Perfection in Miniature

IMG_2913
‘The townland, and chief part of the demesne of Ledwithstown, are in this parish (Shruel), though the dwelling house and offices are in the parish of Kilcommack. It has been long the residence of a respectable family of the name of Ledwith, who possess a considerable property in this neighbourhood.’ A Statistical Account, or Parochial Survey, of Ireland, 1819.
In 1976 Maurice Craig wrote of Ledwithstown, County Longford, ‘there can be few houses of its size in Ireland more thoroughly designed, and with internal decoration so well integrated.’ The house has long been attributed to Richard Castle and is one of three such properties considered to have been designed by the architect, the other two being Gaulstown, County Westmeath (see Gallia Urba est Omnis Divisa in Partes Tres, February 24th 2014) and Whitewood Lodge, County Meath (see An Appalling Vista, February 9th last). In their form and composition this triumvirate demonstrates a steadily growing assurance, with Ledwithstown displaying by far the greatest sophistication and thus inclining to the idea that it was the latest, probably dating from the second half of the 1740s (Castle died in 1751). Relatively little is known of the building’s history, other than that until 1911 it was owned, although not always occupied, by the Ledwith family who settled in the area around 1650. Members of that now-vanished class, the gentry, the Ledwiths played their part in local society as Grand Jurors and High Sheriffs but otherwise came little to public notice. The same is true of their former home, which despite its considerable charm, can be passed unnoticed on the public highway: again like Gaulstown and Whitewood, Ledwithstown lies at the end of an exceptionally long, straight drive.

IMG_3009
IMG_2989
IMG_2988
IMG_2814
As with Gaulstown and Whitewood, Ledwithstown is a three-bay house of two storeys over a semi-raised basement. With all three the main entrance is approached by a flight of stone steps; in this instance, the supporting walls splay out to create the impression of a ceremonial approach to the door. In the case of the other two properties, the doorcase is relatively plain, of cut limestone with a fanlight (that at Gaulstown also has side lights). Ledwithstown’s south-facing doorcase is altogether more elaborate, a cut-stone tripartite Tuscan design incorporating tetrastyle pilasters resting on rusticated base and surmounted by carved pediment. Such an entrance immediately indicates this is a building with greater aspirations than those of its siblings. In other respects, however, the facade of Ledwithstown is closer in spirit to Whitewood than to Gaulstown, sharing the same heavy parapet wall concealing the greater part of a slated roof with a pair of substantial chimneystacks (those at Gaulstown are at either gable end). Likewise Ledwithstown and Whitewood have raised corner quoins which add further gravitas to the building, the most striking differences between the two being that Whitewood’s facade is of cut stone (as opposed to roughcast render over rubble stone) and Ledwithstown’s first floor fifteen-pane sash windows share the same proportions as those one storey below (their equivalents at Whitewood are smaller).

IMG_2822
IMG_2833
IMG_2846
IMG_2843
The interior design and decoration of Ledwithstown is much more elaborate than either of the two houses with which it bears comparison. Although measuring just forty-eight by forty-seven feet, it can be considered a country house in miniature, the layout being identical to that found in many larger properties. There are, for example, two staircases, that to the west, of carved wood, serving only the ground and first floors while secondary service stairs of stone to the east also descend to the basement area. Immediately inside the entrance hall are doors to left and right providing access to the former morning room and study; a matching pair to the rear open to the staircases while one in the centre of the back wall leads to the drawing room. Here and in the adjacent dining room, the walls retain their mid-18th century plaster panelling, that in the drawing room being especially fine with a combination of lugged and round topped panels topped by swags or baskets of fruit and shells. Similarly the main staircase, lit by a round-topped window, has timber wainscoting and leads to a panelled first floor landing with egg-and-dart and dentil cornicing; one of the rooms on this level is entirely panelled in wood and others still contain their shallow limestone chimney pieces. The basement likewise keeps much of its original character with a sequence of rooms opening off a central stone-flagged and vaulted central passage.

IMG_2933
IMG_2919
IMG_2924
IMG_2938
In 1911 Ledwithstown was bought from the original family by Laurence Feeney. However, following his premature death just six years later, the house was let to a variety of tenants none of whom took care of the property; seemingly a brother and sister who lived there for a while removed all the door and shutter knobs, while another family allowed the chimneys to become blocked and then knocked holes in the walls to permit smoke escape. In 1976 Maurice Craig described Ledwithstown as being ‘unhappily in an advanced state of dilapidation, perhaps not beyond recovery’ and two years later Mark Bence-Jones wrote that the place was ‘now derelict.’ However, around this time the original Laurence Feeney’s grandson, likewise called Laurence, married and he and his wife Mary began to consider the possibility of restoring Ledwithstown.
The couple, together with their children, initiated work on the house and in 1982 they were visited by Desmond Guinness. Soon afterwards the Irish Georgian Society offered its first grant to Ledwithstown, the money being put towards replacing the roof. Further financial aid from the IGS followed, along with voluntary work parties to help the Feeneys in their enterprise. By 1987 Ledwithstown had a new roof and parapet and was once more watertight. Inevitably sections of the reception rooms’ plaster panelling and other decoration had been lost to damp, but enough remained for it to be copied and replaced. The same was true of the main stair hall and sections of the first floor wood panelling, all of which was gradually replaced: when new floors were installed on this level in 1990 surviving panelled walls had to be suspended in mid-air to facilitate the removal of decayed boards. Ledwithstown demonstrates that even the most rundown building can be saved provided the task is approached with enough commitment. Today, more than thirty years after they embarked on their mission, the Feeneys remain happily living in what is, above all else, a family home. So too are both Gaulstown and Whitewood Lodge, making this another trait all three houses share.

IMG_2860

Truncated

IMG_1880
The stump of an 11th century round tower at Dysert O’Dea, County Clare. A little shy of six metres in diameter, this is one of the largest such structures recorded, believed to have risen to a height of 30 metres. However, the tower has been in a state of ruin probably since the 1650s and now serves as an attractive feature in the graveyard surrounding the 12th century church dedicated to its founder, St Tola.

Almost a Remembrance

 

IMG_2294
The gatelodge at Ballynegall, County Westmeath. Designed by Francis Johnston in 1808 the building provided a perfect introduction to the estate, its features emulating in miniature those of the main house. Tragically some twenty years after its exceptional contents were sold at auction, the house was stripped and gutted in the early 1980s, and is now a roofless shell. The lodge on the other hand remains, a sad remembrance of what once stood but has been lost at the end of the drive.

IMG_2292
 

On the Town III

IMG_0183

Trim, County Meath can be described as an urban might-have-been. Site of the largest Norman Castle in Ireland, it is also the location for a Church of Ireland cathedral and almost became a university town in the 16th century. However aside from the castle which still dominates the skyline, little enough of Trim’s former aspirations are evident today. Instead over recent decades the place has often displayed a resolutely disinterested attitude towards its distinguished past, despite ample signs advising visitors that this is a heritage town.
The name Trim derives from the Irish ‘Baile Átha Troim’, meaning ‘town at the ford of the alder trees’, since it is located on the banks of the river Boyne. Originally a monastery was founded here – the peripatetic St Patrick is inevitably said to have been involved – and in the 12th century it was refounded as St Mary’s Abbey under the Augustinian order. A wooden statue of the Virgin reputed to work miracles made the abbey a site of pilgrimage, at least until the Reformation when the statue was burnt and the abbey dissolved. Several other religious orders had a presence in the vicinity of the town. The Franciscan Grey Friary, established in the early 14th century and dedicated to St Bonaventure, stood on the site of the present courthouse; following the dissolution of the monasteries, its buildings were destroyed and the church turned into a tholsel. A Dominican friary was also established in 1263 by Geoffrey de Genneville who had married the heiress Maud de Lacy, fought in the Eighth Crusade and served as Marshall of England. At the end of his life, he entered the friary he had founded in Trim and died there in 1314. Close by also were the abbey church or Cathedral of Newtown Trim as well as the Hospital Priory of St John the Baptist. These religious settlements were a reflection of Trim’s importance after this part of the country had been granted by Henry II to Hugh de Lacy in 1172 in return for the service of fifty knights. On a raised site overlooking a fording point on the Boyne de Lacy built a motte and bailey with double palisade and external ditch, although these defences were insufficient to stop the structure being subsequently attacked and burnt the following year by Rory O’Connor, High King of Ireland.

IMG_0091
IMG_0117
IMG_0126
IMG_0114
Trim Castle stands in the midst of a three-acre site surrounded by a curtain wall with a series of semi-circular towers along the south and east sides. Soon after O’Connor’s attack it was rebuilt and presumably reinforced so that as better to withstand future assault. Work is believed to have been completed around the end of the second decade of the 13th century. Local limestone is the predominant material and, as has been noted, with little superfluous ornament the overriding effect is one of massive strength. While the river flows past the north and east sides, a ditch was cut on the other two so that water from the Boyne would cut off the castle and limit access except via a drawbridge. The Town Gate, for example, through which most visitors enter the complex, is today approached by a ramped roadway but formerly would have been reached across a drawbridge. It is one of two access points, the other being the Barbican Gate which by its design was intended to force opponents into a confined passageway where they could be more easily defeated. Within the walls rises the great three-storey castle, a square with similar corner turrets plus four-storey towers projecting in the middle of each side (that on the north long-since demolished). Different reasons have been advanced for this variant on the Greek cross design, among them that it was the best solution to a need for many rooms or that the complex architecture was intended to make a statement of authority. Whatever the reason, it continues to create a powerful impact on anyone approaching, especially since some of the other buildings in the complex, such as the great hall that once ran along the north defensive wall, are now gone. By the 17th century the castle seems no longer to have been much in use; in fact from around the mid-14th century onwards it ceased to be permanently occupied. In the following century, during which the building reverted to the crown, the Irish parliament met there on several occasions and a mint operated within the grounds. In the aftermath of the Williamite Wars, it was granted to the Wellesleys who retained ownership until the first Duke of Wellington sold Trim Castle to the Leslies. It then passed to the Plunketts of Dunsany and remained in their possession until sold to the state in 1993: after a programme of restoration it has been open to the public since 2000.

IMG_0076
IMG_0083
IMG_0143
IMG_0048
Trim it is claimed contains more mediaeval buildings than any other town in Ireland. Certainly there are ample remnants of its past to be seen, not least what is known as the Yellow Steeple, so called because of the hue it takes when hit by sunlight at dawn and dusk. Situated across the Boyne from Trim Castle, this is the seven-storey east wall of the steeple of St Mary’s church, part of the former Augustinian establishment that housed the supposedly-miraculous statue of the Virgin. To the south-west, and directly above the river stands the so-called Talbot’s Castle, its name deriving from a belief that Sir John Talbot, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland for several years from 1414 was responsible for the building’s construction soon after his arrival in this country. However more recently the suggestion has been made that the core of the building was the refectory of the Augustinian house. In the early 18th century, Jonathan Swift, when he was living in the area prior to becoming Dean of St Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, advised Esther Johnson, otherwise known to posterity as ‘Stella’ that the local diocesan school had become ‘thin.’ A few years after she bought the building and either sold or gave it to Swift, after which it became the home of the Diocesan School and remained such until the 19th century. It has since served as a private residence. Elsewhere on the southern side of the Boyne are such historic structures as the vast rusticated limestone screen wall of the former gaol designed by John Hargrave in 1827, a fitting match for the castle immediately north, although the two are separated by a singularly modest police station. Then there is the Wellington Monument of 1817, a Corinthian column on top of which stands a statue of the Iron Duke whose former family estate, Dangan Castle, lies a few miles south of the town.

IMG_0168
IMG_0162
IMG_0654
IMG_0154
In 1584 when Trim was being suggested as the site for Ireland’s first university, the local rector Robert Draper advised that the town was ‘full of very faire castles and stone houses builded after the English fashion and devyded into five faire streetes.’ Aside from the great castle, the others of that name have gone and so too have most of the old stone houses. And, a problem by no means unique to Trim, much of what survives has suffered from a shaming want of due care. Directly to the south of the castle and facing its walls, for example, is a terrace of ten early 19th century cottages with decorated bargeboards and canopied porches, and mullioned windows. Several of these are visibly decaying, with panes of glass broken and vegetation sprouting in the gutters: hardly a good advertisement for a heritage town. Nor is the adjacent hotel built a decade ago after much controversy and the production of an independent report criticised a government minister for ignoring objections to the development from the relevant officials in his own department. Not only is the resultant building ill-considered for its location but also poorly designed and demonstrating little awareness of this most sensitive location. On the other hand, such insensitivity is widespread in Trim. At the top of Market Street stands a substantial mid-18th century five-bay, three-storey market house with first floor Venetian window and Diocletian window above. All have suffered from the insertion of uPVC (like so many other buildings throughout the town) while the ground floor is defaced with crassly-executed contemporary shop fronts. Richard Morrison’s nearby Courthouse of 1810 similarly is afflicted by a recent development to one side that shows no respect for the context or for Trim’s history. Elsewhere old buildings, and even new ones, are allowed to remain fallow, and this in an era when shortage of housing is constantly lamented. Vacant sites litter the streets and more recent additions display no regard for the original urban layout. The difficulty of securing a clear view of the Wellington Monument embodies all the place’s problems: nobody seems to have noticed what has happened to the town’s architectural heritage and moved to have matters improved. Everywhere one turns there appears to be a want of coherence or planning, and the complete absence of any vision. The outcome is that Trim fails to capitalise on its advantages as a heritage town, with obvious economic consequences. An unfinished housing estate on the edge of Trim, a victim of the recent recession, rejoices in the name Maudlin Vale: enough said.

IMG_0151

Ireland: Crossroads of Art and Design VII

IMG_1651

The neo-classical painter Robert Fagan was born in London and spent the greater part of his career in Italy. But he never forgot his Irish heritage and in 1801 painted this picture, Portrait of a Lady as Hibernia. The work has often been considered a response to the previous year’s Act of Union, the effect on Ireland suggested by the harp’s broken strings. And the painting is replete with other references to the old country, not least the wolfhound, the pages of text headed by the words ‘Erin go bragh’ (Ireland forever), the thatched cottage and, of course the green gown – worn rather negligently – by the sitter. The proposal has been made that she was a Margaret Simpson, mistress of Henry, thirteen Viscount Dillon, a notion strengthened by the carved nude female reclining luxuriantly on the harp. This is not Ireland as later nationalists would represent her, but serves as a fitting symbol for the cosmopolitan splendour of the country’s culture during the long 18th century which is being so wonderfully celebrated at present in Chicago’s Art Institute.
This ends a week of marking the exhibition Ireland: Crossroads of Art and Design, 1690-1840 which runs until June 7th. The Irish Aesthete reverts to customary coverage from tomorrow.

Ireland: Crossroads of Art and Design VI

IMG_1572

In 1797 James Wyatt designed a hall bench for Castle Coole, County Fermanagh, a set then being made for the house by London cabinet maker William Kidd. Their distinctive features such as the splayed saber legs and corresponding arms gave the benches so widespread and long-lasting an appeal that the design was subsequently copied, not least by the Dublin firm of Williams & Gibton which produced the example seen here at some date between 1829-42, in other words three or four decades after the original. Above it hangs Sir Thomas Lawrence’s portrait of Lady Maria Conyngham commissioned, along with those of her mother and sister, in the mid-1820s by George IV who hung the three in his bedroom in St James’ Palace, London (Lady Conyngham, it will be remembered, was his last mistress). Following the king’s death the pictures were transferred to the Conyngham family residence Slane Castle, County Meath where they remained until sold at the start of the last century. This portrait is now in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum, New York while the Williams & Gibton bench belongs to the Museum of Art at the Rhode Island School of Design, Providence.

Ireland: Crossroads of Art and Design V

IMG_1582

As a regular visitor to Powerscourt, County Wicklow surely Edmund Burke must have been inspired in his emerging concept of the sublime by the landscape in this part of the country. Certainly aspects of the Powerscourt estate would appeal to many artists, not least the waterfall – the tallest in Ireland – which was painted many times. But the setting of the house, designed in the 1730s by Richard Castle, also proved irresistible, not least to George Barret who was encouraged by Burke to look directly at nature for greater authenticity in his art. On the other hand Barret’s view of Powerscourt, dating from 1760-62 cannot be regarded as altogether authentic: he has exaggerated the height and proportions of the Sugarloaf Mountain in order to provide the work with more drama.