A Reflection of the Past

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An engraving showing a cross-section of the interior of the Irish House of Commons in Dublin. Work on this, part of the world’s first purpose-built parliament, began in 1729 to designs by Sir Edward Lovett Pearce. The engraving was made in 1767 by the artist Peter Mazell after a drawing by architect Rowland Omer. It is a valuable source of information about how the House of Commons looked since the original domed chamber was destroyed by fire in 1792 and, for the last years of the Irish parliament’s life prior to the 1800 Act of Union, replaced by a simpler structure. The engraving hangs on the stairs of Furness, County Kildare (the upper landing window can be seen reflected in the glass): appropriate because in the second half of the 18th century the house was owned by Richard Nevill who, like his father and grandfather before him, sat as an M.P. in the Irish House of Commons.

Mr Speaker

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Most visitors to Collon, County Louth are likely to pass swiftly on their way, unaware the house on the north-east corner of the village’s crossroads has powerful links with a pivotal moment in our history when the country likewise stood at a crossroad: the 1800 Act of Union. This building, known as Collon House, was the birthplace and lifelong residence of John Foster, last speaker of the Irish House of Commons.
The Fosters are believed to have been of English origin, coming from Cumberland to settle in this country sometime around the time of Charles II’s Restoration: the name of a Samuel Foster appears in the Hearth Money return (by which one shilling was paid for every firehearth or stove in a dwelling) for the parish of Dunleer, County Louth in 1666. Samuel Foster’s son Anthony, named as a burgess of Dunleer in 1683, seems to have been a small tenant farmer in the area but his son John studied law, married well and started to acquire land, much of it formerly belonging to an impecunious branch of the Moore family. By the time of his death in 1747 he had built up an estate of some 6,000 acres. This property included Collon where around 1740 John Foster’s son, another Anthony, built the family residence. Land ownership conveyed power and thus with his election as an M.P. in 1737 Anthony Foster was able to wrest control of the Dunleer borough over which he and his son thereafter retained until the abolition of the Irish parliament. Trained as a barrister, from 1760 to 1766 Anthony Foster held the Office of First Counsel to the Commissioners of the Revenue, before being appointed Lord Chief Baron of the Court of Exchequer, retiring from this position a year before his death in 1778.

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John Foster’s biographer Anthony Malcolmson describes Anthony Foster as ‘an able man whose misfortune it has been to be overshadowed by an even abler son.’ This is evident in his enterprises in Collon and surrounding areas. Finding the land here in poor condition – he recalled it had been ‘a waste sheep walk, covered chiefly with heath, with some dwarf furze and fern’ – he carried out many improvements, not least through drainage. When the English agriculturalist Arthur Young published his Tour of Ireland in 1780 he called Anthony Foster a ‘great improver, a title more deserving estimation than that of a great general or a great minister,’ someone who had ‘made a barren wilderness smile with cultivation, planted it with people and made those people happy,’ altogether a man whose work on his estate was ‘of a magnitude I have never heard of before.’
Anthony Foster gained a patent to hold a weekly market in Collon as well as two annual fairs, and the grounds of his house, in which he built greenhouses in 1763 for the production of exotic fruits, became renowned for their variety of trees and shrubs: this interest in botany would be inherited by his son who is credited with introducing the copper beech to Ireland. However, all this land acquisition and improvement came at a price, and as early as 1740 John Foster the elder was concerned over his level of indebtedness. The family never managed to become solvent and by 1810 his grandson John was estimated to have debts of £72,000. As we shall see, this helps to explain the relative modesty of Collon House.

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John Foster was born in 1740, on other words precisely around the time Collon House was being built by his father. Like the latter, he sought to improve the family estate, developing a linen industry in the area, building mills and encouraging Protestant weavers to settle in Collon. Also following the example of Anthony Foster he studied law and was first elected to parliament in 1761. Noted for his interest in the economic and commercial betterment of this country, he was involved in successfully ‘regulating Ireland’s external trade with Great Britain, with other parts of the Empire, with the United States, and with France’. In 1777 he served as Chairman of the Committee of Supply and Ways and Means before succeeding his cousin and brother-in-law Walter Hussey de Burgh as Irish Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1784. In that year parliament passed his corn law, ‘granting large bounties on the exportation of corn and imposing heavy duties on its importation.’ According to the 19th century historian William Lecky, ‘This law is one of the capital facts in Irish history. In a few years it changed the face of the land and made Ireland to a great extent an arable instead of a pasture country.’
Foster only remained in the Exchequer a year before becoming Speaker of the Irish House of Commons in 1785, the final man to hold this position. His understanding of Ireland and her particular circumstances made him a leading opponent of the Act of Union. ‘I declare from my soul,’ he declared when the abolition of the Irish parliament was first proposed, ‘that if England were to give us all her revenues, I could not barter for them the free constitution of my country.’ He was forced to preside over the debate in the Commons for its own eradication, an occasion later recalled by Sir Jonah Barrington who wrote, ‘The Speaker rose slowly from that chair which had been the proud source of his honours and of his high character; for a moment he resumed his seat, but the strength of his mind sustained him in his duty, though his struggle was apparent.’ However, Foster refused to surrender the Speaker’s mace, declaring that “until the body that intrusted it to his keeping demanded it, he would preserve it for them.’ The mace was eventually offered for sale by his descendants in 1937 and bought by the Bank of Ireland. It has ever since remained in that organisation’s premises, the former Irish parliament building.

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It is often proposed as evidence of the Fosters’ prudence that they did not indulge in building a lavish country mansion. But the fact that they remained in Collon might just be due as much to ongoing indebtedness as to financial sagacity. And they were not without other properties, having a residence in central Dublin (essential for any member of Parliament) as well as one on the outskirts of the capital (Merville, now part of the University College Dublin campus, but its original owners remembered in the name of adjacent Foster Avenue). Furthermore in the 1770s a short distance from Collon they would build themselves a pleasure pavilion called Oriel Temple and John Foster leased in perpetuity another house in the county, Rathescar Lodge which likewise still stands although much enlarged.
Nevertheless, the principal Foster residence remained that in Collon which, as built by Anthony c.1740 was a exceptionally extended version of the traditional Irish ‘long house’, in this case running two storeys and eighteen bays. It seems to have comprised a series of long, low rooms, none very substantial. Many of these survive, as can be seen in the photographs above and testify to the determinedly modest condition of the family’s living conditions: when Anthony Foster invited a cousin to stay around 1766 he warned that a shared room should be expected, presumably due to the number of other guests due at the same time. Inside the design is determinedly simple, with surviving chimneypieces and cornicing almost devoid of decoration. The want of ostentation was not necessarily to everyone’s taste. Indeed John Foster’s own daughter Anna, Lady Dufferin later wrote that arrangements in Collon House were ‘so uncomfortable as soon to banish all visitors, even of our own family.’ This would change somewhat after Anthony Foster’s death when his son inherited the house and embarked on a programme of aggrandisement.

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The original Collon House ran east-west facing onto what is now the main road from Drogheda to Kells, County Meath but was then open countryside. Around the late 1770s John Foster enlarged the building at its western end, adding an additional storey to the final five bays and then to the immediate north creating a substantial entrance hall, high-ceilinged saloon and, behind these two, a stairhall lit by two big round-headed windows as it turns upon itself to climb to the upper floors. These windows look out on a courtyard around which run the various original outbuildings and service quarters. The proportions in John Foster’s addition are more generous, the cornicing and chimneypieces more elaborate but at the same time the earlier element of cautious restraint has not been forsaken: even in its late 18th century adjunct the house holds onto a certain self-effacement, all the more surprising since first Mrs Foster and then her husband were granted peerages.
The Fosters likewise held on to Collon House and its estate, although later generations, who became Viscounts Massereene, tended to spend the greater part of their time in County Antrim. Thus Collon House was neglected and indeed the more easterly part of the property internally separated from the main part of the building, hence today it runs to seven bays. In his biography of John Foster Anthony Malcolmson records that when he first visited the house in 1977 it was in ‘a fairly ruinous state.’ Having since changed residents a couple of times, Collon House has in recent years undergone extensive and meticulous restoration and, one suspects, now looks better than it did even when occupied by the Fosters. To give just one example the present owners panelled the dining room and thereby greatly improved its appearance; they have also created rather splendid gardens, a recollection of those made by Anthony Foster, as can be seen below. Today Collon House is in splendid shape. Visitors ought not to rush through the village but consider lingering there in order to experience the abiding spirit of the last Speaker of the Irish House of Commons.

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Collon House is now open for guests. Further information can be found at: http://www.collonhouse.com/index.html

Down Memory Lane

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An early 20th century house party photographed on the steps of Moore Abbey, County Kildare. On the site of a mediaeval abbey and from c.1699 home to successive generations of the Moore family, Earls (and for a period Marquesses) of Drogheda, the building is significant for being one of the earliest examples of the gothick style in Ireland: at the request of the sixth earl, in 1767 Christopher Myers ‘beautifully repaired the ancient abbey by enlarging the windows, placing a new roof, and recompartitioning the whole; preserving however the external walls and original form, except somewhat lengthening the eastern front.’ (Anthologia Hibernica III, February 1794) It underwent further alterations in the 19th century before being sold by the Moores in 1945 to the Sisters of Charity and subjected to much redevelopment. In this group photograph taken with the garden front as backdrop, the moustachioed gentleman sitting on the steps and holding a dog is the dealer and art collector Sir Hugh Lane. Next Tuesday, April 29th at 10.30 am I shall be giving a talk on Lane at the National Gallery of Ireland, focussing on his too-brief tenure as Director of that institution. Admission is free.

Small but Perfectly Formed

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A cottage in Johnstown, County Kildare. This is one in a series of two terraces that runs along a side of the village’s main street, once a busy thoroughfare since it lay on the main route running from Dublin to Cork and Limerick; since the advent of the nearby N7 it has become much quieter. These single-storey, three bay cottages date from c.1880 and were therefore presumably built by Dermot Bourke, seventh Earl of Mayo who was then the local landlord and lived close by in Palmerstown. Their distinguishing feature are the gothic double-windows to either side of the open porch. Thankfully the owners have resisted the urge to modernise the buildings and thereby destroy the charm of their uniformity.

When an Irishman’s Home is by Castle

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Although now considered central Dublin, St Stephen’s Green originally stood outside the city walls, its name deriving from a church and leper hospital founded at the end of the 12th century a short distance to the west (at the junction of what are now Mercer and Stephen’s Streets). During the following centuries, the green comprised marshy ground with an area of around sixty acres used for common grazing land (hence anyone presented with the Freedom of the City of Dublin acquires the right to graze sheep in St Stephen’s Green).
In 1635 the City Corporation passed legislation stating ‘That no parsel of the Greenes or commons of the city shall henceforth be lett, but wholie kept for the use of the citizens and others to walke and take open aire, by this reason this cittie is at present groweing very populous.’ However, in 1663 the same city fathers decided that, given Dublin’s expansion, this plot of common land should be exploited for its commercial potential. A survey was conducted of the site and the following year a central green area of twenty-seven acres marked out, with the surrounding ground divided along four sides into ninety-six building plots; on average these had a frontage of sixty feet and a depth of 200 feet. The ground rent generated by this scheme was used to construct the park’s walls and paving. Owners of sites had to build properties at least two storeys high and with roofs of either slate or tile. Furthermore they were each obliged to plant six sycamore trees near the park wall so as to improve its appearance.

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Progress on building around the green was initially slow, and not helped by the disruptions of the later 17th century. Charles Brooking’s 1728 map of Dublin shows many vacant plots but thereafter development was rapid and within a few decades all four sides were filled with some of the grandest private residences in the city. As with similar developments elsewhere in the city, because the owner of each site served as his own developer, there was often considerable difference in appearance between one building and its neighbours: the English travel writer Richard Twiss, in his controversial 1775 book A Tour of Ireland, observed that the houses in St Stephen’s Green were ‘so extremely irregular, that they are scarcely two of the same height, breadth, materials or architecture.’ To our eyes this lack of regularity is precisely what lends the place its charm, but Twiss’ rational 18th century mind felt otherwise.
We do not know who was responsible for the design of the majority of the original houses in St Stephen’s Green, possibly in many cases no architect was employed. However on some occasions the client did hire a professional, as was the case at no.80 on the south side of the green. This was built 1736-7 for Robert Clayton, then Bishop of Cork and Orrery (and subsequently transferred to the diocese of Clogher). A wealthy man, Clayton employed Richard Castle to design his new townhouse at no.80. Of three storeys over basement, it was fronted in brick on the upper levels but the ground floor had a stone portico similar to that of Inigo Jones’ church of St Paul in Covent Garden, London. The first floor saloon overlooking St Stephen’s Green was especially admired: even before the house was complete, John Boyle, fifth Earl of Orrery was writing to Bishop Clayton that he had visited the property in the company of its architect and commenting ‘This comes to congratulate your Lordp upon your new House in Stevens-Green. Felices quorum iam maria surgunt! [Happy those whose seas rise]…Your Palace, my Lord, appears finely upon Paper, and to shew you that the whole pleases me, I even admire your Coal Cellars. Your great Room will probably bring the Earl of Burlington over to this Kingdom…’ Unfortunately towards the end of his life, Bishop Clayton succumbed to the heresy of Arianism for which at the time of his death in 1758 he was due to be prosecuted by his fellow clerics. His residence meanwhile was from the 1860s onwards subsumed into what today is known as Iveagh House although parts of it, including the saloon, remain.

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As mentioned, the heretically-inclined Bishop Clayton employed Richard Castle to design his townhouse on St Stephen’s Green and so too in 1738 Captain Hugh Montgomery for a residence at no.85 just a few doors to the immediate west: this building is now part of the Newman House complex. By this date, Castle was the most successful and fashionable architect in the country and his services much in demand. Until recently little was known of his origins, since he only comes to public attention after arriving here in 1728 at the behest of Sir Gustavus Hume to design a house on the latter’s County Fermanagh estate.
However, research conducted by Loreto Calderón and Konrad Dechant (and published in The Eighteenth-Century Dublin Town House, ed. Christine Casey, 2010) has revealed much more about Castle’s background.
Since he came from Germany, and his name was often spelled Cassels, it was assumed that his family originated in Hesse-Kassel. In fact, he was one of four sons of an English-born Jewish merchant, Joseph Riccardo and his second, Bombay-born, wife Rachel Burges who by 1699 were settled in Saxony where Joseph became Director of Munitions and Mines to the Elector Frederick Augustus I, the ruler first responsible for beautifying Dresden where the Riccardo family eventually came to live. Presumably thanks to his father’s involvement in mining, the young Richard Castle developed an interest in engineering and in the early 1720s spent time in France and the Netherlands studying canals and fortifications. In 1725 he was in London, calling himself ‘Richard Castle, gentleman’ and subscribing to the third volume of Colen Campbell’s Vitruvius Britannicus, from which it is possible to deduce he was in some way associated with Lord Burlington’s circle of neo-Palladians. Following his move to Ireland, and his work for Sir Gustavus Hume, he came to Dublin and was engaged as a draughtsman by Sir Edward Lovett Pearce, then engaged to design a new Parliament House in College Green. Ultimately Castle would become Pearce’s successor as Ireland’s premier architect.

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Today Richard Castle is primarily remembered as the architect responsible for some of the country’s most splendid country houses such as Russborough and Powerscourt, both County Wicklow, Carton in County Kildare and Summerhill, County Meath (for the last of these, see My Name is Ozymandias, April 1st 2013). But his services were also in demand for aristocratic town houses in Dublin where he designed not just the two in St Stephen’s Green already mentioned, but also Tyrone House on Marlborough Street (dating from 1740 and now part of the Department of Education) and of course Leinster House on Kildare Street (1745-48) which since 1922 has been the seat of the Oireachtas.
Less familiar is the building featured today which he designed towards the end of his life. This stands on the west side of St Stephen’s Green, an area which suffered particular damage in the final quarter of the last century with this pair of houses being the only survivors from the 18th century (the nearby College of Surgeons dates from 1805 and the Unitarian Church further south from 1861). Otherwise the entire west side was cleared of its history, to be replaced by the long stretches of the lacklustre office and retail development one now sees. For this reason, the survival of Castle’s design, which constitute 119 and 120 St Stephen’s Green, is all the more precious. The site was acquired by the architect himself and it would seem that, following the example of other craftsmen of the period, he undertook the scheme in a personal capacity. But building work could hardly have progressed far prior to his death in 1751, after which a decade passed before two of his brothers (who were beneficiaries of his will) travelled from Saxony to liquidate the dead man’s assets. The property then passed into the possession of a Richard Thwaites who was able to lease the completed houses in 1764.

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As can be seen from the topmost picture, Castle’s plan for 119-120 St Stephen’s Green provides a single red-brick facade for the two properties, as though it were one very large house. Although each building is of two bays, they share a first-floor blind Venetian window above which are respectively a likewise blank oculus and carved tablet, a string course on the first floor and a heavy stone cornice below the attic storey being likewise communal. These devices were borrowed from Pearce who used them first at Bellamont Forest, County Cavan (see (La Belle au Bois Dormant, January 21st 2013), the blind Venetian window on the house’s side elevations and the oculus in the entrance hall (where until 2012 the succession of oculi held 18th century busts, see The Bellamont Busts, March 18th 2013). Castle had a limited repertoire of motifs which he was inclined to repeat, and here are two of his favourites, found in both exterior and interior of several country houses he designed. And in turn his deployment of them inspired others to do likewise, not least amateur architect Frances Bindon who is believed to have worked with Castle at both Russborough and Belan, County Kildare (see Splendours and Follies, September 30th 2013). Bindon’s design for John Square, Limerick contains the same blind Venetian windows, lined in brick, with oval blind oculi above (see When New Becomes Old, March 24th last). Unfortunately today it is hard to appreciate the effect of Castle’s once-unified facade for 119-120 St Stephen’s Green since the ground floor of no.119 has been so badly compromised. No.120 however is better preserved and retains its rusticated doorcase.
Likewise, as these photographs show, the interior of no.120 has undergone relatively little change although one wonders whether the design was by Castle or someone else after his death. Here the staircase is not facing the entrance but at right angles and set back between front parlour and ground floor dining room, light being provided by large round-headed windows on the south wall (which faces onto a laneway). Both the ground and first floor have kept their late rococo plasterwork ceilings, in every case an effervescence of trailing garlands and floral motifs. The neo-classical chimney pieces are clearly of later date but of sufficient quality to justify their presence. One other curious feature is a gilded wooden relief panel set above the door of the former dining room and depicting drunk Bacchus being led away by his followers: its basic frame leads one to ask did this come from somewhere else?
From the late 18th century onwards the west side of St Stephen’s Green was susceptible to commercial use and by the early 1800s houses began ceasing to serve as private residences: thus the preservation of no.120 is especially welcome. Today the building is occupied by a financial group, the staff of which understand their good fortune to work in such agreeable and historic surroundings – as opposed to the anaemic office blocks found on either side.

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With thanks to Sarasin & Partners for permitting me to visit the building

Rise Above It All

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Part of the coved ceiling in the drawing room of Somerville, County Meath. The house dates from c.1730 when it was built for Sir James Somerville, Lord Mayor of Dublin in 1736 and also sometime M.P. for the city. Towards the end of the century, further work was carried out by Sir James’ grandson and it appears the neo-classical plasterwork was added at that time into a space then serving as entrance hall (the entire building was subsequently turned back to front, thereby making this the drawing room). The result is an extravagance of floral garlands and arabesques, ostrich plumes and decorative flourishes together with the family coat of arms, all set inside a sequence of panels. The exceptional quality of the workmanship has led to suggestions the ceiling may have been executed by Dublin stuccodore Michael Stapleton (1747-1801).

A Slim Silhouette

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Built on a small island in the river Deel, Askeaton Castle, County Limerick dates from 1199 when built by the Norman settler William de Burgo. It subsequently became a stronghold for the FitzGerald Earls of Desmond but while surviving assault during that family’s rebellions against the English crown in the 16th century the castle was eventually dismantled around 1650 by the regicide Colonel Daniel Axtel when he was crushing opposition to Cromwell’s forces in this part of the country. Even as a ruin, its remains continue to dominate the surrounding landscape.