The above engraving of Bessborough, County Kilkenny is taken from John Preston Neale’s Views of the Seats of Noblemen and Gentlemen in England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland published in six volumes between 1818-1824. It shows the house as originally designed by Francis Bindon around 1744 and without any of its later alterations and additions. As was mentioned last week, the Ponsonby family spent relatively little time on their Irish estate. When William Tighe published his Statistical survey of the County of Kilkenny in 1802 he observed ‘The principal absentee proprietor is the Earl of Bessborough, who possesses 17,000 acres in the county, about 2,000 of which are let forever…Though not inhabited for forty years, the house is kept in excellent order.’
It would appear that the second Earl of Bessborough, who while on his Grand Tour had travelled as far as Greece and Turkey in the company of the Swiss artist Jean-Etienne Liotard (who painted him in Turkish costume) preferred to live in England where he enjoyed a successful political career. At Roehampton outside London he commissioned a new house from Sir William Chambers which was then filled with an exceptional collection of classical statuary. Only after his father’s death in 1893 did the third earl visit Bessborough for the first time but he too was an infrequent visitor. When staying in the house with the latter’s heir in 1828 Thomas Creevey wrote that following the first earl’s death two years after building’s completion in 1755, ‘His son left Ireland when 18 years old and having never seen it more, died in 1792. Upon that event his Son, the present Lord Bessborough, made his first visit to the place, and he is not certain whether it was two or three days he staid here, but it was one or the other. In 1808, he and Lady Bessborough came on a tour to the Lakes of Killarney and having taken their own house in their way either going or coming, they were so pleased with it as to stay here a week, and once more in 1812, having come over to see the young Duke of Devonshire at Lismore, when his Father died, they were here a month. So that from 1757 to 1825, 68 years, the family was (here) 5 weeks and two days.’
In 1826 the fourth earl, when still going by the courtesy title of Lord Duncannon, came over to Ireland with his wife and eleven children and, astonishingly, remained here until his death twenty-one years later: during the year before this occurred he served as Lord Lieutenant, the first resident Irish landlord to hold that office for a generation. Creevey’s letters to his step-daughter Elizabeth Ord tell us a great deal about life in Bessborough at the time. Of Lady Duncannon he wrote, ‘Her life here is devoted to looking after everybody, and in making them clean and comfortable in their persons, cloaths, cottages and everything…I wish you could have seen us walking up Piltown [the local village] last Saturday. Good old Irish usage…is to place the dirt and filth of the house at the entrance instead of behind it, and this was reformed at every house but one as we walked thro’ and Duncannon having called the old woman out told her he would not have the filth remain in that place…to which she was pleased to reply, “Well, my dear, if you do but walk by next Tuesday not a bit of the dirt shall you see remaining”.’
One suspects that the Duncannons were what might be described as benign despots, ruling over their tenants with an iron fist in a velvet glove. Creevey reported ‘My Lady’s mode of travelling is on a little pony, she sitting sideways in a chair saddle; one of the little girls was on another pony. My Lord and I sauntered on foot by her side. She got off and went into different cottages as we went. She gives prizes for the cleanest cottages…She put her Cottagers in mind of it, but there is a simplicity and interest and kindness in every communication of hers with the people here, on their part a natural unreserved confidential kind of return…’
No doubt worn out by her efforts to improve the lives of those around her, Lady Duncannon died in 1834 at the age of 46. Three of her seven sons became successively Earls of Bessborough, the sixth earl chairing the 1880 commission which investigated the problems of landlord and tenant in Ireland. His younger brother, the seventh earl, had previously been a Church of England clergyman.
Although Bessborough was occupied more than had previously been the case, it was never a permanent home for the Ponsonbys who continued to spend much of their time in England. In Twilight of the Ascendancy (1993) Mark Bence-Jones reports that the family was in residence for eight weeks each summer and another four at Christmas, but while there they entertained extensively and on one occasion had Queen Victoria’s son the Duke of Connaught and his wife to stay. Bence-Jones notes that the royal party was treated to a concert during which another of the houseguests sang Percy French’s ballad ‘The Mountains of Mourne’; she was supposed to do so in her bare feet but instead wore bedroom slippers. During this period Bessborough was also notable for its amateur dramatic performances, a popular pastime in the Edwardian era; the future ninth Earl of Bessborough was a keen actor and even brought over a professional director from London.
Nevertheless, like his forbears he was inclined to spend the greater part of his time on the other side of the Irish Sea. Prior to his father’s death in 1920 he had qualified as a barrister and served as an MP as well as becoming a successful businessman (and in the early 1930s he would be appointed Governor General of Canada). When the War of Independence broke out in this country he organised to have much of the contents of Bessborough removed from the house and brought to England. It was a wise decision since in February 1923 during the Civil War Bessborough was gutted by fire, along with another house in the same county, Desart Court. The damage to Bessborough was estimated at £30,000.
The year after Bessborough was burnt, the ninth earl bought Stansted Park in West Sussex and commissioned Harry Stuart Goodhart-Rendel, an old friend from their days together at Cambridge, to carry out alterations to the house. Goodhart-Rendel was a gentleman architect who had inherited Hatchlands in Surrey, which he gave to the National Trust in 1945. Writing of him in October 1942, James Lees-Milne noted, ‘He told me the order of his chief interests in life is 1. the Roman Catholic Church, 2. the Brigade of Guards and 2. Architecture.’ It was thanks to Lees-Milne that Hatchlands came to be given to the NT and today the house is occupied by that wondrous Irish polymath Alec Cobbe in whose own family property Newbridge, County Dublin (now under the authority of the local council) hangs a portrait of his own ancestor Archbishop Charles Cobbe; this was painted by another gentleman-architect Francis Bindon, in turn responsible for the original design of Bessborough.
Completing this circle, after he had carried out the job at Stansted Park, Goodhart-Rendel was invited by the ninth earl to oversee the rebuilding of Bessborough, which he duly did from 1925 onwards. In an article on Stansted Park written for Country Life in February 1982, Clive Aslet quotes Goodhart-Rendel’s comment that Lord Bessborough, when it came to reconstructing his family house, ‘relied on my memory for the character of what new internal detail we were able to put in.’ In fact, it does not appear that the house benefitted from much internal detail since the rooms are noticeably plain, the only striking space being the double-height entrance hall with a large staircase that runs up to a screened corridor and has a first-floor gallery on the opposite wall (see the three photographs immediately above). One also has the impression that the central block alone was rebuilt and not the quadrants or wings.
The reason for this want of detail is most likely that the Ponsonbys never again lived at Bessborough and by the end of the 1930s they had entirely disposed of their County Kilkenny estate. Soon afterwards it was bought by a religious order, the Oblate Fathers who established a seminary there, adding large and aggressively workaday wings to either side of the house; understandably the architect of these extensions is unknown. In 1971 the estate was bought by the Irish Department of Agriculture and today Bessborough, now called Kildalton, serves as an agricultural college at the centre of a large working farm. Other than some fine planting in the immediate parkland, there is little to recall the house’s former existence, so let us end today as we did last week with a page from a visiting book. This one was kept by Lady Olwen Ponsonby who in 1901 married the third Lord Oranmore and Browne. The page below features signatures of guests at a house party at Bessborough in September 1909 and includes that of Harry Stuart Goodhart-Rendel immediately below a charming drawing he made of the front of the old house. Consider it serving as a memento mori not just for the old Bessborough but for many other such places in Ireland.