
Platten once afforded considerable accommodation, but one wing has been allowed to fall into disrepair, as its bricked-up windows show, and the excellent rooms in the basement are no longer utilized…the dining-room, a large apartment panelled in oak, which is to the right as we enter the hall; it has handsome high doors with brass locks, and the wainscot is ornamented with boldly carved fluted pilasters. There is a curious, probably early Georgian, mantel in white and grey marble.’
Platten Hall was demolished in the early 1950s.
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The core of Turvey, County Dublin was built in the 16th century by the lawyer Sir Christopher Barnewell and the property thereafter passed down through various branches of the family across some 400 years. In the late 17th century the property was converted into a house of nine bays and two storeys with a gabled attic: the latter became an attic storey with a parapet and three lunette windows towards the middle of the following century. Turvey had an interesting Baroque entrance door with semi-circular pediment and urns. Inside there was excellent early Georgian panelling and a splendid rococo ceiling in the library.
Sadleir and Dickinson wrote of the building: ‘This mansion, situated in County Dublin, close to the village of Donabate, is probably one of the oldest houses now standing in Ireland. It is a plain building, having, like Platten Hall, suffered in appearance through the removal of its gabled roof. As it stands it is a seventeenth-century house, though part of an earlier structure which occupied the site would appear to have been incorporated. The original plan consisted of a centre block, in which was the entrance, with wings at right-angles to it at either side. But one of these, has been entirely removed, and the rest of the building considerably altered, apparently in the second quarter of the eighteenth century, to which most of the fire-places and nearly all the joinery, including the principal staircase, may be ascribed. There is another staircase, now disused, Jacobean in plan, with twisted balusters and a central well. Here and there are specimens of seventeenth- century panelling, but the panels in the reception-rooms are early Georgian. Formerly the house had three gables in front, but…these gables have had the spaces between them filled in, and the present parapet added. The semicircular windows belong to the same transformation. The size and position of the old gables and windows can be clearly traced in the attics, which are unusually large and really fine rooms, though for some reason never finished. The Georgian roof is carried in a single span over the main roof; it is supported by huge quern post trusses. In front of the house the ground-level has been raised; and, as we have seen in other houses altered at the same period, the hall-door is on what was originally the first floor. There is a secret room, the windows of which have been built up, which was apparently reached from a sliding-panel on the old staircase; but as the opening was blocked when the panelling was removed, there is now no way of access.’
Turvey was demolished, amid some controversy, by property company the Murphy Group in 1987.
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Desart Court, County Kilkenny was built c.1733 for John Cuffe, first Lord Desart, its design attributed to Sir Edward Lovett Pearce. An example of Irish Palladian architecture, the house rose two storeys over basement and was linked to two-storey wings by niched quadrants. The centre block of seven bays was distinguished by a central feature of four superimposed engaged Doric and Ionic columns and a rusticated doorway beneath a first-floor rusticated niche; the garden front followed a somewhat similar pattern but only had engaged Ionic columns on the first storey. The interiors were notable for elaborate plasterwork ceilings in the entrance hall and drawing room, and for a pair of staircases with carved scroll balustrades.
Sadleir and Dickinson were understandably impressed with Desart Court, noting, ‘The three reception rooms facing south, of which the centre is the drawing-room, all communicate, that to the left being the boudoir. The drawing-room, a wellproportioned and nicely lighted apartment, has an elaborate rococo ceiling displaying much originality of design, and doubtless contemporary with that in the hall. Heads are introduced at intervals as well as masks; the latter an unusual feature, which we also found in the attic story at Florence Court. The colouring is cream, picked out with of the joinery has been renewed, though the window-seats remain. We cannot overlook the beautiful inlaid walnut cabinet of English or Dutch manufacture. The view from this room is particularly extensive. Another fine piece of furniture, but of Irish workmanship, is in the adjoining boudoir, which contains a Georgian mantel in Siena and white marble.
To the right of the hall lies the Library, containing some old-fashioned bookcases enriched with fluted pilasters, while to the left is the dining-room, a lofty, almost square, apartment ; neither retains any Georgian features. Desart Court is singular in its two handsome grand staircases situated at either end of the house, and corresponding in detail. Other houses, such, for instance, as Sopwell Hall, and possibly Cashel Palace, possessed this feature, but in no case in Ireland have we found the handsome carved scroll-work in oak, in lieu of balusters, such as we have here. In each case there is a dado of oak, but the decoration above is in plaster panels of early type. A lofty corridor, lighted by a lantern, gives access to the bedrooms, which, like those at Cashel, have high, narrow doors.’
Desart Court was burnt out by the IRA in February 1923 and its superlative contents all lost. Although the house was subsequently rebuilt under the supervision of Richard Orpen, this was razed to the ground in 1957.

 

 

Shine Kindly Light

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The main door at Upper Crossdrum, County Meath with its exceptionally handsome fan- and sidelights. The house dates from the third decade of the 19th century – a bill from 1820 exists with the building’s specifications and breakdown of costs – and appears to have been constructed for the Harman family, gentlemen tenants of the Loughcrew estate; it can therefore be classified as a farmhouse, albeit grander than the average. In an essay published in Volume XII of the Irish Georgian Society’s Irish Architectural and Decorative Studies journal Lynda Mulvin attributes the design of Upper Crossdrum to English architect Charles Robert Cockerell who was then working in the area, not just on the main house at Loughcrew but also other properties in the area.

Don’t Bank On It

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From an old photograph album, a view of New Park, County Kilkenny. Situated high above the river Suir on the opposite bank to the City of Waterford and with parkland running down to the water, the house was built in the second half of the 18th century by Simon Newport, who established the region’s largest and most important bank, Simon Newport and Sons: at the time there was a common expression in Waterford, ‘as good as Newport’s notes.’ Unfortunately in 1820 the bank failed and the founder’s younger son William Newport who was then responsible for its affairs committed suicide. Although he repudiated any personal liability Simon Newport’s elder son, Sir John Newport, a former Chancellor of the Exchequer who was then an M.P. in London, contributed at least £5,000 towards numerous local compensation claims. On his death in 1843, New Park was inherited by Sir John’s only surviving nephew, the Rev. John Newport and when he died sixteen years later, the estate was sold to Fitzmaurice Gustavus Bloomfield whose mother had been heiress to the Castle Caldwell estate in County Fermanagh. New Park remained with the Bloomfield family until the house was destroyed by fire in 1932: below is a photograph of its appearance after the conflagration.

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