In early June 1741, the Dublin News-Letter carried the following notice: ‘The interest of the late Captain Hugh Montgomery’s new house on the south side of Stephen’s Green in this city of Dublin, being a term of 299 years from the 25th March 1738, subject to a yearly ground rent of £13.6s is to be sold by cant to the fairest bidder, by his executors, at the said house, on the 24th day of this instant at 11 o’clock in the forenoon. Where also will be exposed to sale some pictures and some household furniture that never have been used, and several pieces of fine Italian marbles, and also a neat Berlin chariot and one pair of Harnesses, as good as new, having been seldom used. A person will attend at said house on Monday next, and every day and till the day of sale, between the hours of eleven and three o’clock in the afternoon.’ The house in question still stands, at 85 St Stephen’s Green and contains a room that can rightly lay claim to be the most beautiful in Ireland.
Hugh Montgomerie (which was how he and his father spelled the family name) had a somewhat unconventional background, as has been explained in an essay on 85 St Stephen’s Green written by Loreto Calderón and Konrad Dechant carried in The Eighteenth Century Dublin Townhouse (ed. Christine Casey, Four Courts Press, 2010). His paternal line descended from Thomas Montgomery who settled in Ulster at the start of the 17th century and who was one of the first twelve burgesses of Newtownards, County Down. Hugh Montgomerie’s father, another Thomas, had as Calderón and Dechant note, a somewhat chequered career. While studying law in London he had repeatedly come to the relevant authorities’ attention for unruly behaviour and in 1684 was convicted and sentenced to death for having killed another man in the gardens of the Middle Temple. Curiously enough his older brother had likewise been found guilty of murder but thanks to the intervention of their father, Captain Hugh Montgomery of Drogheda, both men received a royal pardon. Furthermore, two years later Thomas Montgomerie was knighted by James II and not long afterwards sailed to Barbados where he had been appointed Attorney-General. His time on the island did not go well, in part because he was under suspicion for harbouring Jacobite and Catholic sympathies, and in September 1690 Sir Thomas returned to England where he was subsequently wounded in a duel. Hugh Montgomerie was one of five children born to Sir Thomas and Clemence Hovell, although the couple only married in 1714 – after the birth of their offspring and just a year before the death of Sir Thomas. Clemence Hovell had been previously married to Charles Stuart, son of Sir Nicholas Stuart, and her first husband only died in 1709; hence the illegitimacy of her children with Sir Thomas Montgomerie.
In 1738 Hugh Montgomerie married Mary Bingham, eldest daughter of Sir John Bingham of Mayo; the bride was described in the press at the time as ‘A lady of great beauty, extraordinary merit and a large fortune.’ Although he inherited a portion of his mother’s estates, it was presumably the last of Mary Bingham’s listed advantages that allowed Hugh Montgomerie in the year of his marriage to commission the design of a new Dublin residence from the era’s most fashionable architect, Richard Castle. Once more thanks to the industry of Calderón and Dechant we now know a great deal more about Castle’s background than was previously the case. To synopsise their findings, his real name was David Riccardo (or Richardo), one of four sons of an English-born Jewish merchant, Joseph Riccardo, and his second wife Rachel Burges (who had been born in Bombay). By 1708 the Riccardo family were living in Dresden where Joseph had been appointed Director of Munitions and Mines by Augustus ‘the Strong’, Elector of Saxony and King of Poland. Following the example of his father, the future Richard Castle is believed to have pursued an interest in engineering, travelling through France and the Low Countries before moving to England in 1725 where he is listed as a subscriber to the third volume of Colen Campbell’s Vitruvius Britannicus. From this fact one can deduce he most likely came into contact with the amateur architect Earl of Burlington and his circle. It is thought Castle moved to Ireland in 1728 at the invitation of Sir Gustavus Hume and soon after began working as a draughtsman for Edward Lovett Pearce, then preparing his designs for the new Houses of Parliament in Dublin.
For Captain Hugh Montgomerie, Castle designed what Christine Casey has described as a ‘dimunitive Palladian palazzo’ of three bays and two storeys with a Doric entablature, rusticated ground floor and a central, first-floor Venetian window flanked by sash windows with entablature-less segmental pediments. Those three windows light the great glory of the building, its saloon which provides superlative views northwards across St Stephen’s Green. But who would wish to look outwards when there is so much to see inside, especially since the saloon was impeccably restored in 1993. At that time the windows were returned to their original dimensions and the chimneypiece reconstructed. The greatest delight, however, lies overhead, thanks to the lavish ceiling attributed to the Ticinese siblings, Paul and Philip Lafranchini. The cove contains six oval frames with figures linked together by a frieze of putti playing with oak garlands. The similarities to another frieze created by Giuseppe Artari at Houghton, Norfolk have long been noted, and Calderón and Dechant point out that Hillington Hall, family home of Hugh Montgomerie’s mother, stood not far arway from Houghton. One might wonder also if Castle visited the house during his time in England, since its original architect was Colen Campbell. As for the main figures in the saloon of 85 St Stephen’s Green, the inspiration for several of these came from paintings by the 17th century French artist Simon Vouet in the Salon de Mars at Versailles. While various explanations of its iconography have been advanced, as Christine Casey has written, ‘Whatever about its meaning or lack of it, the ceiling is a vigorous example of the Late Baroque decorative style favoured by Castle for the interiors of his otherwise reticent Palladian buildings.’ Just as importantly, the diverse decorative elements come together to form a satisfyingly unified whole. Exuberance and restraint balance each other admirably to warrant neither gets the upper hand but instead work to create a harmonious whole. Captain Hugh Montgomerie scarcely had an opportunity to enjoy his splendid new Dublin residence since he died of consumption in May 1741 and, as has been noted, within a month the building was put up for sale. Somehow the house survived subsequent changes of ownership and use, and remains for us to enjoy today. Is the saloon of 85 St Stephen’s Green the most beautiful room in Ireland? Certainly it must rank high on anyone’s shortlist for this title.
Since the 19th century 85 St Stephen’s Green (and its neighbour No.86) has been under the care of University College Dublin and can be visited on request. For more information, see: http://www.ucd.ie/campusdevelopment/developmentprojects/programmeforpreservationofperiodhouses/newmanhouse