A Call to Action

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Last November the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht launched a document called An Action Plan for the Sustainable Future of the Irish Historic House in Private Ownership. In her Introduction Minister Heather Humphreys observed that these properties ‘are an important part of our social, cultural and architectural heritage,’ as well as being ‘an essential thread of our national story and a great source of local community pride.’ Furthermore historic houses are ‘a vital attraction for both local and foreign visitors and they play an important role in stimulating economic development, particularly at community level.’
Last Thursday members of the Browne family announced that Westport House, County Mayo where they and their forebears have lived for almost 350 years, is to be placed on the open market. The financial difficulties faced by the Brownes, arising from a bank loan (and its attendant guarantees) taken out in 2006 by the late Jeremy Sligo, have been well known for some time. (Incidentally, they demonstrate yet again how in this country while a borrower can be penalised for making an ill-advised decision, the relevant lender suffers no such retribution). Westport’s predicament demonstrates how fragile is Ireland’s remaining stock of historic properties, how vulnerable to the vagaries of shifting circumstance, precisely because so few safeguards or supports exist to ensure they can weather past and future storms.
Westport House perfectly conforms to Minister Humphreys’ designation of the Irish historic property being a source of local pride, an attraction for domestic and overseas visitors and a key player in stimulating regional economic development. A report commissioned last year by Mayo County Council found the house and grounds attracted 162,000 visitors annually and contributed €1.7 million to the fiscal purse and local economy, with 60 per cent of respondents citing the Browne family home as their main reason for visiting Mayo. It is vital to the well being of the area, and the Brownes deserve applause for making this so.
Over the past year there have been plenty of reports, meetings, analyses and consultations over Westport’s plight. The time for talk has now come to a close. Decisive action needs to take place, the estate and house ought to be preserved, and the values espoused in its recent document by the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht made manifest. Otherwise, yet again, we will witness the diminution of Ireland’s heritage, and the loss of another ‘essential thread of our national story.’

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Seen in the Round

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On January 1st 1778 John Dawson, Viscount Carlow married Lady Caroline Stuart, daughter of the third Earl of Bute. Shortly before this occasion, Mrs Delany wrote of her as follows: ‘Lady Caroline is a genius in painting and musick, and has made a great progress in both; she has a clear, sweet voice, under good management, and less of the fashionable yell than most of her contemporarys. She is extremely good-humoured and sensible, but is one in whom many pleasing accomplishments are a little hurt by an awkward habit: she has no affectation, but a trick of a laugh at whatever is said or that she says herself.’ Fortunately we know a great deal more about Lady Caroline than this somewhat ambivalent description, as she was an ardent letter writer, especially to her youngest and favourite sibling, Lady Louisa Stuart. Their correspondence survives and was published in 1895 as Gleanings from an Old Portfolio. From her letters we learn that Lady Caroline was not altogether happy living in Ireland, separated from her family and old friends. It did not help that the house inherited by her husband failed to meet with her approval. Dawson Court stood on an estate in County Laois which had been acquired by Viscount Carlow’s grandfather, a clever banker called Ephraim Dawson who had married a Preston heiress and built the house for his bride. What might have sufficed at the start of the 18th century was no longer deemed good enough towards its close, and more than once Lady Caroline grumbles about the old building and its disadvantages. In August 1781 she writes, ‘we have had a storm of wind and rain to-day, that I really have been expecting this infirm house to give way, and dreamt of it all night, my fears were so strong… I have no pleasure in the place this summer, for, as nothing has been done in our absence, it is all in the greatest disorder, not a walk in the garden free from weeds, no water in the river, and the weather so bad that, in short, I comfort myself, as Miss Herbert says, with a good fire.’ That December, she complains again about problems caused by high winds: ‘I can hardly find a place to sit in to-day, being turned out of the drawing-room by smoke, and here’s a whirlwind in the library.’ One suspects that it was at least in part to put an end to her protests that around 1790 Lady Caroline’s husband, by now created first Earl of Portarlington, embarked on building a new residence.

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Painted in Rome by Batoni in 1769 while on a Grand Tour, the future first Earl of Portarlington was a man of considerable artistic ability. According to George Hardinge, who visited Ireland in 1792 and 1793, Lord Portarlington ‘draws prettily & is a very ingenious architect… [he]draws in Sandby’s manner and almost as well – many of the views in Sandby’s work – (“The Virtuoso’s Museum”) are taken by the former, who has made a voyage pittoresque of Ireland worthy of immediate publication…’ Almost as great a patron of the arts as Lord Charlemont, Portarlington displayed his discernment by being one of the key supporters of James Gandon who he had met in the home of the aforementioned Paul Sandby and to whom he wrote from Ireland in 1779, ‘I do not see any architect of the least merit here.’ By 1790 Lord Portarlington had already commissioned from Gandon the design of a new church close by his estate at Coolbanagher (see A Very Conspicuous Object, December 28th 2015). Understandably he therefore turned to Gandon again when looking for a design for the proposed new house and so work commenced on what would prove to be the architect’s most important private commission. Evidently Lady Portarlington’s dislike of the old house was so great that the family demolished this building and moved into the new – named Emo Court – even though it was far from finished. And then disaster struck. In the autumn of 1798 her husband joined the army summoned to repel a French invasion in Mayo. In late November he wrote to his wife that ‘in consequence of a cold, I have had the most violent attack on my lungs; which was a dangerous situation for six days past, but I had last night a favourable change; which gives me great hopes of getting thro it…’ He died shortly afterwards and work on Emo Court came to a halt. The second earl initially seemed to promise well but proved a disappointment to the family, an army career stalling in 1815 when he somehow failed to join his company at the Battle of Waterloo until after much of the fighting had taken place: it would appear he had been enjoying himself too much and too late the night before. Thereafter he is generally described as giving himself up to dissipation, and the squandering of family funds, supposedly remarking on one occasion that he could not see what difference another nought would make to his financial obligations. He died in Londin in 1845 unmarried and unmourned, leaving title and estate – complete with unfinished house – to a nephew who also inherited debts running to some £600,000.

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IMG_1493An account of Emo Court in the middle of the 19th century noted that ‘The principal apartments in the house are a grand reception saloon at the entrance, and a state drawing room, but these rooms, although built nearly sixty years rough bricks and stone still visible.’ Elsewhere could be found scaffolding and tools used on work begun but not concluded by the second earl who in the 1820s had employed the fashionable London architect Lewis Vulliamy and an otherwise little known trio of brothers called Williamson who ran a practice in Dublin. Between them, they had built a portico on the rear facade, decorated the dining room ceiling and designed the interior of the rotunda. It is the last of these that is shown here today, finally completed in around by yet another architect, William Caldbeck who also added that standard of the Victorian country house, a ‘bachelor’ wing. So what of this key space, aside from its basic form, can be attributed to James Gandon? The rotunda, otherwise known as the saloon, lies at a crucial juncture in the house, directly behind the entrance hall and between dining and drawing rooms. Here a series of marble pilasters capped with gilded Corinthian capitals rise to a coffered dome with glazed top. Niches between the pilasters would once have held statues and the floor is inlaid with elaborate parquet. The rotunda was intended to be the central point in an enfilade overlooking the gardens but could it ever have served any purpose, other than as a rather lovely meeting place while passing from one functional area to another? And again, what of its decoration can be considered based on Gandon’s intentions, and what those of the Victorian Caldbeck? It helps to compare the room with other near-contemporaneous examples, most obviously the saloon of Castle Coole, County Fermanagh designed by James Wyatt and dating from the same period. Again the walls are lines with Corinthian pilasters (scagliola) and there are round-topped niches (these holding Wyatt-designed stoves) the upper section of which has plasterwork which might have been Gandon’s aim for the Rotunda. Another, and closer, comparison can be made with Ballyfin, just a few miles away and designed in the early 1820s by the Morrisons, father and son. One suspects that in this instance, the incomplete work at Emo provided inspiration for Ballyfin’s top-lit rotunda (as the former’s library did for that at the latter) although here the walls are lined by Siena scagliola columns with Ionic capitals. So it seems reasonable to conclude that even if not executed by Gandon Emo’s rotunda displays his spirit.

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More on Emo Court in due course. With thanks to the Office of Public Works for permission to photograph the house’s interior.

 

Stripped Back

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There are advantages to seeing a house like Lambay Castle, County Dublin in the depths of winter. During the rest of the year, the handsome layout of the surrounding gardens is inclined to distract attention from the ingenuity of Edwin Lutyens’ early 20th century design, the manner in which he enfolded an older building into the larger property, melding the two so thoroughly that without awareness of his plans it is difficult to recognise where one ends and the other begins. Likewise, his clever integration of different floor levels on this site becomes clearer during the present period when plants are cut back and the eye can focus more clearly on the house’s structural rhythm.

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A Triumphal Entrance

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Cloverhill House, County Cavan was shown here some months ago (see A Mere Shell, 9th September 2015), a ruin well on the way to vanishing altogether. Happily its entrance is in better condition, a slim, unadorned ashlar triumphal arch flanked by pedestrian gates. The residnce to which it originally gave access was extended by Francis Johnston in 1799, so one imagines the arch dates from the same period. The side gates need to be cleared of overgrowth if they are not to go the way of the old house.

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Attention to Detail

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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.

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Occupational Therapy

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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).

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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.

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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.

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Much more information on Castletown’s Print Room can be found in Ruth Johnstone’s essay on the subject including in the Office of Public Work’s 2011 publication Castletown: Decorative Arts.

 

Getting Thoroughly Plastered

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One of the past year’s most fascinating personal discoveries was the dining room at Altidore Castle, County Wicklow. Often described as a Georgian ‘toy fort’ the house was built c.1730 for General Thomas Pearce, uncle of the architect Sir Edward Lovett Pearce, who may well have been responsible for its design. Much of the interior decoration dates from that period, including the dining room’s panelling. In the last quarter of the 18th century, however, additional ornamentation was added with the introduction of oval and circular plaster medallions featuring female classical deities and graces: this would have been around the period that Altidore was owned by Rev William Blachford, Librarian of Marsh’s Library and father of early Romantic poet Mary Tighe (author of the once-much read Psyche, or the Legend of Love),  and subsequently by her brother. During the same period the interiors of nearby Mount Kennedy – designed by James Wyatt in 1772 but only built under the supervision of Thomas Cooley the following decade – was being decorated by the celebrated stuccadore Michael Stapleton. The medallions are not unlike those seen in Lucan House, County Dublin where Stapleton also worked: might he have had a hand in the plasterwork at Altidore?

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