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

Russborough cover
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.

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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The Remains of the Day

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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.

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Feeling Bookish

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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).

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