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:
http://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 http://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: