Those of us blessed – or perhaps afflicted – with an aesthetic cast of mind are inclined to believe that in matters of taste absolutes exist, and that our own judgement is invariably sound. Yet even a cursory scan of cultural history reveals that taste and its manifestations change from one era to another and are dependent on many factors, not all of them aesthetic. Our own judgement is thereby revealed to be, if not fallible, certainly more subjective than we might imagine to be the case: we are the products of our age, and so is the environment we create around us. The evolution of the interiors at Emo Court, County Laois offer evidence of the ever-changing subjectivity of taste. The history of the house’s gradual construction was summarised a few weeks ago (see In the Round, February 1st 2016) but this can be seen by an exploration of its rooms. The building was commissioned in 1790 by John Dawson, first Earl of Portarlington, his architect being James Gandon who had already designed the neo-classical church at nearby Coolbanagher for the same discerning patron. Emo Court’s entrance front is perhaps the truest expression of Gandon’s intentions, a severe seven-bay facade, the three central bays stepped forward to feature a giant pedimented Ionic portico featuring the family coat of arms. The end pavilions, likewise brought forward, appear to be single-storey, their upper sections featuring Coade stone panels featuring on one side the Arts and on the other a pastoral scene. Relatively little of the rest of the house was finished before Lord Portarlington died in 1798 leaving a widow and young children, after which the project went into abeyance for several decades.
The next burst of activity occurred during the period 1824-36 when the wastrel second Earl of Portarlingon commissioned English architect Lewis Vulliamy to draw up designs for Emo Court. Born in 1791 and apprenticed to Robert Smirke before establishing his own practice, Vulliamy is summarised in one biographical notice as being an ‘eclectic designer’ who was ‘competent in any style required of him.’ Buildings designed by him range from the since-demolished Italian Renaissance Dorchester House, London to Jacobethan Westonbirt House in Gloucestershire. Vulliamy oversaw the completion of the garden front with its own giant Ionic portico and, indoors he initiated work on the rotunda and completed the dining room. The latter’s most notable feature is the ceiling plasterwork, richly ornate in the style preferred during the late Georgian period and almost certainly not what Gandon would have had in mind for this space (or any other within the building). This is even more the case with the next stage of work at Emo which only occurred following the second earl’s death in 1845. He left the estate, and considerable debts, to a nephew, the third earl who was only in a position to embark on a fresh programme of decoration in 1860. The architect now employed was Dubliner William Caldbeck who designed what is now the library (but was originally a drawing room) with its neo-rococo ceiling and extraordinary Carrara marble chimneypiece that features putti frolicking amongst grapevines, and the salon (formerly a library/ballroom) which has screens of green marble Ionic columns at either end. During this period the walls of the drawing room were hung with damask silk, and those of the entrance hall with embossed leather. We move further and further from the neo-classical concept of James Gandon and his patron.
In 1920 Emo Court and its surrounding demesne were sold to the Land Commission, not an organisation ever renowned for its taste. The land was broken up and the house sat empty and stripped of all contents until 1930 when, with the immediate parkland and lake, it was sold to the Jesuit Order for use as a novitiate. One of the residents during the following decades was Fr Francis Browne, the well-known photographer who would record the interior of so many remaining Irish country houses. During their time there, the Jesuits made a number of changes to the interior of Emo Court. The rotunda and adjacent drawing room, for example, were adapted for use as a chapel. This necessitated the removal of the mahogany double doors between the two spaces, together with two of the Corinthian Siena marble pilasters immediately inside the former and the chimneypiece in the latter. Part of the rotunda’s inlaid floor was also taken out to accommodate an altar in what was now a chapel sanctuary (the drawing room holding the congregation). Likewise the salon was altered to act as a refectory, the end screens including the green marble columns being taken out, along with its chimneypiece. Meanwhile the drawing room became a conference room.
Owing to a decrease in their numbers, the Jesuits left Emo Court in 1969 and the house was soon afterwards bought by Major Cholmeley Dering Cholmeley-Harrison who had already restored one property in this country, Woodstown, County Waterford (which famously he rented to Jacqueline Kennedy and her family in the summer of 1967). Major Cholmeley-Harrison employed the London firm of Sir Albert Richardson & Partners to oversee Emo’s restoration, and it was discovered most of the elements removed by the previous occupants had not been destroyed but stored and could therefore be reinstated. Thus The warped mahogany doors were flattened with weights and braces to return to their original form before being once more hung, while the demolished wall of the rotunda was rebuilt and the floor re-inlaid. The drawing-room got back its neo-rococo chimney piece and became a library and the Jesuit’s refectory was similarly given back its chimneypiece, screens and marble columns. In the entrance hall, coves to either side were were painted by Geoffrey Ghin in trompe l’oeil to Gandon’s unexecuted design for stuccowork here. In 1994 Major Cholmeley-Harrison presented Emo Court and its land to the Irish state, remaining in residence there until his death eight years ago. Today Emo is an accumulation of different eras’ taste, not least that of only four decades ago. The present decoration of the main reception rooms – the hessian-covered walls in the dining and drawing rooms, the acid green paint covering both walls and ceiling in the salon – are reflections of another period’s taste. Were Emo Court to be restored today, it is inconceivable such materials or colours would be employed. No doubt some visitors, and perhaps some employees of the Office of Public Works which is now responsible for the property, must yearn to instigate a programme of redecoration which would include an assiduous investigation of original paint shades and finishes so that these could be reinstated. The craze for historically ‘accurate’ decoration is a reflection of our own age and as likely to be superseded as have many others before. What makes Emo Court so interesting is precisely the building’s ability to incorporate so many shifts in taste without giving first place to any one of them. Instead they must perforce co-exist. There’s a lesson here for all of us blessed or cursed with an aesthetic cast of mind.