It’s Downhill All the Way

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It was the intrepid Lady Mary Wortley Montagu who first proposed that ‘the world consists of men, women, and Herveys.’ So it has remained ever since, although the inspiration for Lady Mary’s remark was, of course, that most mercurial creature of early 18th century England and confidante of George II’s spouse Caroline, John, Lord Hervey. The queen found him ‘particularly agreeable, as he helped to enliven the uniformity of a Court with sprightly repartees and lively sallies of wit.’ Speaking of which, if Hervey’s memoirs (which were only first published over a century after his death) are not quite up to the mark of those by his French near-contemporary the Duc de Saint-Simon, nevertheless they offer an insight into the intrigues of political and social life at the time, and also explain why he inspired as much loathing as love.
Among those who felt the former emotion was Alexander Pope who in his satiric poem of 1735 The Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot mockingly called the sexually-ambiguous Hervey ‘Sporus’ (the name of the Emperor Nero’s catamite) and wrote of him, ‘His wit all see-saw between that and this/Now high, now low, now master, up now miss/And he himself one vile Antithesis/Amphibious thing! that acting either part/The trifling head, or the corrupted heart/Fop at the toilet, flatt’rer at the board/Now trips a Lady, and now struts a Lord.’
Despite his innumerable affairs with women and men alike, and his general weak health (for which his father blamed ‘that detestable and poisonous plant, tea, which had once brought him to death’s door, and if persisted in would carry him through it’) Hervey and his loyal wife nevertheless managed to have eight children, among them Frederick Augustus Hervey, Bishop of Derry and Earl of Bristol.

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Frederick Augustus Hervey was born in August 1730 and as the third of Lord Hervey’s four sons was not expected to inherit either the family title or lands. He therefore needed to find an alternative career (two of his brothers joined the armed forces, one becoming an admiral, the other a general) and so became a Church of England clergyman. Thanks to the intervention of his eldest brother George who as second Earl of Bristol in 1766 was appointed Lord Lieutenant of Ireland (although he never visited the country), Frederick Augustus – already a royal chaplain – was appointed Bishop of Cloyne. A year later, aged only 38 he became Bishop of Derry and thus responsible for one of the richest Irish sees. Judicious management of diocesan funds allowed him not only to increase his wealth but also to ensure that some portion of the Bishop of Derry’s estates in would pass to his own heir.
It is difficult to discern the depth of Bishop Hervey’s personal religious beliefs, but there can be no doubt about his tolerance: he was a proponent of religious equality and dedicated himself to improving the lot of Roman Catholics and Presbyterians within his diocese, and further afield. He campaigned to place on the statute book an oath of allegiance which would permit loyal and well-disposed Irish Catholics to disavow the more extreme papal doctrines – such as the teaching that heads of government excommunicated by the Pope could be deposed or murdered by their subjects. In 1774 an oath along the lines he had been suggesting since 1767 was incorporated in an act of the Irish parliament (it was then spurned by the Papacy). But he was also somewhat eccentric – he was, after all, a Hervey – and on one occasion he organised a curates’ race along the sands of Downhill, the winners being awarded benefices then vacant in the Derry diocese.

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Lord Charlemont declared of Bishop Hervey, ‘his genius is like a shallow stream, rapid, noisy, diverting, but useless. Such is his head, and I fear it is much superior to his heart. He is proud and to the last degree vindictive; vain to excess, inconsistant in his friendships… fond of intrigue in gallantry as well as politics, and sticking at nothing to gain his ends in either… A bad father, both from caprice and avarice; a worse husband to the best and most amiable of wives; a determined deist, though a bishop, and at times so indecently inpious in his conversations as to shock the most reprobate… His ambition and his lust can alone get the better of his avarice.’
Meanwhile Sir Jonah Barrington in his own highly entertaining memoirs described the bishop as ‘a man of elegant erudition, extensive learning, and an enlightened and classical, but eccentric mind:—bold, ardent, and versatile; he dazzled the vulgar by ostentatious state, and worked upon the gentry by ease and condescension:—he affected public candour and practised private cabal.’
One of the ways Hervey practised private cabal was by becoming over-involved with Irish politics. His sympathy for the plight of Catholics led him to take an interest in parliamentary reform and even, it has been suggested, in the notion of independence for Ireland as would be attempted before the end of the century. However, by that time, following the death of two brothers he had inherited the Earldom of Bristol and with it considerable estates in England that increased his already great wealth.

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Even before becoming Earl of Bristol in 1779, the Bishop had been a great traveller on mainland Europe: it is often said the reason so many Hotels Bristol exist is that they were named after him. In particular he loved Italy, a country in which he spent more and more time as he grew older (he would die in Albano in July 1803). Here he collected the many artworks intended to fill great houses built for him in these islands. So all consuming was his passion for translating architectural ideas into reality that he became known as the ‘Edifying Bishop.’ He was responsible for two new residences in Ireland, the first and more conservative being Downhill, County Derry. It dates from the mid-1770s when work started under the supervision of a Cork-born stone-mason Michael Shanahan, perhaps to a design by James Wyatt. Located close to a cliff overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, the house is long and narrow and of two storeys over basement, its granite ashlar exterior relieved by a series of bows and giant fluted Corinthian pilasters. Long wings on either side (originally concluding in domes) flank a central courtyard and this in turn leads to a further extensive range at the rear, allowing all services to be kept on the one site. Downhill is highly exposed to harsh winds whipping off the nearby seas and was always cold but at the time of its construction Hervey wrote enthusiastically to one of his daughters that the place ‘is becoming elegance itself, with 300,000 trees…and almost as many pictures and statues within doors.’ Indeed the interiors were said to be magnificent, the principal stone staircase having a balustrade of gilded ironwork beneath a frescoed dome while the main rooms were a library and double-height picture gallery, at one end of which were pairs of Corinthian columns supporting an entablature above which were the arms of the bishopric and earldom.

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As can be seen from these photographs, little remains today of the Earl-Bishop’s splendid residence at Downhill. On his death he left the Irish estates to the Rev. Henry Hervey Bruce, brother of a deceased cousin – Mrs Frideswide Mussenden – to whose memory the Earl-Bishop had built an exquisite domed rotunda in the grounds of Downhill, known as the Mussenden Temple. The Rev. Bruce, who became a baronet soon after coming into his considerable inheritance, had looked after both his benefactor’s property and diocese during the Earl-Bishop’s long absences from Ireland. Generations of the Bruce family remained in possession of Downhill for the next 150 years but the house was seriously damaged by fire in 1851 when many of the most valuable contents, including its library and collection of statuary, were lost.
In the early 1870s a programme of restoration was carried out to the designs of John Lanyon, which involved a new entrance being created on the west side of the house and the installation of plate-glass windows as well as a new heating system since Downhill had hitherto been notoriously cold. But even these improvements could not save the house after a sequence of deaths led to heavy duties and sales. During the Second World War Downhill was used as a billet by the RAF and a few years into peacetime it was unroofed and permitted to fall into ruin. Now under the care of the National Trust, Downhill stands as a handsome if gaunt shell through which those harsh Atlantic winds continue to whistle.

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I shall at some future date be writing about both the Mussenden Temple and the Earl-Bishop’s other Irish house, Ballyscullion.

22 comments on “It’s Downhill All the Way

  1. Helen Kehoe says:

    Wonderful informative piece- was unaware of this unfortunately now fine ruin…

  2. Brilliant read. Don’t know how you manage to pull all this together. Great photographs too – you can sense the wind! Is that the temple in the second last one?
    Thanks,
    Michael

    • There’s so much to say about the Earl-Bishop, it is as well I have another two buildings on which I can discourse about the man. And yes, that is the Mussenden Temple viewed through the rear arch of the service yard at Downhill in the penultimate photograph.
      Thank you Michael as always for your enthusiasm.

  3. Mairtin D'Alton says:

    Maurice Craig said of Downhill that the site was where only a romantic would expect to find a house, and only a lunatic would build one. He also said the earl bishop appeared to qualify on both counts. Great article as usual.

    • Gosh, I hadn’t come across that quote of Maurice’s before now, thank you – do you know if it is in one of his books?

      • Mairtin D'Alton says:

        craig, maurice j. ‘ the architecture of ireland, from earliest times to 1880’ (London 1982) p.245 : ‘The siting of downhill can only be described as ossianic, on a clifftop facing north across the atlantic towards the outer hebrides, where only a romantic would expect to find a house, and only a lunatic would build one. The earl bishop quaIfies on both counts.’
        i wish i could write like that, or like yourself for that matter….

  4. Thanks for the reference, I ought to have looked at my copy before writing that text (I love the reference to ‘Ossianic’). And for your compliment altho’ I’m sure you could write with similar fluency…

  5. thank you for this super piece Robert.
    Very interesting to learn, not just about this wonderful house and its temple, but also about the earl-bishop himself. I often see him when leading tours in the National Gallery, you’ll know the painting of course, (by H.D. Hamilton) of Hervey in the villa Borghese with his granddaughter.

    That super picture makes it clear he was a seasoned Grand tourist, and a lover of things classical and italian, but I knew nothing of his (moderate and very enlightened) religious or political views, so that’s all fascinating stuff. thank you.

    Do I recall correctly that the temple is near the sea cliffs, and was designed as a study or reading room? Anyway, best I look forward to the follow-up posts. best regards- AQH

    • Dear Arran,
      Thank you also for your kind comments. Yes, as testified by the lovely Hamilton portrait, the Earl-Bishop was an admirer of Italy. And yes also the Mussenden Temple is not just near the sea cliffs but now, due to erosion, right on the edge of them – the NT has had to engage in certain works to ensure it does not slide into the Atlantic Ocean…

  6. Great post (as usual). Do you happen to know if there is any record of what the building (especially the interiors) looked like before its ruination? Photographs, watercolours, plans, drawings, etc… I think I may have been bitten by the Earl-Bishop bug.

    • Thanks for your comment. To the best of my knowledge, there are no plans of the house or indeed watercolours of what it looked like. There are a few photographs of the exterior post-Lanyon restoration (with plate glass windows and so forth), these as I recall are in the National Library of Ireland. It might be worth checking what, if anything, the Irish Architectural Archive has, but as I say, as far as I know that’s it (the usual story for houses here). Do please let me know if you find any more pictures…

    • REMF says:

      National trust have 3d recreations of both Downhill Castle and the Mussenden Temple on their website.

      • Thank you, I must have a look at those.
        And yes, the old Fothergill text is well worth reading (so also is Stephen Price’s recently-published book which gives an excellent over-view of the Earl-Bishop’s life and work).

  7. REMF says:

    Spooky, I was back there again last weekend showing more first time visitors the wonderful Mussenden Temple.

    I have already dispatched 3 copies of Brian Fothergill’s book to my friends and have one more on order!

  8. columnist says:

    The shell of Downhill is really quite eerie, but unusual too, unless there were reinforcements made to the structure by Lanyon, unless the MOD had their own delightful impact, (a la Prince of Wales’s description about Paternoster Square). The house was so aptly named, as your post title suggests.

    • The reinforcements are, I think of more recent origin because the shell was becoming very vulnerable. I have recently been told further work is going to be undertaken to secure the structure – as you can appreciate, its location and exposure make it especially vulnerable.

  9. Brian Shanahan says:

    Hi,
    I really enjoyed reading the article.
    My Great, Great, Great, Great Grand Father was the same Michael Shanahan Architect, born in Cork 1731.
    I would hope to visit Derry later this year.
    If you have any further information about Michael Shanahan, I would very much like to read it.
    Best regards,
    Brian Shanahan Cork City

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