Roman Evenings

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A princely villa in the former Papal States? No, this is a view taken below the terrace of Ballynatray, County Waterford. Situated on the banks of the Blackwater river, the house dates from the closing years of the 18th century but was subsequently refaced in stucco, hence its radiant exterior thanks to a wash of colour responding to evening sunlight.
*In case you have not already done so, today is the last chance to nominate me for an Irish Blog Award (see Number One, July 25th).

Abbey Road

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In 1142 St Malachy of Armagh was responsible for founding Ireland’s first Cistercian monastery at Mellifont, County Louth. Five years later a small group of this house’s residents walked some 35 miles to establish a second monastery close to the banks of the Boyne river at Bective, County Meath. Built on land granted by Murchadh O’Melaghlin, King of Meath the new monastery was dedicated to the Virgin Mary and quickly grew into a thriving community. Half a century after its foundation, such was the importance of Bective Abbey that in 1196 the body of the Anglo-Norman Lord of Meath Hugh de Lacy was interred here; it was later moved to St Mary’s Abbey in Dublin. By the start of the following century Irish Cistercians would appear to have slipped into laxness; attempts by the church authorities to initiate a programme were rebuffed, not least by the Abbot of Bective who in 1217 participated in a ‘riot’ at Jerpoint Abbey, County Kilkenny and was further charged with imprisoning a man in a tree stump until he died. The Abbot was subsequently sent to Clairvaux in France for trial and prior of the Norman Abbey of Beaubec appointed to take responsibility for Bective.

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Nothing remains of the original monastic establishment at Bective; the earliest part of the present range of buildings dates from the 12th – 13th century buildings and include there remain the chapter house on the south-east side, a plain rectangular building with central column, also part of the west range and fragments of the aisled cruciform church. By the 15th century a serious decline in numbers had occurred and the premises were reduced in size. The church, for example, was substantially shortened and its south aisles demolished which in turn blocked off the adjoining arcades. Massive fortified towers were erected on the church’s west façade and on the south-west corner of the monastery, giving Bective the appearance more of a castle than a religious establishment. The most striking feature to the modern eye is the cloister that was built at this time, smaller than its predecessor (measuring no more than 33 feet square) and now the best-preserved Cistercian cloister in Ireland. The passages are set not beyond the walls but within them and are thus recessed, with each arcade composed of three miniature arches supported by double-column shafts. In one instance a panel between inner and outer shaft is decorated with the carved figure of an unidentified cleric set into an ogee-headed niche with his arms including three fleur-de-lys (see the top-most picture for a detail of this feature).

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Despite having fewer occupants, Bective Abbey remained a considerable land owner; at the time of the dissolution of the monasteries in 1537, this establishment was recorded as possessing a total of 4,400 acres in Meath. And the land was of high quality, so there was no shortage of lay people eager to acquire it, beginning with the Staffordshire-born Thomas Agard who came to Ireland in the crown service and charged with the task of assessing the country’s mineral resources and the possibility of developing lead mines. He began the process of converting the former monastery into a domestic residence, with the cloister transformed into an internal courtyard and the refectory turned into a Great Hall. Larger openings were inserted to create windows and tall chimneys rose above the roofline. After Agard’s death house and estate were briefly owned by Ireland’s Lord Chancellor John Allen before being bought in 1552 by Andrew Wyse, Vice-Treasurer of Ireland for £1,380 16s 7d. It passed through a couple of generations of his family but already by 1619 the abbey was described as being deserted. Twenty years later the property came into the possession of Sir Richard Bolton, like Agard originally from Staffordshire but by this date Lord Chancellor of Ireland. The estate remained in the possession of the Boltons for the next two centuries although they usually rented it out and by 1800 had built Bective House on the other side of the Boyne. In 1884 Bective was inherited by the Rev. George Martin, Rector of Agher, County Meath and ten years later he vested the abbey ruins to the Board of Public Works. It has remained in state ownership ever since but has recently been made more accessible than hitherto the case. The surrounding flat land and its high towers make Bective Abbey easy to spot and since access to the site has recently been improved exploration of this wondrous relic of late-mediaeval/early modern Irish architecture is a delight.

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That’s Coole

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Two details of the plasterwork in the dining room at Castle Coole, County Fermanagh. Constructed between 1789 and 1796 for Armar Lowry-Corry, first Earl of Belmore the house is considered to be architect James Wyatt’s Neoclassical masterpiece. For the decoration he used his usual team of London craftsmen including stuccadore James Rose who sent five of his regular plasterers to do the job. John Martin Robinson in his recently published monograph on Wyatt quotes a contemporary report that the workers were unhappy in Fermanagh, finding it ‘an unhealthy place, that most of them are ill and there is not lodging for them but in damp rooms.’ None of this discontent is reflected in the graceful plasterwork, with each room given a distinctive frieze pattern.

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P.S. Apologies to anyone who was trying to nominate me for the Irish Blog Awards (see Number One from last Thursday, July 25th) and had problems because I gave the wrong email address: this has now been corrected , so please forgive my incompetence and try again. And thanks to all who have already nominated me.

Number One

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The annual Irish Blog Awards are now open to nominations and the Irish Aesthete would therefore ask readers at home and abroad to consider taking the time to give this site your vote (you don’t have to be Irish or living in Ireland to do so).
Unfortunately, there is no category for Most Aesthetically Minded Blog, and therefore it is probably wisest for you to vote in the Best Newcomer section. Please spread the word and encourage others to do likewise; the more support, the better for all things aesthetic in Ireland. And thank you in advance for your assistance and interest.
To make things as simple as possible, please follow instructions below.
Where you will find the nominations: http://www.blogawardsireland.com/nominations-open/
There are five pieces of information you must give, as follows.
1. Email of blog you are nominating (This is required, only blogs with valid emails will be considered): theirishaesthete@gmail.com
2. Name of Blog You Are Nominating:
The Irish Aesthete
3. Web Address Of Blog You are nominating:
www.theirishaesthete.com
4. Date blogged started:
24th September 2012
5. Please state why you are nominating this blog for this category. Let us know why this is such a remarkable blog:
(This last question, gentle readers, you must answer without my assistance).
P.S. Closing date for nominations is next Wednesday, July 31st.
*Apologies to those trying to nominate me: I gave an incorrect email address but have now corrected this.

When Less is Plenty

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The handsome cut-limestone pedimented doorcase and sidelights of Huntingdon, County Westmeath. A typical Irish 18th century gentleman farmer’s residence, the house dates from c.1770 and is of three bays and two storeys over basement, just one room deep and with a central bow at the rear to accommodate a staircase. An exercise in elegant restraint.

A Woman of Substance

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Venturing outside the Irish Aesthete’s customary sphere, today we consider the career of Irish couturier Sybil Connolly who sixty years ago this month came to international prominence following a fashion show in County Meath. ‘Ireland,’ wrote former American Vogue editor Bettina Ballard in her 1960 memoir In My Fashion, ‘was a completely unexpected centre for fashion for everyone but Carmel Snow. We were drawn en-masse to Dublin by the personable, milk-skinned Irish charmer called Sybil Connolly who showed a small collection made of Irish tweeds and linens in Dunsany Castle and bewitched us all into buying models or filling our editorial pages with them.’
It comes as no surprise that the incomparable Carmel Snow, outstanding editor of Harper’s Bazaar for over a quarter century, should have championed Sybil since she too was Irish, having been born in Dalkey, County Dublin in 1887 (for more about Snow’s life and work I recommend Penelope Rowlands’ 2005 biography A Dash of Daring). Presumably she and the designer had met when the latter first visited New York in 1952 and thereafter they remained friends. Certainly Snow was responsible for ensuring a large group of American buyers and journalists, en route to Paris for the couture shows, stopped off in Ireland to see the work of a rising Irish star.

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After Sybil Connolly’s July 1953 fashion show, Carmel Snow wrote enthusiastically in her syndicated column of what she and the others present had been shown: ‘Miss Connolly is lovely, with jet black, curling hair and amazingly grey eyes. She came to America last spring and went back to Dublin with many orders. Today she has her foot firmly planted on the ladder of international success – a success that gives one a glow.’ As for the clothes, Snow attributed their appeal to a number of factors: ‘Her integrity in using exclusively Irish materials and using them with strict relevance to native needs; her imaginative adaptation of traditional Connemara garments for contemporary use; her colossal capacity for hard work; her respect for native craftsmanship and the age-old independence of weaver and dyer, and a parallel determination to guide and suggest where she is far too intelligent to demand.’
Throughout her career Sybil was fortunate to have women of influence and authority offering their support in this way. For example, the most powerful woman in American public relations Eleanor Lambert was a close friend for decades (indeed, it was through Sybil that I came to know Eleanor and to sit on the adjudicating panel for her International Best Dressed List – but all that is perhaps for another occasion). Then there were the well-connected women who helped by buying the clothes and promoting her name, not least Sheila, Lady Dunsany who offered the use of beautiful Dunsany Castle for that show in July 1953. (I remember Sheila Dunsany’s wry amusement as she told me some months before her death in July 1999 that Sybil, whose Welsh mother’s maiden name was Phillips, liked to claim an affinity since this was also Sheila’s family name). Then look at the pictures above and note that in the first of these the models photographed by Norman Parkinson for Vogue in July 1954 are Ladies Melissa and Caroline Wyndham-Quin, daughters of the sixth Earl of Dunraven, while that below, taken by Henry Clarke, shows one-time model Anne Gunning who by this date was married to English politician Sir Anthony Nutting.

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Sybil Connolly’s signature design was a dress made from pleated handkerchief linen. She used to say that she first discovered this featherweight fabric in a Northern Irish factory where it had been manufactured many years earlier for the crowned heads of Europe, but after the First World War ‘there weren’t enough of them left around.’ Sybil had the linen tightly pleated to produce lengths which were thed used to make clothes. Nine yards of linen were required to produce one yard of finished pleated material. The first garment made in this way to be shown in the United States, a white evening dress called First Love, required three hundred handkerchiefs and contained more than five thousand pleats (see bottom picture which shows Sybil wearing the item).
The great merit of her pleated linen was that it was uncrushable – and virtually indestructible. I recently came across one of her dresses in a box in Birr Castle; it had been made for the late Anne Rosse. Although not worn for decades after a quick shake the dress fell into place and looked much as it must have done when first produced. Harper’s Bazaar noted in June 1958 that a Connolly pleated linen skirt ‘will pack into a small duffle bag and emerge unscathed.’ Sybil’s pleated linen is as remarkable a contribution to fashion history as was Mariano Fortuny’s Delphos pleated silk dress half a century earlier and will similarly be forever associated with the name of one designer.

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As can be seen by the two pictures immediately above, Sybil did not only use pleated linen, but also worked with other fabrics, the majority of them associated with Ireland. So, for example, she bought bales of red flannel traditionally used for petticoats in Connemara and had the material made into quilted skirts which were then teamed with white cambric blouses and black shawls to create an early version of peasant chic. She was not above using seemingly mundane material: a dress called Kitchen Fugue from her summer 1954 collection, for example, had a full skirt made from lengths of striped tea towels. But her clothes more often featured the likes of hand-dyed tweed and hand-made Carrickmacross lace and crochet.
In her heyday – the second half of the 1950s and early 1960s, Sybil Connolly was internationally renowned and enjoyed huge success, especially in the United States where her clientele included members of the du Pont, Mellon and Rockefeller families as well as the likes of Elizabeth Taylor, Rosalind Russell and Merle Oberon. Jacqueline Kennedy’s official portrait for the White House (painted by Aaron Shikler) shows the former First Lady wearing one of Sybil’s outfits. Although she lived until May 1998 and always kept herself busy through such projects as designing fabrics for Brunschwig & Fils and china for Tiffany, already by 1970 her moment as a fashion leader had come to an end. Still, it is worth remembering just what a pioneer she was for Irish design and how, thanks to a show staged sixty years ago, she turned the global fashion spotlight on this country.

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To commemorate the sixtieth anniversary of her July 1953 fashion show, I shall be giving a talk on Sybil Connolly at the Little Museum of Dublin next Wednesday 24th July at 7pm. For further information, see www.littlemuseum.ie

Lane’s Lore

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Art dealer and collector Sir Hugh Lane drawn by the artist John Butler Yeats in August 1905. At the time, Yeats was engaged in producing a series of portraits of notable Irish men and women, a commission he received from Lane who intended these works to form the core of a National Portrait Gallery for Ireland. Within three years he had instead established a modern art gallery in Dublin which continues to this day. To learn more about Lane, and about the controversy over a collection of Impressionist paintings after his unexpected death in 1915, you can now watch two short films featuring the Irish Aesthete:

By Royal Command

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The central entrance on the north front of the Royal Hospital Kilmainham, Dublin, a building begun in 1680 to the design of Sir William Robinson. The previous year Arthur Forbes, 1st Earl of Granard and Marshal of the Garrisons of Ireland, had visited Paris and seen the newly-completed Invalides. He proposed to Charles II that a similar military hospital for elderly or disabled veterans be built in Dublin and the king duly commanded that this should be (work on its equivalent in Chelsea started two years later). The foundation stone was laid by then-Viceroy James Ormond, 1st Duke of Ormond and it is his coat of arms that can be seen above the doorway’s segmental pediment flanked by Corinthian pilasters. As Christine Casey has observed, the impact of this classical building on what was still essentially a mediaeval city must have been enormous: ‘It was such a sight that in 1684 a rule was introduced forbidding residents to accept gratuities from visitors who came to see it.’ Currently undergoing structural repair, since 1990 the Royal Hospital has housed the Irish Museum of Modern Art.

Restoration Drama

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Since last October work has been underway restoring the City Assembly House on South William Street, Dublin. This week it will be possible for members of the public to see the results of this enterprise and to (re)discover an important part of the city’s 18th century architectural heritage.
The City Assembly House dates from the second half of the 1760s and was built by and for the Society of Artists of Ireland. It was an idealistic organisation which believed the best means of advancing interest in and awareness of the creative arts in the country was to have a venue where these skills could be taught and the results put on display. Thus the core of the building is a top-lit octagonal space 40 feet wide and 33 feet high. Today this is the oldest purpose-built exhibition gallery in Britain and Ireland.

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While the gallery occupies the rear of the City Assembly House, the front section was intended to hold offices for the society as well as rooms where students could learn to draw, paint and sculpt. It is this forward area which has now been restored by the Irish Georgian Society, wishing to give the old building a new lease of life.
The City Assembly House has had a somewhat chequered career, since the society responsible for its erection had gone out of existence by 1780. Thereafter the premises were used for debates, shows, balls, masques and so forth until the building was acquired by Dublin Corporation in the early 1800s. It then acted as City Hall for half a century before becoming a law court and, in more memory, a civic museum. The last of these ceased to operate out of the building a decade ago and since then the City Assembly House has stood empty.

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Now the IGS has assumed responsibility for the City Assembly House and for its complete restoration. The first phase was completed a few weeks ago, returning the front of the structure to its original understated elegance. Of particular interest is a top-lit staircase that cleverly climbs up and accommodates landings at different levels to front and rear. The stairs terminate in a handsome oval gallery beneath a glazed dome that provides light down to the ground floor and in particular draws attention to the pretty rococo cornice. Much of this had become indiscernible behind layers of paint and while certain sections required repair, a surprising amount of the original plasterwork has survived intact. Other discoveries included splendid neo-classical decoration in the large first floor room overlooking South William Street, and a granite wall on the ground floor return. Original floors have been cleaned and repaired, chimney pieces reinstated and doors repaired. The result is an absolute delight.
As of last month the City Assembly House is the headquarters of the IGS, but it has always been intended the building should open to the public. And so it will from Wednesday on, with a reception area and bookshop just inside the front door and the main gallery used for temporary exhibitions, beginning with photographs from the Vanishing Ireland project of James Fennell and Turtle Bunbury (until August 31st). Admission is free, so anyone visiting Dublin – or indeed living there – should take this opportunity to delight in one of the city’s lesser-known architectural gems, and to learn more about the work of the IGS. Incidentally, funds permitting it is hoped to begin full restoration of the main exhibition gallery next year.

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For more information about the City Assembly House, and the work of the Irish Georgian Society, see www.igs.ie

Thinking Periodically

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Rathfarnham Castle, County Dublin as depicted in a watercolour by the Huguenot artist Gabriel Beranger in 1774. It shows the structure, built around 1583 for Adam Loftus, Lord Chancellor of Ireland and Protestant Archbishop of Dublin as a semi-fortified residence, after it had been extensively altered by his descendants in the 18th century.
In state ownership since 1987, today and tomorrow Rathfarnham Castle is the venue for the Period Buildings Show, an event organised by the Irish Georgian Society & South Dublin County Council, in partnership with the Office of Public Works. Ireland’s leading conservation practitioners will demonstrate everything from sash window repairs and stained glass and fanlight conservation to stone carving and traditional wallpaper making. Inside the house will be talks on a variety of topics relating to conservation. The occasion ought not to be missed especially since, mirabile dictu, admission is free.
For further information see: http://www.igs.ie/Programmes/Conservation-Outreach.aspx