This week marks the 25th anniversary of the death on May 8th 1989 of Mariga Guinness at the age of only 56. It seems an opportune moment to celebrate her life, especially since an entire generation has since grown up without having had the opportunity to meet Mariga and to benefit in person from her influence.
For those unfamiliar with her story, Marie-Gabrielle von Urach was born in September 1932, the only child of Prince Albrecht von Urach and Rosemary Blackadder. Her mother’s family were from the Scottish borders, her father’s a junior branch of the royal house of Württemberg in southern Germany; her grandfather was briefly King of Lithuania, a great-aunt Queen of Belgium and a great-grandaunt the Empress Elizabeth of Austria. Although her father had been expected to succeed to the principality of Monaco (an extraordinary story in itself), in the aftermath of the First World War this arrangement was abandoned and so he came of age with little money and no prospects. Both Mariga’s parents were artists and in the mid-1930s they and their daughter moved to Japan where Prince Albrecht was attached to the German embassy as a government photographer. However in 1937 Rosemary von Urach decided the Japanese Emperor was being misled into aggression by his generals, and taking Mariga with her somehow gained admission into the imperial palace to offer him advice. Arrested and sedated by security guards, she was sent back to Britain where she had a breakdown followed by a lobotomy and spent the rest of her life in a Scottish mental hospital. Meanwhile Mariga’s father continued working for the German government throughout the Second World War and did not see his daughter again until she was sixteen and he had remarried (when they reunited he did not tell her this himself and she only found out indirectly). In the intervening years Mariga had been raised in England by a septuagenarian unmarried friend of her grandmother’s who died in 1951, leaving her charge possessed of little other than great intelligence and beauty. That same year she was introduced to the Hon Desmond Guinness by her cousin Prince Rupert Löwenstein. The couple married in June 1954 and moved to Ireland the following year.
Mariga first visited Ireland (at the invitation of the late Mark Bence-Jones) in 1953. He later remembered that she arrived in a ball dress having gone straight from a dance in London to catch an early flight. ‘The first thing they asked me when I got off the ‘plane was “Have you been on a farm?”’ she said with her unerring sense of the incongruous (there had recently been an outbreak of foot and mouth disease in England). Afterwards she wrote, ‘Ireland is HEAVEN, everyone is so dotty and delicious and no one dreams of taking anything seriously; except, perhaps the Horse Show.’ Of course, after moving here Mariga took the country very seriously, not least in her ceaseless campaigns to preserve its architectural heritage and her founding with Desmond of the Irish Georgian Society in 1958.
The society was run from the couple’s home at Leixlip Castle, County Kildare which they had bought and restored after looking at countless other houses around Ireland. Leixlip represented Mariga’s highly distinctive and influential taste. As architectural historian Mark Girouard has written, ‘In the 1960s Mariga Guinness made Leixlip Castle an unforgettable place: a solid, four-towered mediaeval castle converted in the early 18th century with huge, thick-barred windows and spacious, simple rooms looking down to the Liffey; a massive front door that was never locked; and inside an inspired assembly of mainly Irish 18th-century furniture and pictures, put together and set off with a sense of color and occasion, a mixture of informality and showmanship, to make a setting in which it seemed that anything could happen and anyone might turn up.
One would turn up oneself, pull open the front door and wander into empty rooms with log fires smoldering, until people would, perhaps, begin to appear: millionaires, Irish professors, Anglo-Irish lordlings, pop stars, German princes, architects, priests, art historians, students, all revolving around Mariga, with her drawling voice and mischievous smile, and Desmond, with his charm and blazing blue eyes.
A party might develop or a picnic, or both or neither; intrigues and dramas would get under way, champagne might or might not flow, and the whole charade was given point by the crusade for Irish Georgian architecture, to save or rediscover which forays would be made from the castle all over Ireland.’
Many people can testify, and have done so, to the abiding impact of Mariga’s exceptional taste. Interior designer John Stefanidis has remembered her ‘A wit, a tease, an intelligent and enchanting beauty, gifted with impeccable taste. She had panache…whether in a fur hat and muff, or in fancy dress with a large hat and feather boa, she always looked marvellous. A wonderful hostess, Leixlip Castle was an example on how to live in an historic house – despite it being freezing cold in winter (she longed for central heating).’
It was thrilling to stay there surrounded by marvellous furniture she had found and not an ugly thing in sight. She was the inspiration behind the founding of the Irish Georgian Society – not only did she find houses and restore them but also doggedly charmed her way through bureaucratic red tape in Dublin.’
Likewise in his 1985 book The Inspiration of the Past, architectural historian John Cornforth described Leixlip as ‘the key country house in the British Isles in the late 1950s and 1960s,’ before going on to write that ‘The process of restoring, decorating and furnishing the house was very much a shared enthusiasm, with complementary contributions from two remarkable people; but it always seemed to me that the overall look of the house owed more to Mrs Guinness, who has a rare gift for composing objects and rooms in a stimulating way and combining unlikely, and occasionally uncompromising, objects to create memorable effects…Ultimately it was the feeling for scale in the house and the combination of the Irish pictures and furniture with the simple decoration supported by prints, piles of books and quantities of shells that made it such a complete and convincing Irish country house, very carefully thought out but achieved with such brio and confidence that it seemed natural and not contrived. It managed to be stylish and unfussy; quite grand and yet informal and cut-back; and everywhere there was both a vivid historical air and a sense of fantasy.’ In this context, Cornforth referenced Nancy Lancaster before recalling an observation made by Christopher Gibbs that while Mrs Lancaster’s taste had been ‘patrician’ that of Mariga was ‘princely.’
Although less actively involved with the Irish Georgian Society during the last years of her life, Mariga’s commitment and engagement with the organisation during its early decades was of vital importance. After her death, the late Professor Kevin B Nowlan noted how, ‘In the 1960s and 1970s Mariga Guinness gave a sparkle to the grim struggle to save our heritage of 18th century architecture.’ Indeed, it was her crusading spirit and her exceptional ability to inspire other people that deserve to be forever remembered. As the Knight of Glin commented, ‘She had that vital talent of leading every sort of person into the then often unappreciated world of Irish architecture, decoration, furniture and paintings.’ The society’s membership swelled as a direct result of her passionate advocacy of conservationism; she was a force of persuasive charm impossible to resist. ‘Not a painter, not a writer, not a musician,’ wrote her great friend Maureen Charlton while Mariga was still alive, ‘what she does is to transform life itself into a work of art, to make each passing day a new creation.’
Mariga was always especially good at inspiring the young, who would quickly be beguiled into voluntarily working for the Irish Georgian Society, and in a thoroughly practical way too. During the course of an interview given less than two months before her death, she spoke of the restoration, indeed the salvation of Castletown, County Kildare in 1967 when students were at the top of ladders painting cornices, children scrubbed floors, ‘and even the oldest of the old were able to polish the beautiful door handles and do something to help.’ Mariga too threw herself into activity and led by example, being prepared to climb a ladder with a pot of paint, or wield a banner during a protest against the threatened demolition of an historically important building. A feature in the Irish Independent during this period noted of Mariga that when not in Leixlip ‘dispensing informal hospitality and discussing current such finds as a document-packed sealskin trunk or an ancient set of stocks in a Meath courthouse, she’s paint-stripping or picture hanging at Castletown.’ Although she could sometimes give the impression of being rather vague – she was notorious for introducing even relatively close friends as ‘Mr Thingummy’ – a strong core of practicality ran through her character. And there was a streak of seriousness too. As she told a reporter from the Irish Times shortly before her death, when speaking of the Irish Georgian Society, ‘It was definitely very serious, what we were doing.’
Although we met in passing on a couple of occasions when I was still a student, it was only after she had divorced and I had graduated that Mariga and I came to know each other. By then she had perforce moved out of Leixlip Castle and was living in Tullynisk, the dower house of Birr, County Offaly. It was definitely a house of contrasts, on the one hand a grim little kitchen (out of which surprisingly delicious meals were produced) and on the other the main rooms which were decorated with Mariga’s customary flair and discernment. Despite chaos forever appearing imminent, life at Tullynisk was actually rather well-ordered: overnight guests found their rooms perfectly prepared, logs neatly piled beside the grate (the house was always cold), fresh linen on the beds, and carefully chosen reading matter on an adjacent stand. No matter how late we had all scattered – and it was often very late – the followed morning Mariga would be the first to rise, moving about the house with trays laden for the breakfast table.
At the same time, disorder reigned behind the scenes: Mariga’s unparalleled collection of historical costume, for example, remained heaped in a tempting Everest on one bedroom floor, periodically raided for dressing-up on her instruction during parties. And her wonderful library, although the majority of books were eventually shelved, never had any real order put on it. Meanwhile she continued to drive a battered old Citroen, which periodically refused to move and would sometimes spend months outside the house. I remember Mariga’s bafflement when she was summoned to appear in court in Birr for failing to tax the vehicle, her logic being that since it was immobile no taxation ought to be required.
The truth was that during those final years Mariga was deeply unhappy, the melancholia to which I suspect she had always been vulnerable threatening to overwhelm her. Although she tried to keep herself busy and organised regular house parties and outings – a caravan of cars driving slowly down pot-holed laneways in pursuit of an alleged architectural gem that more often turned out to be an undistinguished farmhouse, its owners baffled by the spectacle of this troupe of eccentric gawkers – she was often alone. At such times she must have felt the world of which she had once been so vital a part had moved on and forgotten her. Of course it hadn’t, and more importantly it still hasn’t. All of us remained heavily indebted to Mariga Guinness and her inspirational leadership. Through her dynamism and commitment, Ireland’s architectural heritage became better known and appreciated, and preserved, than would otherwise have been the case. This week’s anniversary of her untimely death allows us an opportunity once more to pay due acknowledgement to a remarkable woman.
Mariga Guinness, 21st September 1932 – 8th May 1989