Since first writing of Bellamont Forest (La Belle au Bois Dormant, January 21st), I have heard from a number of readers concerned about a set of 18th century marble busts formerly in the house. Although none can be verified with absolute certainty, various tales exist concerning the origin of these busts. It is said, for example, that they represent different members of the Coote family responsible for building Bellamont. It has also been proposed that they were brought back from mainland Europe after a Grand Tour and installed in niches in the entrance hall and first-floor landing specifically created to accommodate them.
What can be confirmed is that the busts were already in the house more than two centuries ago. Sir Charles Coote, an illegitimate son of the last Earl of Bellamont, produced a Statistical Survey of Cavan in 1802 in which he wrote of the house, ‘The entrance from the portico is a lofty hall, thirty feet by thirty, which is ornamented with statuary in regular niches…’ Likewise in 1835 Lieutenant P. Taylor’s statistical report on the parish of Drumgoon includes a description of Bellamont with the observation, ‘The portico enters into a lofty hall 30 feet square, tastefully ornamented with statuary…’ I am grateful to Kevin Mulligan for bringing these two references to my attention.
The earliest known visual evidence of the busts’ presence in the house comes from a photograph album presented by Richard Coote to his neighbour Lady Dartrey in September 1870. Now in the possession of the National Library of Ireland, it includes a view of the entrance hall (then serving as a billiard room), which with that institution’s permission I reproduce above; one can assume the picture was taken at some date prior to 1870 (and incidentally, how fascinating to see the hall decorated in such high-Victorian style). A photograph in Volume V of the Irish Georgian Society’s Records (see top of this piece) which was published in 1913 and shows the busts in their niches appears to be a section of the earlier picture. Thereafter it would seem the busts remained within the house through changes of ownership – until last year.
Following the death of John Coote in January 2012, the busts were removed from Bellamont. After representations from the Irish Georgian Society, in September Cavan County Council issued notice to a number of parties requiring the busts’ return. To date this has not happened. I do not intend to become immersed in legal niceties, not least because the matter could yet go to litigation. On the other hand, the busts’ removal does raise a number of significant questions about what constitutes a permanent fixture within a historic building and what should be deemed a transitory decorative feature. In the case of the busts no violence was done to the house during their removal, for which nothing other than a step ladder was required. In other words, unlike say when a chimneypiece is taken out, the structure suffered no damage.
The Government’s 2011 Architectural Heritage Protection Guidelines for Planning Authories proposes: ‘free-standing objects may be regarded as fixtures where they were placed in positions as part of an overall architectural design.’ It also states that ‘Works of art, such as paintings or pieces of sculpture, placed as objects in their own right within a building, are unlikely to be considered as fixtures unless it can be proved that they were placed in particular positions as part of an overall architectural design.’
It is worth noting first that these are only guidelines; the document’s opening page counsels that what follows ‘does not purport to be a legal interpretation of any of the Conventions, Acts, Regulations or procedures mentioned. The aim is to assist planners and others in understanding the guiding principles of conservation and restoration.’ In addition, the advice offered is that works of art can only be deemed fixtures provided there is proof ‘they were placed in particular positions as part of an overall architectural design.’ In the case of the Bellamont busts the lack of such conclusive documentary evidence is an obvious problem for anyone championing their return. We do not know the artist responsible, or the date of their creation. Were they commissioned or bought ‘off the shelf’? Can it be conclusively demonstrated the niches were designed to accommodate them?
The next photograph shows the entrance hall in the mid-1980s not long before Bellamont Forest was bought by John Coote; over the intervening century every aspect of the room’s decoration has changed except for the busts.
I am unaware of any similar case to the Bellamont busts in this country at the moment or indeed in the past but it has to be said that recent precedents in Britain are not encouraging. In 1990, for example, Canova’s marble statue of The Three Graces, which had been commissioned by sixth Duke of Bedford in 1814 and installed in a purpose-built temple at Woburn, was removed after it had been judged not to constitute a part or fixture of the building. Only following four years of intense negotiation was the statue jointly bought by the Victoria & Albert Museum and the National Galleries of Scotland. More recently in 2007 Dumfries House and contents were offered for sale by the Marquess of Bute. Those contents included the only fully documented suites of furniture made by Thomas Chippendale. If anything could be deemed a fitting, albeit free-standing, it was surely these Chippendale pieces. Yet they would have been dispersed at auction (for which catalogues were printed by Christie’s) but for the intervention of the Prince of Wales who subsequently helped to establish a charitable trust preserving Dumfries and its furnishings.
Alas in Ireland we have no such well-connected champions of the country’s architectural heritage, nor have we shown much concern for preserving the historic contents of our houses. For this reason, the issue of the Bellamont busts is important and could set a precedent. But it is essential that sentiment does not cloud any discussion relating to their removal. Over centuries an inordinate number of works of art have been taken from their original or long-term settings and placed elsewhere, as a visit to any state gallery or museum will demonstrate. To insist that proprietors of historic buildings may not dispose of certain items which have remained in the same location beyond a certain period of time is to trespass dangerously on the rights of private ownership. It could also hinder rather than help the cause of heritage preservation by inspiring antagonism among the very people we are trying to encourage and support. Having seen the busts in place over many years, my ardent wish is that they will be restored to the niches they occupied for so long. But I am also sufficiently aware of the complexities of the case to appreciate this might not happen.
The Irish Aesthete welcomes comment on this or any other topic covered here, provided it is expressed in temperate language.