A rococo flourish of plasterwork on the wall of the staircase hall at Glasnevin House, Dublin. The decoration here is attributed to that unknown but clearly very talented craftsman, the St Peter’s Stuccodore. At Glasnevin he allowed his imagination free rein to cover walls and ceilings with embellishment of the highest order.
For more on Glasnevin House, see Misjudging a Book by its Cover, December 22nd, 2014.
On the brow of a hill to one side of but some distance from Gloster, County Offaly stands this eye-catcher comprising a stone arch flanked by obelisks. Dating from the early 18th century, its design is attributed to Sir Edward Lovett Pearce who most likely also designed the main house for his cousin Trevor Lloyd.
Like so many Irish towns, Edenderry (from the Irish Éadan Doire meaning ‘hill-brow of the oak wood’) in County Offaly is effectively one long narrow street that dribbles away to an unsatisfactory conclusion at either end. It was ever thus: from the 18th century on visitors to Ireland have commented on the way urban settlements here were rarely planned but developed in a haphazard, higgledy-piggledy fashion. On occasion an improving landlord would try to impose order, and indeed this happened at Edenderry but not until long after the place had first come into existence. While there is a pre-Christian hill-fort in the area, it was really with the arrival of the Normans that permanent residential structures began to appear around what is now Edenderry. In 1325 John de Bermingham, first Earl of Louth (famous for having killed Edward Bruce – younger brother of Robert, King of Scotland – in 1318) founded a Franciscan Friary at Monasteroris to the immediate west of the town; little of it remains today. Although from the mid-14th century this part of the country was officially under the authority of the Earls of Kildare, in practice it came under the control of the O’Connors. They were likely responsible in the 15th century for what is now known as Blundell Castle, eventually destroyed by Jacobite forces in 1691; the ruins stand on a hill above the town. In the middle of the previous century Offaly was shired as King’s County and its land granted to men loyal to the English crown, among them Sir Henry Colley whose father Walter had served as Principal Solicitor for Ireland and later as the country’s Solicitor-General. The connection with the Colley family meant that for sometime thereafter Edenderry came to be known as Coolestown. Henry Colley’s granddaughter Sarah married Sir George Blundell and so the land passed into the hands of his family, remaining with them until the death in 1756 of Montague, first and last Viscount Blundell. His only daughter Mary inherited the property as in turn did her only daughter, another Mary who in 1786 married Arthur Hill, second Marquess of Downshire.
Thanks to his marriage, the Marquess of Downshire acquired some 14,000 acres of land around Edenderry. He vigorously opposed the 1800 Act of Union and as a result earned the enmity of the London government which exacted retribution by depriving him of governorship of County Down and the colonelcy of the local militia, and dismissing his supporters from official posts. He died the following year; his widow blamed official hostility, but, having inherited an estate in England from a childless uncle, was somewhat consoled in 1802 by being created Baroness Sandys in her own right. Meanwhile her twelve-year old eldest son became heir to the Irish properties. It was he, the third Marquess of Downshire who after coming of age in 1809 left the most lasting visible impact on Edenderry. This was despite the fact that he inherited responsibility for his forbears’ considerable debts and that his mother continued to receive two-thirds of the rent from the Offaly estates until her death in 1836. Among his most notable legacies to the town is the large former Market House, designed by Thomas Duff in 1826 and built at a cost of £5,000. Today used as a courthouse and local authority office, this handsome cut limestone building has a five-bay pedimented facade and presumably once featured an open arcaded groundfloor and assembly room above. Standing in the middle of what is now called O’Connell Square, it is testament to Edenderry’s prosperous past as a market town, a history echoed by other buildings in the town. These include Blundell House, named after the former owners of the estate but erected to his own design in 1813 by James Brownrigg who like his father worked for the Downshires and acted as agent for the County Offaly estate. Of two storeys over half-raised basement, its groundfloor has an exceptionally wide door fanlight and Wyatt windows to either side. Lying to the immediate east is the town’s Quaker meeting house which dates from the first decade of the 19th century and replaced earlier premises on the site.
Lord Downshire’s engagement with Edenderry was not restricted to public buildings like the Market House: he also undertook to better the condition of the rest of the town, replacing mud cabins with slated, two-storey stone houses. Many of them remain and often carry a date from the early 1820s above the entrance
The materials used in the construction of these and other buildings were brought to Edenderry thanks to an initiative undertaken by his father: the creation of a branch of the Grand Canal into the town. Work began in 1797 and was completed with a harbour in 1802 at a total cost of £692 which was financed by the Downshires. The quays still lead right to the main street and conclude in a squared-off section surrounded by limestone wall. For much of the 19th century the canal provided a vital social and commercial link for Edenderry, and helped to bring prosperity to the region. The last barge left the quays here in 1962, around the same time that the railway at the other end of the town also closed. As with the canal, this was a branch line, known in its day as the Nesbitt Junction after a Miss Nesbitt who contributed £10,000 to its cost so that she could convey prize cattle to the Royal Dublin Society. Its buildings, erected in 1877 by the Midland Great Western Railway, remain although the little stone ticket office looks sadly neglected. The third Marquess’ contribution to the town’s development was commemorated a year after his death in 1845 with the erection of a statue to his memory sculpted by Joseph Robinson Kirk, son of Thomas whose figure of Nelson adorned the top of the pillar on Dublin’s O’Connell Street until blown up in 1966.
Like so many Irish towns, Edenderry is in seemingly irreversible decline, as the above photographs make clear. The outskirts, spread randomly and with no apparent forethought, are full of generic housing estates. One is currently being constructed at the immediate west end of the main street and has been given a name every bit as banal as the design of the supposedly ‘exclusive’ houses contained therein: Cedar Lawns. Meanwhile the centre of Edenderry slides ever further into decrepitude with a terrifying number of premises vacant and unkempt. Groups of listless youths – presumably residents of the aforementioned exclusive housing estates – drift along the pavements past properties that might entertain or engage them but instead exhibit empty windows. Even in O’Connell Square, while money has been spent on renovating the old Market House it is surrounded by properties with well-worn signs offering them for sale. For the moment Edenderry still has a post office and branches of the main banks: but for how much longer? The reality is that as the centre decays and householders travel elsewhere to spend their money, those banking businesses will find it no longer viable to maintain an operation here. They will duly close down and the standard outcry will ensue, yet this is the inevitable consequence of failure to maintain a vibrant town centre. The general tattiness and want of adequate maintenance is apparent everywhere, beginning with the ruins of Blundell Castle where the bars of a protective fence have long-since been wrenched off, if the quantity of mouldering empty beer cans discarded inside its walls can be taken as evidence. By failing to take care of Edenderry’s most ancient site, the local authority is sending out a signal of indifference which will noted by all those late-night drinkers, and everyone else as well. The same sense of apathy and disregard is emitted by every other building permitted to suffer neglect. Among the remaining retailers, the word Eden – a none-too-subtle pun on the town’s name – is often deployed. Frankly Eden lies well east, or west or anywhere else. Whatever one might think of absentee landlords and whatever his motivation, at least Lord Downshire tried to improve circumstances in Edenderry. Nobody today seems interested in following his example.
The entrance to Knockdrin, County Westmeath. Like the main house, this was designed for Sir Richard Levinge around 1810 by Richard Morrison. The high-romantic and intentionally asymmetrical style of arched gateway flanked by dummy turret on one side and taller octagonal tower on the other serve as a prelude to what lies at the end of the drive: a full-blown castle.
For more on Knockdrin, see Knock Knock, August 5th 2013.
The limestone chimney piece in the entrance hall of the Hugh Lane Gallery, formerly Charlemont House, Dublin. This building, begun in 1763 to the design of Sir William Chambers, features the work of a number of master craftsmen including the London-born sculptor and stonecutter Simon Vierpyl. It is believed he was responsible for this chimney piece with its vigorous carving of a rams skull, and scrolls and swags in the upper section and a variety of tools and instruments running down the sides.
A reminder that I shall be speaking of Hugh Lane in the gallery tomorrow evening from 6.45. Admission is free.
Paolo Lafranchini (1695-1776) and his younger brothers Filippo (1702-79) and Pietro-Natale (1705-88) were three of fifteen children born to Carlo and Isabella Lafranchini in the parish of Bironico which lies within the Italian-speaking Swiss canton of Ticino. This part of the world produced a number of distinguished stuccodores including Giovanni Bagutti, and Giovanni Batista Artaria and his son Giuseppe. The two Artarias were employed to decorate the interior of the cathedral in the German city-state of Fulda. In 1720 Paolo Lafranchini is recorded as working for Fulda’s Prince-Bishop at his castle of Johannisberg, after which he is believed to have moved to England whence the Artarias had also gone. Giovanni Bagutti likewise relocated during this period and worked in several English houses including Castle Howard.
In A Book of Architecture (published 1728) James Gibbs made reference to Artaria and Bagutti but not to the Lafranchini brothers who had yet to arrive in England: evidently Filippo and Pietro-Natale followed the example of their elder brother and emigrated in pursuit of work. Carlo Palumbo-Fossati who investigated the careers of the siblings in 1982 proposes that while in England, ‘they almost certainly met James Gibbs, Daniel Garrett and, possibly Lord Burlington.’ Who can say for certain? It has been suggested that around 1730 a Lafrancini worked with Artaria and Bagutti at Moor Park, Hertfordshire, a Palladian house designed by the Venetian architect Giacomo Leoni. More specifically in the archives of Drummond’s Bank, London are listed payments from James Gibbs’ accounts to ‘la Franchino’ in December 1731 (for ten guineas) and to ‘Mr Lafranchini’ in August 1736 (for £95). And the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford contains a design for an unknown house of two ceilings by Gibbs with an agreement in Italian on the verso for their execution signed Paolo Lafranchini.
By 1739 Paolo Lafranchini was in Ireland and working at Carton, County Kildare alongside his brother Filippo; according to an article written by Lord Walter FitzGerald, the pair was paid £501 that year, presumably for the decoration of the saloon at Carton. The youngest of the trio, Pietro-Natale does not seem ever to have worked in this country but to have remained in England where among other properties he was employed at Wallington Hall, Northumberland, Hylton Castle, County Durham (both redesigned by the aforementioned Daniel Garrett) and Northumberland House, London. Meanwhile in Ireland, after finishing in Carton Paolo and Filippo moved on to 85 St Stephen’s Green (see The Most Beautiful Room in Ireland?, November 17th 2014) and possibly Tyrone House (now the Department of Education), Marlborough Street, as well as at Russborough, County Wicklow, Curraghmore, County Waterford and two houses in County Cork, Riverstown and Castle Saffron. By the mid-1750s Paolo Lafranchini was back in the family’s native town of Bironico and appears to have remained there until his death over twenty years later.
Unlike his elder brother Filippo Lafranchini, although he returned to Bironico in 1757, spent the greater part of his later years in Ireland. Here as surviving documents attest he worked at Castletown, County Kildare. In May 1759 the house’s chatelaine Lady Louisa Conolly wrote to her sister, the future Duchess of Leinster, ‘Mr Conolly and I are excessively diverted at Franchini’s impertinence and if he charges anything of that sort to Mr Conolly there is a fine scold in store for his honour.’ Whatever might have been the difference of opinion between the Conollys and their stuccodore – who would be responsible for the decoration of the house’s staircase hall – it passed and he appears to have remained close to the family for the remainder of his life, possibly even dying at Castletown in 1779. Lady Louisa’s accounts note in October 1765 ‘Paid John Earsum his bill for Claret on Frankinys acct. when I was absent. 14s.’ There are also a couple of references to Filippo Lafranchini having a room at Castletown. Meanwhile Mr Conolly had paid the craftsman for his work, a total of £96, thirteen shillings and nine pence at the end of 1765 and the balance owed of £298, thirteen shillings and three pence the following year.
In the mid-1760s, around the time he was being paid for his work at Castletown, Filippo Lafranchini is believed to have undertaken another commission: the decoration of Kilshannig, County Cork. Built to the designs of the Italian-born engineer and architect Davis Ducart for a rich banker, Abraham Devonsher, Kilshannig is a Palladian house with outstanding interiors. While the Lafranchini’s earlier work was inclined to baroque formalism, here the prevailing spirit is exuberantly rococo. The entrance hall has a coved and sectioned ceiling filled with an abundance of swags and foliage and baskets of fruit. It provides access to the central reception room, a saloon that is half as high again as the entrance hall, and has a ceiling centred on three exquisitely worked figures of Bacchus, Ariadne and Pan. Around them double medallions contain the four elements, as well as Justice and Minerva. To the left lies the dining room the ceiling of which like that in the entrance hall is predominantly given over to foliage and fruit but also contains clusters of dead game and masks. At the other end of the saloon, the library has a ceiling with a central frame containing the figures of Apollo and Diana, as well as corner sections featuring the Four Seasons and immediately above the cornice, framed female heads in profile believed to represent membes of the Devonsher family. Both the passage outside and the circular Portland stone staircase to which it provides access, also contain further stucco decoration. Kilshannig represents the apogee of the Lafranchinis’ work in Ireland and is a testament to this expertise of this exceptional family who chose to spend time in Ireland and left behind such an outstanding legacy of stucco work.
More about Kilshannig at a later date.
On a wall of the now-roofless 17th century church at Kilcommock, County Longford can be seen this elaborately carved limestone funerary monument which would appear to date from the early 1700s. Unfortunately the central plaque is missing and it is therefore now impossible to know in whose memory it was originally erected. Might some reader have the answer?
In December 2006 the Alfred Beit Foundation sold a collection of more than sixty 15th and 16th century Italian bronzes at Christie’s for some €3.8 million. There was no public outcry.
In November 2013 the Alfred Beit Foundation sold a collection of antique Chinese porcelain at Sotheby’s for €1.2 million. There was no public outcry.
Last month the Alfred Beit Foundation announced its intention to sell eight old master paintings at Christie’s next July. An outcry ensued.
In 1952 Sir Alfred Beit and his wife Clementine moved to Ireland following their purchase of Russborough, County Wicklow. Designed by Richard Castle, the 18th century Palladian house was originally built for the Leesons, subsequently Earls of Milltown. In the 20th century it had passed through two other owners before being acquired by the Beits. The couple had no immediate connection with Ireland, although Lady Beit’s maternal grandmother had been raised in this country and being a Mitford, she was first cousin of the Hon Desmond Guinness’s mother. Sir Alfred had inherited a fortune derived from South African mining and an art collection created by his uncle (likewise called Alfred) and father Otto. This collection was displayed in Russborough and, as is well known, was subjected to a series of robberies, the first taking place in 1974. Despite these outrages, the Beits remained loyal to their adopted country and eventually donated seventeen of the best pictures, including works by Vermeer, Metsu, Murillo, Hobbema and Ruisdael, to the National Gallery of Ireland: in 1993 their generosity was acknowledged with the conferring of honorary Irish citizenship.
Many years before, in 1976, having no heirs to whom Russborough could be bequeathed the couple established the Alfred Beit Foundation. This is an educational trust with charitable status, its members charged with responsibility for the house and estate so that both are preserved for the benefit of the Irish people. Unfortunately at the time neither the Beits nor their advisors nor the original trustees appear to have realised the necessity of providing the Foundation with an adequate endowment. If an historic house is to have a long-term, sustainable future it must be partnered with an endowment. In Britain for example, the National Trust will not consider taking on a property unless it conforms to what since 1968 has been known as the ‘Chorley Formula’ which calculates the endowment lump sum required to sustain the building(s), taking into account expected levels of maintenance and ongoing repairs, likely revenues, wages and many other factors. The NT has long recognised that even houses which attract large numbers of paying visitors still need additional financial resources if they are to survive. The same is true of Russborough where the trustees of the Beit Foundation must now establish a permanent, ring-fenced endowment to guarantee the future of house and estate.
In March of this year the owners of Castle Howard, Yorkshire announced that in July they intend to dispose of some £10 million of artworks in order to pay for the building’s upkeep and to secure the estate’s future. Internationally famous thanks to its appearance in the 1981 television series of Brideshead Revisited, Castle Howard sits on almost 10,000 acres and receives some 250,000 paying visitors a year. Yet still the owners are obliged to sell some of its contents in order to stay open.
Compare this scenario with Russborough, which now stands on some 250 acres – not enough to generate any revenue of substance – and last year attracted 24,000 paying visitors for tours of the house. The figure is barely one tenth of that at Castle Howard but has increased from around 11,000 eight years ago. Likewise the number of overall visitors to the estate during the same period has risen from at best 20,000 to over 100,000. Since 2007 a considerable amount of work has taken place both within the house and throughout the grounds with the aim of improving visitor numbers. The more visible evidence of this includes reordering and redecorating of the main rooms, the basement exhibition devoted to the Beits, artisan workshops and outlets in the courtyards, the ongoing restoration of the walled garden thanks to the participation of the RHSI, and the creation of new paths and walkways around the estate. Less visible but more critical work over the same period covers substantial repair of the roof and main drainage system, the replacement of a fifty-year old boiler and of unsafe waste water treatment plants, the creation of a new coach entrance, road and coach park, as well as the current creation of a new (paying) car park. A lot more remains to be done.
The Foundation’s trustees have sought to improve and upgrade Russborough in order to encourage more visitors and thereby generate additional income. This has covered everything from holding concerts and valuation days to converting the west wing into two self-contained apartments which are now let. Nevertheless, the amount of money raised by such endeavours is, and will remain, finite and does not begin to cover the annual operating deficit which in 2013 ran to €564,213 (in 2012 it stood at €425,984: these figures are taken from the filed financial statements and are in the public domain). Repairs and maintenance, security, light and heat, staff salaries, insurance and professional fees are just some of the costs that result in a shortfall but which are essential to keep Russborough open to the public, in a safe environment, and in order to fulfil the objectives of the Foundation. However the losses are clearly unsustainable and if continued they must, sooner rather than later, lead to the closure of Russborough.
Comparisons have been made in some quarters with Powerscourt, County Wicklow but they do not stand up to scrutiny. According to its website Powerscourt attracts 250,000 visitors annually – the same number as Castle Howard. But Powerscourt permitted a sprawling housing estate to be built immediately inside its main gates. It has two golf courses covering large portions of its once-intact demesne. It has given over additional land to a 200-bedroom hotel. Its main house contains a shopping arcade and food outlets. Every property must seek its own best means of staying open and the trustees of the Alfred Beit Foundation have hitherto preferred not to embark on a range of commercial ventures such as those seen at Powerscourt. Yet the need to create an endowment fund remains.
In April 2007 the Marquess of Bute announced his intention to sell Drumfries, Ayrshire and its contents, the majority of these commissioned for the house when it was first built in the 1750s. Understandably the news caused consternation in many quarters but made no difference to the vendor’s decision. The sale almost went ahead – Christie’s had printed the catalogue for the furniture auction – before a consortium headed by the Prince of Wales stepped in and saved everything for the nation.
Ireland sorely lacks an equivalent high-profile champion of our country’s cultural heritage. Such a person is certainly not to be found in government. In recent years relevant ministers and their departmental officials have been apprised of Russborough’s predicament. No offer of help has been forthcoming from that quarter, despite the outstanding generosity of the Beits to the Irish state. The trustees of the Alfred Beit Foundation have therefore been obliged to consider other options in order to secure necessary funds. One is to continue with sales such as those held in 2006 and 2013. These occasions generate enough money to keep the house open for another couple of years but not enough to create an adequate, long-term endowment. A fund-raising campaign? To realise donations running to many millions of euro, such a scheme would be costly to establish, slow to gain momentum and offer no guarantee of success. Meanwhile the house would still require money for its upkeep or else begin to slide into deterioration. Another possible recourse is to close down operations and in effect moth-ball the property. But ongoing expenses such as maintenance and repairs, heating, security, insurance and so forth will need to be met even without the benefit of paying visitors.
Eventually and after thorough consideration of options, the Alfred Beit Foundation, of which I am a former trustee, unwillingly came to the conclusion that if a permanent endowment fund was to be created, it would be necessary to dispose of certain assets. The likelihood of such a sale was clearly anticipated by the Beits: the Memorandum and Articles of Association establishing their Foundation state that it may ‘sell, lease or otherwise deal with or dispose of the whole or part of the property or assets of the Foundation.’ Sir Alfred himself, at the time of the Foundation’s establishment, sold not only a large part of the Russborough land but also a Reynolds portrait that had hitherto hung in the staircase hall.
Even so, the trustees reached their decision neither hastily nor easily, not least because they were aware of the burdensome hand of history. Sales of this kind have been too frequent occurrences in Ireland, as was demonstrated by a not dissimilar announcement of their intent just last autumn by the owners of Bantry House, County Cork. Indeed every autumn various house owners from around the country sell some of their possessions at an auction held in Slane Castle, County Meath. Furthermore other sales take place outside the auction room and with no publicity, and the Irish public never knows that another piece of our history has gone. Bit by bit the nation’s cultural patrimony is being lost and always for the same reasons: because current owners find themselves faced with no other choice, and because the Irish state has shown no interest in its preservation. (Incidentally, tomorrow – Tuesday, May 12th – Adam’s will dispose of what has been described as the finest private collection of printed material relating to early modern Ireland: no one seems yet to have objected to this auction going ahead, despite the break-up of the collection and its potential loss to the nation).
It is right and proper that the recent announcement from the Alfred Beit Foundation should have caused dismay and indignation. The pity is that there have not been more protesting voices, coming from as broad a cross-section of the citizenry as possible. But protest here has to be directed towards the right target. Amid those voices expressing concern over the intended sale one has been notably silent: that of the minister with direct responsibility for heritage. Given her brief, surely Minister Humphreys might have made some comment about the Alfred Beit Foundation’s decision? Her department could have insisted on export licences being withheld. It could have proposed initiating talks with interested parties in an effort to finding an alternative solution to the problem. She could have declared her intention to seek funding from the Department of Finance so that the pictures might stay in Ireland. There has been no word from the Minister or her office.
Some thirty years ago the late Knight of Glin, in the aftermath of another country house sale, deplored the fact that in Ireland there were no votes in heritage and therefore politicians paid it at best lip service. This remains the case today. It will continue to be so unless and until those of us who desperately want to preserve the country’s cultural heritage come together and unite in sustained public discourse. We need to broaden our constituency and rally more people to the cause in which we so passionately believe. At the moment we are few in number and we cannot afford to dissipate our insufficient strength in recrimination and conflict. The circumstances which have led to the intended disposal of old masters from Russborough are no different from those which have led – and will lead – to similar occurrences in many other properties across the country. These circumstances must be better understood and explained. We must all do our utmost to persuade as many people as possible that such sales diminish everyone and impoverish the entire nation. Only when we have achieved that goal will there be votes in heritage. Only then will government be obliged to assume the responsibilities it has for so long shirked.
The Venetian Gothic entrance portico at Turlough Park, County Mayo. Ruskinian in its inspiration, the house was built in 1865 for Charles Lionel FitzGerald whose family had been settled on the estate since the mid-17th century. Designed by Sir Thomas Newenham Deane, it replaced an earlier 18th century residence, the remains of which can still be seen in the grounds. Turlough Park is now a branch of the National Museum of Ireland and contains that institution’s folklife collection.