On January 1st 1778 John Dawson, Viscount Carlow married Lady Caroline Stuart, daughter of the third Earl of Bute. Shortly before this occasion, Mrs Delany wrote of her as follows: ‘Lady Caroline is a genius in painting and musick, and has made a great progress in both; she has a clear, sweet voice, under good management, and less of the fashionable yell than most of her contemporarys. She is extremely good-humoured and sensible, but is one in whom many pleasing accomplishments are a little hurt by an awkward habit: she has no affectation, but a trick of a laugh at whatever is said or that she says herself.’ Fortunately we know a great deal more about Lady Caroline than this somewhat ambivalent description, as she was an ardent letter writer, especially to her youngest and favourite sibling, Lady Louisa Stuart. Their correspondence survives and was published in 1895 as Gleanings from an Old Portfolio. From her letters we learn that Lady Caroline was not altogether happy living in Ireland, separated from her family and old friends. It did not help that the house inherited by her husband failed to meet with her approval. Dawson Court stood on an estate in County Laois which had been acquired by Viscount Carlow’s grandfather, a clever banker called Ephraim Dawson who had married a Preston heiress and built the house for his bride. What might have sufficed at the start of the 18th century was no longer deemed good enough towards its close, and more than once Lady Caroline grumbles about the old building and its disadvantages. In August 1781 she writes, ‘we have had a storm of wind and rain to-day, that I really have been expecting this infirm house to give way, and dreamt of it all night, my fears were so strong… I have no pleasure in the place this summer, for, as nothing has been done in our absence, it is all in the greatest disorder, not a walk in the garden free from weeds, no water in the river, and the weather so bad that, in short, I comfort myself, as Miss Herbert says, with a good fire.’ That December, she complains again about problems caused by high winds: ‘I can hardly find a place to sit in to-day, being turned out of the drawing-room by smoke, and here’s a whirlwind in the library.’ One suspects that it was at least in part to put an end to her protests that around 1790 Lady Caroline’s husband, by now created first Earl of Portarlington, embarked on building a new residence.
Painted in Rome by Batoni in 1769 while on a Grand Tour, the future first Earl of Portarlington was a man of considerable artistic ability. According to George Hardinge, who visited Ireland in 1792 and 1793, Lord Portarlington ‘draws prettily & is a very ingenious architect… [he]draws in Sandby’s manner and almost as well – many of the views in Sandby’s work – (“The Virtuoso’s Museum”) are taken by the former, who has made a voyage pittoresque of Ireland worthy of immediate publication…’ Almost as great a patron of the arts as Lord Charlemont, Portarlington displayed his discernment by being one of the key supporters of James Gandon who he had met in the home of the aforementioned Paul Sandby and to whom he wrote from Ireland in 1779, ‘I do not see any architect of the least merit here.’ By 1790 Lord Portarlington had already commissioned from Gandon the design of a new church close by his estate at Coolbanagher (see A Very Conspicuous Object, December 28th 2015). Understandably he therefore turned to Gandon again when looking for a design for the proposed new house and so work commenced on what would prove to be the architect’s most important private commission. Evidently Lady Portarlington’s dislike of the old house was so great that the family demolished this building and moved into the new – named Emo Court – even though it was far from finished. And then disaster struck. In the autumn of 1798 her husband joined the army summoned to repel a French invasion in Mayo. In late November he wrote to his wife that ‘in consequence of a cold, I have had the most violent attack on my lungs; which was a dangerous situation for six days past, but I had last night a favourable change; which gives me great hopes of getting thro it…’ He died shortly afterwards and work on Emo Court came to a halt. The second earl initially seemed to promise well but proved a disappointment to the family, an army career stalling in 1815 when he somehow failed to join his company at the Battle of Waterloo until after much of the fighting had taken place: it would appear he had been enjoying himself too much and too late the night before. Thereafter he is generally described as giving himself up to dissipation, and the squandering of family funds, supposedly remarking on one occasion that he could not see what difference another nought would make to his financial obligations. He died in Londin in 1845 unmarried and unmourned, leaving title and estate – complete with unfinished house – to a nephew who also inherited debts running to some £600,000.
An account of Emo Court in the middle of the 19th century noted that ‘The principal apartments in the house are a grand reception saloon at the entrance, and a state drawing room, but these rooms, although built nearly sixty years rough bricks and stone still visible.’ Elsewhere could be found scaffolding and tools used on work begun but not concluded by the second earl who in the 1820s had employed the fashionable London architect Lewis Vulliamy and an otherwise little known trio of brothers called Williamson who ran a practice in Dublin. Between them, they had built a portico on the rear facade, decorated the dining room ceiling and designed the interior of the rotunda. It is the last of these that is shown here today, finally completed in around by yet another architect, William Caldbeck who also added that standard of the Victorian country house, a ‘bachelor’ wing. So what of this key space, aside from its basic form, can be attributed to James Gandon? The rotunda, otherwise known as the saloon, lies at a crucial juncture in the house, directly behind the entrance hall and between dining and drawing rooms. Here a series of marble pilasters capped with gilded Corinthian capitals rise to a coffered dome with glazed top. Niches between the pilasters would once have held statues and the floor is inlaid with elaborate parquet. The rotunda was intended to be the central point in an enfilade overlooking the gardens but could it ever have served any purpose, other than as a rather lovely meeting place while passing from one functional area to another? And again, what of its decoration can be considered based on Gandon’s intentions, and what those of the Victorian Caldbeck? It helps to compare the room with other near-contemporaneous examples, most obviously the saloon of Castle Coole, County Fermanagh designed by James Wyatt and dating from the same period. Again the walls are lines with Corinthian pilasters (scagliola) and there are round-topped niches (these holding Wyatt-designed stoves) the upper section of which has plasterwork which might have been Gandon’s aim for the Rotunda. Another, and closer, comparison can be made with Ballyfin, just a few miles away and designed in the early 1820s by the Morrisons, father and son. One suspects that in this instance, the incomplete work at Emo provided inspiration for Ballyfin’s top-lit rotunda (as the former’s library did for that at the latter) although here the walls are lined by Siena scagliola columns with Ionic capitals. So it seems reasonable to conclude that even if not executed by Gandon Emo’s rotunda displays his spirit.
More on Emo Court in due course. With thanks to the Office of Public Works for permission to photograph the house’s interior.