Few houses better exemplify the maxim of initial appearances being deceptive than Headfort, County Meath. An immense, austere block – the limestone facade including wings runs to more than five hundred feet – in 1789 it was described by then-Lord Lieutenant the Duke of Rutland as ‘a long range of tasteless building’ and three years later George Hardinge said it was ‘more like a college or an infirmary’ than a private residence. Headfort was built for the descendants of Thomas Taylor who came to Ireland in the middle of the 17th century in the company of his school contemporary Sir William Petty. By 1660 Taylor had secured 21,000 acres of land in Cavan and Meath, and settled outside Kells. No trace remains of the original house constructed by the family, but from the middle of the 18th century onwards plans were under way to build a new country seat suitable for their advancement in the Irish peerage: already a baronet, the third Sir Thomas Taylor, who inherited the estate in 1757, would be created Baron Headfort in 1760, Viscount Headfort two years later and Earl of Bective in 1766. His son, in turn, would become first Marquess of Headfort in 1800.
The first architect consulted about designs for a new house was Richard Castle, a favourite for such commissions among Irish landowners during the period. However in this instance his proposals of 1750 failed to win the approval of the second Taylor baronet; an extant portfolio is marked: ‘Mr Castle’s plan and a damn bad one.’ John Ensor and another anonymous architect also drew up proposals for a similarly Palladian-style building but these too were spurned. The Taylors were not as wealthy as some of their contemporaries and funds to spend on the building were limited. Presumably this is why although still more designs were commissioned in 1765 from fashionable neo-classical architect William Chambers those were similarly rejected. In any case, by that date work had already started on a sober, and accordingly economical scheme which, on the basis of a 1760 plan inscribed GS, is attributed to George Semple, a Dublin-based builder and self-taught architect. Whoever was responsible, the house’s exterior would not have required much architectural skill in its composition. Of three storeys and 11 bays, the near-identical front and rear elevations of grey Ardbraccan limestone are largely unrelieved other than by pedimented doorcases.
But if the house’s exterior lacks ornament, its interior was intended to present a different image. Between 1771 and 1775, Lord Bective requested Scottish-born architect Robert Adam to produce decorative schemes for a suite of rooms in the newly completed Headfort. Adam, who never visited this country, duly came up with designs for the entrance and staircase halls, as well for as a series of three adjacent spaces on the garden front culminating in a double-height saloon that was known as the ‘Eating Parlor.’ Even if not all his proposals were fully implemented, the interiors are of immense importance as the only extant examples of Adam’s work in Ireland. Once more due to shortage of funds, a simplified version of the suggested decoration was executed in the entrance and staircase halls. But the architect’s original drawings survive and indicate that other elements of the scheme were carried through, not least in the Eating Parlor, where the only major modification saw the architect’s recommended barrel-vaulted ceiling instead being coved. Created by reconfiguring the house’s layout to merge two rooms on both ground and first floors, the Eating Parlor is lit by a line of tall windows between which stand the original marble-topped console tables and pier glasses. Facing these are a pair of carved white marble chimneypieces with circular overmantles holding classical compositions by the Italian artist Antonio Zucchi, who worked with Adam on a number of other occasions; further Zucchi work is found elsewhere in the room, including a ceiling centrepiece. The rest of the walls are covered with panels intended to contain Taylour family portraits, and a number of matching doorcases. The adjacent, somewhat smaller, saloon is similarly decorated but the third room in the suite, the Chinese Drawing Room, has since lost the landscape wallpaper from which derived its name.
Inevitably with the passage of time, the fabric of Headfort began to deteriorate; problems of damp coming into the building were a particular problem. It didn’t help that since 1949 the house has served as a preparatory school, with inevitable wear and tear on its fabric. Due to the significance of the Adam interiors, in 2004 the World Monuments Fund placed the house on its list of 100 Most Endangered Sites. Thereafter the Headfort Trust, thanks to funding from the WMF, Ireland’s Heritage Council and relevant state departments, initiated a programme of essential work including repairs to the roof, chimney stacks and gutter piping. Internally the trust embarked on a conservation and research project that revealed the original Adam decorative scheme. Nowhere was this more the case than in the Eating Parlor which underwent complete refurbishment thanks to aid from the Irish Georgian Society which in 2008 made the room the beneficiary of its 50th anniversary fundraising efforts. For a long time the Eating Parlor had been painted a shade of blue more usually found in hospital wards. However analysis of the walls revealed they had first been decorated using a variety of mid- to dark shades of verdigris, a scheme which tallied with the Adam drawings. The same colours were also used in the staircase hall, while those of the Saloon are softer, with an abundance there of pink and pale blue. When initially finished, and furnished, the effect must have been quite startling and highly novel, and even today, depleted of their contents and put to alternative use, these rooms can still confound the popular notion of how a chaste neo-classical interior should look. Today, when no other examples of Adam’s work can be seen on this island, it is a unique legacy.