At the end of last week Castletown, County Kildare hosted a day-long conference in memory of Desmond FitzGerald, the Knight of Glin who died a year ago. It was an occasion for many of us who knew Desmond to gather together and, between listening to scholarly papers, exchange anecdotes and reminiscences about this most memorable man.
Desmond, the Black Knight, the Knight of the Valley, 29th and last Knight of Glin, was born in 1937, only son of fractious, unhappy parents. As noted by Christopher Gibbs, one of his oldest friends, Desmond grew up ‘a handsome, lonely boy in a rather threadbare castle on the Shannon.’ This is Glin, an 18th century Adam-esque house later tricked out in gothic flummery. The Knight’s ancestors never had much money and in his teens the family place was offered for rental, threatened with dereliction and then saved thanks to the generosity of a wealthy Canadian step-father who paid for the roof and walls to be made secure.
After time spent at the University of British Columbia followed by Harvard, Desmond returned to Ireland, living in the early 1960s in the little house tucked to the rear of Leixlip Castle. His landlords were Desmond and Mariga Guinness, from whom he – an eager student – learnt a great deal about Irish art and architecture. This knowledge provided the foundations for his own extensive research into the same subjects, subsequently published in a series of books written with collaborators such as Anne Crookshank and James Peill. Mariga was one of the great influences on Desmond’s life, as she was for many other young men and women, myself included, who crossed her path.
Here is a photograph of Desmond from those early days at Leixlip, with Mariga to the left splendid in a tartan skirt and 18th century military coat. She always had what used to be called good carriage, as well as a splendid profile. Desmond is on the right of the picture, also in costume and looking not unlike a young Cecil Beaton. Next to him can be seen his then-girlfriend Talitha Pol, one of the great beauties of the period; she went on to marry John Paul Getty.
Desmond meanwhile, had moved to London and taken a job at the Victoria & Albert Museum in what was then called the Department of Woodwork. Here he was able to continue his research into Irish decorative arts while also becoming part of a rather smart set that included not just Christopher Gibbs but also the likes of David Mlinaric, Mark Palmer, Jane and Victoria Ormsby-Gore and Nicholas Gormanston. As Christopher commented, Desmond’s scholarly life tended to be hidden from his London friends who remembered him ‘as the wildest of dancers in a chinoiserie jacket.’
In 1966 Desmond married Loulou de la Falaise, then still in her teens but already displaying the flair that would soon make her Yves St Laurent’s muse. Here is the couple in Desmond’s flat on Pont Street which he decorated (with the help of David Mlinaric) with Irish pictures and furniture discovered in London’s antique shops. The distance between Desmond and his wife in this picture, and their respective expressions, indicate all was not well with the marriage and indeed it lasted barely 18 months but they always remained friends and kept in contact, and Loulou was to die just a month after Desmond.
Fortunately within a few years he had met and married Olda Willes and this union proved much happier, producing three beautiful daughters, Catherine, Nesta and Honor, the Sirens of the Shannon. Speaking at the end of last week’s proceedings, Olda observed that in many ways Desmond had been an 18th century man mysteriously transposed into the 20th, ‘as ready to fight a duel as to negotiate a settlement.’
In the mid-1970s Desmond, throughout his life plagued by extreme mood swings, suffered a complete collapse, left the V&A and settled to Ireland where he was soon appointed representative for Christie’s. It was an ideal job, encouraging him to travel throughout the country looking at houses and their contents, work that enhanced his own research. Soon he began producing the books that have done so much to improve Irish scholarship and encourage further investigation into areas hitherto rather neglected. Today so much work is written and published on Irish architecture and decorative arts, one can easily forget that when Desmond began his enquiries this was unexplored territory.
Desmond’s enthusiasm for these topics never waned. Visiting him in hospital about a month before his death, I mentioned a newly published book of essays on Irish houses. A week later I returned to discover he had since ordered, received and read the book. At supper the evening prior to the Castletown gathering, Penny Guinness recalled also visiting Desmond and hearing him say that throughout his life he had been very lucky. So were those of us fortunate to have known him.