The splendid gateposts of Sylvan Park, County Meath. The 18th century house here belonged to the Rowley family which had first settled in this country during the reign of James I and one branch of which was responsible for commissioning Summerhill, elsewhere in the same county (for more on Summerhill, see My Name is Ozymandias, April 1st 2013). In the mid-19th century Sylvan Park was occupied by Standish Grady Rowley, who owned an estate of more than 1,100 acres in the area. The property passed out of the family in the last century and was subsequently demolished, leaving just these cut limestone gateposts as a memento of its presence together with a decaying lodge tucked inside.
Evidence that if books do furnish a room, the appropriate effects also help. Two views of the library at Tullynally, County Westmeath. In the first, an oak side table in the gothic manner on which to rest a volume or two, in the second a set of mahogany steps to reach the upper shelves. Together they help to ensure time spent here is particularly agreeable. (For more about Tullynally and its library, see A Bibliophile’s Bliss, May 6th 2013).
In December 1880 William Bence Jones published The Life’s Work in Ireland of a Landlord Who Tried to Do His Duty. Although intended as an apologia, the book only brought further notoriety to a man already widely reviled here: the Cork Examiner described him as ‘the most thoroughly disliked man in the county.’ How did this come about? Bence Jones had inherited an estate in County Cork originally bought by his grandfather William Jones, son of an Archdeacon of Llandaff, who came to Ireland after marrying Elinor Winthrop whose father had been Mayor of Cork in 1744. Both William Jones and Bence Jones’ father, another William, were absentee landlords, never even visiting their property, but in 1838 when still in his mid-twenties he had settled on the estate after discovering his agent had been embezzling the family. Bence Jones devoted himself to improving the 4,000 acres in his possession, directly farming a quarter of the land while the rest was let to tenants. However, he expected higher rents to be paid as a result of his improvements and this is what led to trouble. Following a number of bad summers and poor harvests in the late 1870s, his tenants sought to have their rents reduced. Bence Jones refused the request and the Irish National Land League, founded in October 1879 with Charles Stewart Parnell as its President, became involved in the dispute. A grave was dug outside the front door of the Bence Jones house, he was sent threatening letters, then boycotted and the workers on his land forced to leave. His elder son and unmarried daughter, assisted by the butler and a gardener, took over responsibility for feeding and milking the estate’s herd of cattle while soldiers from the local barracks guarded the property. It was under these circumstances that Bence Jones wrote his book, hoping thereby to elicit sympathy for his circumstances. However within Ireland the opposite was achieved, not least thanks to his disparaging comments on the indigenous population. Eventually a new work force came over from Britain and Bence Jones with his family moved to London from whence he engaged in a war of words with the County Cork Roman Catholic priest and Land League supporter, Fr John O’Leary. Bence Jones died in 1882, and his fight with the Land League might have been the only way the family was remembered in Ireland had it not been for the literary career of his great-grandson, Mark Bence-Jones.
The estate owned by William Bence Jones was called Lisselane and here he built a house in 1851-53 to the designs of English architect Lewis Vulliamy. Currently on the market with 315 acres for €9 million, Lisselane is usually described as being in the ‘simplified’ French chateau style, no doubt thanks to its Mansard roof and a corner turret. Sited on rising ground above the Arigadeen river, the house was extended by William Bence Jones’ son Reginald who bought a large glass conservatory made for the Cork Exhibition of 1902 and five years later knocked several rooms together to create a large library-hall lined from floor to ceiling with oak bookcases. Reginald had sold most of the estate under the terms of the Wyndham Act, using the money not only to improve his house but also to buy a smart Mercedes limousine with silver flower vases in the passenger compartment. Meanwhile his wife Ethel Bence Jones had the funds to improve the gardens at Lisselane: an existing terrace above the river was extended, the river itself widened, a rose garden created along with a bog garden, rock garden and American garden. Yet opportunity to enjoy these new features was limited: come the outbreak of the First World War, the house was closed up and then in the aftermath of the Troubles it was sold by the family. Reginald and Ethel Bence Jones’ younger son, Colonel Philip Bence-Jones, was an engineer who worked on the Blue Nile dam and had helped to rebuild the old Waterloo Bridge in London. The story is told that as a young soldier in the First World War he once told Winston Churchill he had got the wrong hat. ‘When Churchill looked doubtful, Bence-Jones threw the hat in the air and shot two holes clean through it with his revolver. “You’re right,” agreed the astounded Churchill.’ In 1925 Philip Bence-Jones married May Thomas, a Roman Catholic from Alexandria and converted to her faith; five years later their only child, Mark Bence-Jones was born.
In 1934 Philip Bence-Jones was appointed head of the engineering school at Lahore and the family moved to India. On their return to Europe in 1945 they returned to the country of his birth and bought Annemount on the north shores of Cork Harbour. Four years later the house was destroyed by fire and so the family moved again, this time to Glenville Park. The land on which the house stands originally belonged to the Nagles whose main residence was Carrigacunna Castle overlooking the Blackwater river. Sir Richard Nagle was James II’s Attorney-General in Ireland and Speaker of the Irish House of Commons. In the aftermath of the Williamite Wars, this portion of the Nagle property passed to the Coppingers, an old Cork mercantile family: in 1319 Stephen Coppinger was Mayor of the city, and several of his descendants held this position as well as becoming Bailiffs and Sheriffs of Cork. The Coppingers remained Roman Catholic and could therefore only afford to build a relatively modest residence at Glenville, of two storeys and five bays fronted by a semi-circular courtyard with a gate at either end. At some point in the late 1770s/early 1780s they sold the place to Dr Edward Hudson, a successful dentist who otherwise lived at the Hermitage, County Dublin, a house renamed St Enda’s in 1910 when Patrick Pearse moved his school there.
At Glenville, Dr Hudson constructed a new house not far from the old one and at right angles to it, a three-storey, three-bay property with two-storey single bay wings on either side. This was subsequently inherited by his eldest son, the Rev. Edward Hudson an Anglican clergyman who became Dean of Armagh. On his death without children, Glenville passed to his brother William Elliott Hudson, a barrister renowned for collecting ancient Irish literature and music: he was also a composer whose work includes The Memory of the Dead (better known as ‘Who Fears to Speak of ’98). Following his death in 1853 Glenville passed to a nephew, Edward Kinahan who in 1887 was created a baronet and became Sir Edward Hudson-Kinahan. That same year he enlarged and remodelled Glenville to the designs of Dublin architect Sandham Symes. A new two-storey front was built onto the old house, thereby making it twice as deep as had previously been the case. The building was also considerably extended in length, the whole faced in grey cement. This is the house bought in 1949 by Colonel Bence-Jones from Sir Edward Hudson-Kinahan’s grandson.
In April 1963 the late Mark Bence-Jones, doyen of Irish country houses and their owners, published an article in the Irish Times about the property his parents had bought fourteen years earlier. The piece is affectionate in tone, although he acknowledges that when there is rain, ‘the grey stucco of Glenville looks dark, almost forbidding. But the morning sun makes the long low facade and the gate piers in front of it turn almost pink; the lines of windows shimmer.’ The cement render can indeed the make the east-facing front of the building look harsh, but that impression disappears once inside the building which rambles in an agreeably disordered fashion. The entrance hall is twice its original size, the former entrance now marked by a large arch halfway down its length. To left and right, tall slender doorframes with segmental pediments lead to drawing room and dining room respectively, the latter’s walls still retaining their 19th century wallpaper in a now-faded yellow and grey and featuring an older inlaid marble chimney piece which may have survived the Victorian make-over. Beyond the drawing room is a smaller sitting room and behind this a pair of book rooms (not surprisingly the house is overflowing with books). In the dining room, its walls painted a Pompeian red by the Bence-Joneses, hang a variety of family pictures. Behind it lies the old inner hall with an immense fire place. From here a passage runs down to a single-storey bow-fronted pavilion, presumably built for use as a billiards room.
Back in the main block, to the rear of the entrance hall rises the staircase with its original arched window on the return and leading to a substantial first floor landing off which run sequences of bedrooms along north and south corridors. At the end of the north a short flight of steps descend into a chapel created from three small rooms by Colonel and Mrs Bence-Jones; it contains stained glass windows by Stanley Tomlin and Patrick Pollen, and a letter dated December 1949 from the then-Bishop of Cork granting permission for services to be held here whenever a priest stays in the house. Glenville Park was Mark Bence-Jones’ home until his death in April 2010 and remains a testament to his own life’s work in Ireland.
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.
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.
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…’
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.
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.
A limestone chimney piece and plaster overmantel located in the basement of Strokestown Park, County Roscommon. As now constituted, the house is mostly the work of Richard Castle in the 18th century and John Lynn in the 19th. We do know however, that an earlier building existed on the site, dating from the late 1700s. The survival of this chimneypiece, and indeed entire room, at the bottom of the present main block suggest that it was originally one of the main reception rooms. Thus when Strokestown was initially aggrandised, probably in the 1730s, additional storeys were added and what had been the ground floor became a basement.
A mural above the drawing room chimney piece of Mount Ievers Court, County Clare showing the house and its surrounding parkland. Mount Ievers was built between 1733 and 1737 for Henry Ievers to the design of John Rothery who seems to have been a local architect and who died before the building’s completion. Depicting the north facade of the house, the mural is usually considered to have been painted not long after work finished and to be an accurate record of Mount Ievers. Yet a quick look at images of the building then and now shows one crucial difference. In the picture, the entrance is shown as accessed via a horseshoe staircase, whereas today, as can be seen below, a double-flight of stone steps runs directly up to the door. So did the painting show what was intended but not executed, or what was constructed but subsequently altered?
(For more on Mount Ievers, see A Place of Magic, December 16th 2013).