As is widely known, in August 79 A.D. Mount Vesuvius in southern Italy erupted, sending a plume of ashes, pumice and other rocks, and scorching-hot volcanic gases so high into the sky that people could see it hundreds of miles away. ‘I believed I was perishing with the world, and the world with me,’ afterwards wrote Pliny the Younger, who saw the eruption from the other side of the Bay of Naples and whose uncle Pliny the Elder, an admiral of the Roman fleet, died in the catastrophe. Many residents of the nearby town of Pompeii quickly fled but those who remained behind soon found it impossible to do so: falling ash clogged the air and made breathing difficult, buildings started to collapse and then a 100-miles-per-hour torrent of hot poisonous gas and pulverized rock – called a pyroclastic surge – poured down the mountain and covered everything and everyone in its path.
Buried beneath at least thirteen feet of volcanic ash, Pompeii was forgotten until 1599 when the digging of an underground channel exposed a few walls. However, the site was covered up and not explored again until the mid-18th century. First in 1738 came the excavation of the former town of Herculaneum, which had also been destroyed in the eruption of Vesuvius and which was found by workmen digging the foundations for a summer palace for the King of Naples. A decade later work on Pompeii was intentionally initiated.
The excavations at Pompeii and Herculaneum excited widespread interest, and were much visited by affluent Irish and English travelers in Italy participating in the Grand Tour. Furthermore books were published with engravings of what had been uncovered on these sites, in particular the elaborate painted decorative schemes that covered the walls of ancient Roman houses. Some of these ideas had been emulated in the 16th century thanks to the discovery around 1500 of sections of Nero’s Domus Aurea in Rome, the inspiration in that city for work by Raphael and his successors in the Vatican loggie and the Villa Madama, and in turn for French artists of the Fontainebleau school.
The style took longer to win adherents in England and Ireland, but began to attract interest with the appearance from 1757 onwards of successive volumes of the official Le Antichità di Ercolano which contained engravings of wall paintings. A stir was caused by the creation c.1759 of the Painted Room in Spencer House, London designed by that great advocate of neo-classicism, James ‘Athenian’ Stuart. The Adam brothers then undertook similar decorative schemes in such houses as Syon on the outskirts of London and Kedleston Hall in Derbyshire, and later Osterley Park, London. In the 1770s the interiors of Fawley Court, Buckinghamshire were designed in pure ‘Etruscan’ style by James Wyatt, an early commission which helped to establish his reputation.
Only one room painted in the Pompeian style exists in Ireland: the Long Gallery in Castletown, County Kildare. The house was built in the 1720s and initially this space was used as a picture gallery but this looked old-fashioned even by the time Thomas Conolly took up residence at Castletown in 1759. When in Rome the previous year he had his portrait painted by Anton Raphael Mengs (a copy of the picture can be seen over the chimneypiece at the east end of the room) and may have visited Herculaneum and Pompeii. Incidentally also in 1758 Mengs painted an imitation ancient Roman fresco representing Jupiter and Ganymede in Rome’s Palazzo Barberini in order to mislead art historian Johann Joachim Winckelmann; so convincing was this work that Winckelmann was duped into believing it was an original.
On his return from Italy Thomas Conolly married the 15-year old Lady Louisa Lennox, one of the four daughters of the second Duke of Richmond whose story was told in Stella Tillyard’s 1995 book Aristocrats. Lady Louisa’s older sister was married to James FitzGerald, Earl of Kildare (and later first Duke of Leinster) who lived less than four miles away at Carton House. Over the next twenty years or so the Conollys carried out extensive alterations at Castletown, not least to the Long Gallery. Situated on the first floor and with eight windows looking north (towards the Conolly Folly of 1740), the room measures 79 feet three inches by 22 feet nine inches. Originally there were four doors but as part of Lady Louisa’s decorative scheme, this was changed and there is now only one entrance (the matching door on the south wall is blind). There are white marble chimneypieces at either end, that already mentioned and its pair above which is a copy of Lady Louisa’s portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds. The doors and chimneypieces were designed by Sir William Chambers, the actual work believed to have been overseen by Simon Vierpyl who performed a similar role at the casino in Marino (see Casino Royale, March 25th).
The Long Gallery’s Pompeian-style decoration dates from 1775/76 and was undertaken by English artist and engraver Charles Ruben Riley (frequently referred to in Lady Louisa’s correspondence as ‘little Riley’), assisted by Thomas Ryder. It was a slow process with many changes for in August 1776 Lady Louisa wrote to another of her sisters, ‘Mr Riely [sic] goes on swimmingly in the Gallery but I am doing much more than I intended, that pretty white, grey and gold look that I admired in the ends of the room, did look a little naked by the painted compartment when finished and upon asking Mr Conolly’s opinion about it, he meekly told me, he always thought it would be much prettier to have painting, but thought I knew best.’ Clearly Mr Conolly understood the merits of a quiet marital life.
Although the overall stylistic inspiration came from ancient Roman decorative schemes, the Long Gallery’s complex iconography drew heavily on Bernard de Montfaucon’s 15-volume L’antiquité expliquée et représentée en figures published 1719-1724 and also on Raphael’s work in the Vatican. A variety of themes are illustrated, not least love, marriage and family – a reflection of the Conollys’ own circumstances – as well as different subjects from ancient antiquity. Over the two doors is a lunette copied by another artist from Guido Reni’s fresco of Aurora in the casino of the Palazzo Pallavicini-Rospigliosi, Rome. From the compartmentalised ceiling hang three glass chandeliers. They were ordered from Venice by Lady Louisa to complement the decorative scheme but once unpacked she was obliged to note, ‘The chandeliers have arrived intact, but they are the wrong blue for the room.’
In 1778 the newly-married Lady Caroline Dawson (whose cultivated husband would later become first Earl of Portarlington and commission the design of Emo Court, County Laois from James Gandon) visited Castletown and wrote, ‘It has been done up entirely by Lady Louisa and with very good taste: but what struck me most was the gallery. I dare say 150 feet long, furnished in the most delightful manner with fine glasses, books, musical instruments, billiard table…in short everything you can think of is in that room, and though so large it is so well fitted that it is the warmest, most comfortable looking place I ever saw: and they tell me that they live in it quite in the winter, for the servants can bring in dinners or suppers at one end, without anybody hearing it at the other.’
While the Long Gallery’s furnishings have since been dispersed, its unique decorative scheme remains intact and in excellent condition. Castletown, rescued by Desmond Guinness and the restored by the Irish Georgian Society in the 1960s is now owned by the Irish State and open to the public. For more information on the house and its many attractions, see: www.castletownhouse.ie. More to follow about Castletown on another occasion…