Chinese Walls

IMG_3362
Granted a royal charter in December 1600 to trade as as the ‘Governor and Company of Merchants of London trading into the East Indies’, the East India Company was the first such organisation established in Europe. A joint-stock company its task was to develop closer trade links with Asia, which in practice came to mean the Indian subcontinent and Imperial China. Shares in the business were owned by merchants and wealthy landowners, some of whom became even richer as a result of their association with the company. The British government possessed no shares but exercised indirect control thanks to a series of acts passed during the 18th century as the East India Company expanded. Eventually the company came to be responsible for half the world’s trade, with a focus on certain commodities such as cotton, silk, salt and tea. But the need to secure this dominance led the East India Company into warfare both with the indigenous population and with rival businesses from other European states such as France. As a result, it came to maintain a private army and to seek control over parts of the countries in which it operated, most notably India. Only with the 1858 Government of India Act did the British government assume direct control of the subcontinent; the East India Company itself was wound up sixteen years later. Mention has been made of the principal goods in which the company traded, but there were many secondary ones, luxury items like porcelain, spices, lacquerwork and silk for which demand steadily increased. And then there was what came to be called India paper, even though it was made in China.

IMG_3315
IMG_3335
IMG_3343
The taste for Chinese wallpaper developed in the 18th century and led to the emergence of a specific trade in this item. Initially ships returning from Asia brought other luxury goods like screens, porcelain and pictures intended as gifts for royal residences. The exotic appeal of the work led to increasing consumer demand so that items were no longer brought back as gifts but as tradeable commodities. In his invaluable book on Irish wallpaper published last year, David Skinner notes that such goods seldom appear on cargo lists but instead were treated as ‘private trade’ by ships’ captains: paper had the advantage of being easily rolled up and fitted into available space in the hold. Then once in Europe, it could be sold at auction in the East India Company’s London headquarters. Skinner cites a single vessel belonging to the company in 1776 carrying 2,236 pieces of paper, enough to cover the walls of around one hundred rooms. That figure gives an idea of how keen demand had become for this commodity by the third quarter of the 18th century. In turn it led to increased production in China, aimed at the European market but without pictorially concealing its country of origin, unlike Chinese porcelain which often incorporated western decorative motifs. Wall paper, on the other hand, retained its indigenous imagery and featured birds, insects and plants unfamiliar to Europeans. So too were the costumes of human figures, the buildings they occupied and the landscape through which they moved. The paper’s appeal lay precisely in the depiction of difference, combined with evident technical finesse. Hand painted Chinese paper tended to offer varying scenes, almost like a narrative, so that no part of the run around a room’s walls looked the same. This differed from the repeat pattern of its printed western equivalent.

IMG_3331
IMG_3323
IMG_3341
By the 1750s Chinese wall papers were being offered for sale in Dublin. However, when Emily, Countess of Kildare (later first Duchess of Leinster) undertook the decoration of a small drawing room at Carton, County Kildare she sourced her material in London, presumably because it could offer a wider selection. Her husband was often dispatched on such errands when in England, on one occasion writing to her, ‘As to the India paper you want, there are patterns gone to Chester of every kind in London for you to choose out of; so that you will please yourself.’ The problem was that Lady Kildare had trouble finding a sufficient quantity of the same type of paper. Her scheme for the room was elaborate, since the walls were not simply covered with paper; it formed only one part of the decoration. The design of the imported paper, as described by David Skinner, features ‘a landscape with a river winding towards distant mountains, past villas and gardens whose well-to-do inhabitants engage in leisurely rural pastimes, and villages where rustic figures are at work fishing and farming. As always with Chinese papers, the landscape is evocative rather than strictly topographical, yet is still recognisable as that of southern China in the middle of the Qing period.’ All of this is found set within painted paper borders designed to resemble carved jade, and carved and gilded rococo filets. It is a complex, almost overly rich style of decoration that is difficult for our own era to appreciate.

IMG_3357
IMG_3349
IMG_3355
The Chinese Room at Carton is the earliest extant example of this form of decoration in Ireland. Somewhat later is the room shown here, that on the first floor of Westport House, County Mayo, home to successive generations of the Brownes, Earls of Altamont and later Marquesses of Sligo. The core of the house was designed in the early 1730s by Richard Castle but then enlarged in the 1770s and 1780s following designs by Thomas Ivory and James Wyatt. The paper here was most likely installed after completion of the latter’s work on the property. In many ways the paper hung here is similar to that in Carton, again featuring groups of figures depicted moving among villas and gardens in an imaginary landscape. The paper is uninterrupted by other elements but as a result of the low coved ceiling height, it had to be cut down. So there is no sky, which gives the room a slightly claustrophobic character. Although there no information has been found in the Westport papers, David Skinner believes that while the paper is from the late 18th century, it was only put up here in the 19th century, not least because three earlier patterned papers have been found underneath. At the moment, the room is undergoing a gradual programme of restoration by English conservator Mark Sandiford who has undertaken similar commissions in other buildings, including Woburn Abbey, Bedfordshire. To see it at the moment, when this process remains incomplete, is especially fascinating since the techniques involved in the paper’s creation and hanging are more apparent than would otherwise be the case.

IMG_3326

A Rose by Any Other Name

 

IMG_4405

The ceiling rose in the dining room of Turbotstown, County Westmeath. There is some debate over who was responsible for the design of this early 19th century neo-classical house, with Francis Johnston the most likely candidate since in purity of style it bears similarities with Townley Hall, County Louth with which he was involved (see Là, tout n’est qu’ordre et beauté, June 10th 2013). Here, as at Townley, the plasterwork remains wonderfully crisp and sharp.

Sunlight and Shadow

IMG_3232

A shaft of sunlight falls across the floor of the drawing room in Westport House, County Mayo. The parquet was laid by George, third Marquess of Sligo in 1855, one of a number of changes he made to the building during that decade, which also included a new principal staircase of Sicilian marble. Westport House was originally designed by Richard Castle in the 1730s but was thereafter subject to a variety of alterations and additions incorporating work by amongst others Thomas Ivory and James Wyatt.
More about Westport House in the near future.

A Cheeky Welcome

Mt Stewart 1
Peep around the life-size marble sculpture of Venus newly-emerged from her bath and you can see a view of the central hall at Mount Stewart, County Down. This octagonal space was designed in the 1830s by William Vitruvius Morrison for the third Marquess of Londonderry. In the 19th century it was decorated with suits of armour and lit by coloured glass in the dome above the first-floor gallery. Then in the last century the walls were painted a lusty red, the gallery’s balustrade replaced with ironwork and the original pale stone floor covered in a black and white checkerboard pattern. Mount Stewart reopens to the public this week after several years of restoration undertaken by the National Trust which has now returned the central hall’s walls to their intended cooler tones; plans are afoot also to remove the present floor covering and reveal the stone beneath.

The Scattering

aug
When that chronicle of loss, Vanishing Country Houses of Ireland was published in 1988, it did not include Glyde Court, County Louth. There must have seemed no need to feature the place; the last member of the original family to own the estate had only died five years earlier and it would have been presumed another would now take over Glyde Court. Such assumptions proved incorrect and today the house is a skeletal ruin set in the remains of planned parkland. By the time the book’s thirtieth anniversary occurs, Glyde Court will most likely have vanished. The lands on which the remains of the house stand were acquired in the middle of the 18th century by John William Foster. He was a younger brother of Anthony Foster, responsible for building the main family residence elsewhere at Collon in the same county (for more on this house, see Mr Speaker, April 28th 2014). At the time Glyde Court was called Rosy Park and after John William’s death it passed to a nephew, John Thomas Foster, son of the Reverend Thomas Foster, Rector of Dunleer and first cousin of the John Foster who served as last Speaker of the Irish House of Commons. In 1776, John Thomas married Lady Elizabeth Hervey, youngest daughter of Frederick Hervey, Bishop of Derry and Earl of Bristol. (The Earl Bishop’s building exploits have been discussed in It’s Downhill All the Way, October 28th 2013 and Let the Door be Instantly Open, For there is Much Wealth Within, March 31st 2014).

IMG_1374
IMG_1373
IMG_2705
IMG_1356
Although they had three children, two of whom survived to adulthood, the marriage of John Thomas Foster and Lady Elizabeth Hervey was not a success and the couple separated after five years. What followed next is well known. Lady Elizabeth moved to England where in 1782 she met the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire in Bath. Soon she and the Duchess, the famous Lady Georgiana Spencer, had become close friends. Subsequently Lady Elizabeth became a mistress of the Duke with whom she had two children. Although both born elsewhere in Europe the pair were eventually brought to England and raised with the Devonshires’ own offspring. Lady Elizabeth is also believed to have been the mistress of several other notable figures including the Dukes of Dorset and Richmond, Count Axel von Fersen and the first Earl of Dunraven. In 1809, three years after the death of Georgiana, she married the Duke of Devonshire but within two years he too had died. Eventually she moved to Rome and remained there until her own death in 1824. As mentioned, John Thomas Foster and his wife had two sons, the younger of whom, Augustus John, became a diplomat, a career assisted by his mother’s relationship with the Duke of Devonshire. By 1811 he was Minister Plenipoteniary to the United States, although he returned to Britain the following year after the outbreak of hostilities between the two countries. He later became Minister Plenipotentiary successfully to Denmark and Turin, Kingdom of Sardinia before retiring in 1840; in 1831 he had been made a baronet. He died in 1848 after cutting his throat during a delirium caused by poor health. Two of Sir Augustus’ sons succeeded him as baronet, the elder Sir Frederick Foster dying unmarried in 1857 was succeeded by the next brother, Sir Cavendish Hervey Foster who spent over forty years as rector of a parish in Essex. The youngest son, Vere Foster, is remembered as a notable philanthropist beginning when he paid a visit to Ireland in 1847 and was shocked to see the effects of the country’s ongoing famine. As a result, he spent the next half century advocating better conditions for the poor including improved educational opportunities. When he died in Belfast in December 1900, he had effectively spent all his personal funds on helping others.
IMG_2806
IMG_1348
IMG_1350
IMG_2795
As for Rosy Park, following the death of John Thomas Foster in 1796 and given that his children were based in England, it appears the property was let for a long period to the Upton family. The original house was of typical late Georgian design with an extended two-storey facade. At some unknown date work began on extending and converting the building in the Jacobean style to the designs of an unknown architect. It may be that this development was initiated by Sir Augustus Foster after his retirement but then came to a stop on his death, or perhaps the Uptons undertook the project themselves. At some point during the lifetime of the third baronet (he died in 1890) the transformation of Rosy Park was completed, so most likely the job was undertaken by his son, Major John Frederick Foster since during the 1870s he was High Sheriff and Deputy Lord Lieutenant of Louth. As finished, the now-renamed Glyde Court incorporated the old house into a long slim range accessed by a three-arched porch at the north end. Its design gives an indication of what lay ahead thanks to the arched openings and vaguely Perpendicular-style ceiling. On either side rise blank gables, their curled tops underlining the Jacobean inspiration; the breakfront chimney breasts here carry the Foster coat of arms. The west, garden front has a five-bay centre flanked by deep flat-roofed, two-storey and three-bay bows, with another three bays on either side of these. Curling gables once more climbed above the roofline, several incorporating dormer windows while the east end of this block had an Oriel window with Gothic glazing (that elsewhere was of the standard sash window variety). Cement mouldings give surface interest to this facade, all of which looks in old photographs to have been white-washed. Immediately behind and to the south are red-brick ranges containing stables and other services, at least some of these including a handsome pedimented carriage arch, look to have been part of the original 18th century development. The house’s main reception rooms ran north to south, beginning with an entrance hall the same width as the porch. This leads to a passageway with a series of westerly openings into the former drawing and dining rooms (which featured the two large bow windows), library and so forth. From what remains, it appears the interior decoration was a mixture of 18h century classicism and 19th gothicisation: fragments of fallen plasterwork scattered about the place reveal a mixture of designs.
IMG_2722
IMG_2730
IMG_2734
IMG_2742
Major John Frederick Foster died just months before his father, so both the baronetcy and the Glyde Court estate passed to the next generation. Sir Augustus Vere Foster was seventeen when he came into his inheritance and four years later he married Charlotte ffolkes whose father, like his grandfather, was an Anglican clergyman based in Norfolk. In 1907, after thirteen years of marriage, the couple agreed to have their portrait painted by William Orpen, the commission coming via Hugh Lane who had met the Fosters a few years earlier when looking for pictures for an exhibition. He underwrote the portrait to the tune of £100 because the Fosters pleaded poverty: when Lane advised her on how best to redecorate Glyde Court, she warned, ‘Honestly, at most I am sure £40 is the outside of what ought to be spent on our drawing room.’ Lane also took a portrait of Lady Elizabeth Foster by Sir Thomas Lawrence, as part-payment for the Orpen picture: the Lawrence is now in the National Gallery of Ireland. The execution of Orpen’s painting seems to have been fraught from the start. The artist went to stay at Glyde Court which was being updated at the time and on the first floor candles were the only form of lighting. Sir Vere was impatient and preferred to go out shooting while his highly-strung wife (‘Vere hates the idea of “sitting” and will only do so as a favour to me’) fussed and fluttered. ‘All seems strange here,’ Orpen wrote to his wife, ‘They seem like two children playing at being married.’ Although several years the junior, he also commented ‘I feel years older than Sir Vere or Lady Foster and find myself giving them advice on how to manage their servants, etc. and children.’ By this date they had two daughters who were also to be included in the picture, together with a donkey (Lady Foster had a passion for the animals). Although summer, the weather was cold and wet, and so sometimes the donkey had to be brought into the drawing room for its sittings. The elder girl Philippa, then aged nine, liked to imagine she was really a boy and insisted on being called John and wearing a knickerbocker suit of brown velvet. In fact, Lady Foster was then pregnant with the couple’s much longed-for son, Anthony who was born the following February but as a result of her condition, she regularly disappeared to bed for days, making Orpen’s task even more difficult. When he finally completed the picture, Lady Foster wrote to Lane complaining that she and the other members of the family had been given the same expressions as the donkey: ‘If you knew of all the idiotic comments that tinkle through to us about the group, you would in a way understand my touchiness on the subject.’
IMG_1361
IMG_1363
IMG_2775
In the aftermath of the first World War, the War of Independence and the Civil War, the Fosters remained on at Glyde Court, although Lady Foster’s propensity for remaining in bed grew more and more pronounced and she was inclined to hibernate throughout the winter months. The couple’s son Anthony appears to have been more lively and in 1931 he revived an annual midsummer festival called the ‘Patrun’ or Pattern in the nearby village of Tallanstown. On the first occasion he initiated proceedings by blowing on a trumpet, while a local band played and a symbolic bough was set up in the centre of the village. Singing and dancing followed, together with humorous sketches and ‘recitations’ and, in the evening, the performance of a play, after which Anthony Foster once more blew on his trumpet. The festival continued to be held even though for much of the time thereafter he was in India, a subaltern in the British army. From there he wrote to his sisters in late 1933, asking them to advise his parents that for Christmas, ‘Let them put thirty shillings aside for my return, when we can have a dance to which the band, the Patrum Committee and all my friends are invited and that will pay for their refreshments. That’s what I’d love most in the world.’ It was not to be. The following September after his regiment had moved to Khartoum, he was found dead in what have been described as ‘tragic and mysterious circumstances’, contemporary newspaper announcements declaring they would be releasing details of what had happened. Lady Foster died four years later but her husband lived on until 1947, when he left Glyde to his younger daughter Dorothy. In 1940 she had married Colonel Arthur May and the couple thereafter lived in her family home. The older sister, still calling herself John and distinguished by her cropped hair and mannish dress, lived in the same county with a cousin, Miss Evelyn ffolkes until her death in 1962. Dorothy May survived another twenty-one years but had no children and with her passing, the Foster link with Glyde Court came to a close. Still, that is less than thirty years ago and one might have thought the house would today still stand. Instead, it is about to disappear, absorbed into the landscape. The nation’s already sparse architectural heritage will be further diminished.

IMG_2759

After the Sale

IMG_1403
A view of the entrance hall at Ballynagall, County Westmeath. The house dates from c.1808 when it was built at an estimated cost of £30,000 for James Gibbons to a design by Francis Johnston. This photograph was taken in 1961, a year before the contents of the house were sold: within two decades the building itself had been stripped of its fittings and left to fall into ruin. The photograph below shows the same entrance hall today. I shall be discussing the plight of Ballynagall, and several other houses which have seen their contents sold, at a conference on Art in the Country House being held at Dublin Castle next Thursday, April 23rd. For more information on this event, see: http://www.igs.ie/events/detail/art-in-the-country-house

IMG_2187

Ray of Light

Kilrush 3
The inner hall of Kilrush, County Kilkenny. A branch of the St Georges settled here in the 17th century but for a long time the family lived in a late mediaeval tower house which was refurbished and enlarged. Finally in the second decade of the 19th century and following his marriage, Arthur St George commissioned a new residence from local architect William Robertson. Its most striking feature is the space shown here which looks as though it might have  been designed by Sir John Soane. Via a substantial staircase, the inner hall leads to the first-floor landing at the centre of which is a circular well-gallery surrounded by Doric columns and pilasters. Thanks to this being topped by a glazed dome the opening sends a broad pool of light into the hall below: notice the shadow of the gallery’s balusters thrown onto the far wall.