During an interview given in March last year, Dame Helen Ghosh, director general of Britain’s National Trust caused widespread umbrage by announcing the organisation intended to simplify displays of artwork in its properties. Visitors, she declared, were put off because there is ‘so much stuff’ in some of the historic houses owned by the NT. ‘We just make people work fantastically hard,’ said Dame Helen, ‘and we can make them work much less hard.’ Understandably this approach, implying the trust’s members were incapable of appreciating works of art or of understanding the context in which they are shown, met with disapproval in many quarters. Dame Helen’s comments suggested the trust’s intention was not to encourage instruction (because that might require people to ‘work fantastically hard’) but to accept incomprehension. It indicated entertainment would be given precedence over education, without understanding that some visitors, possibly the majority, actually want to learn more, want to come away from a visit with greater knowledge and understanding. Of course it is true the majority of visitors to historic properties are unlikely to have first-hand experience of living in such an environment. Nor will their forbears have done so. Hence the evolution of country house displays, which initially concentrated on showing only the main reception rooms, those spaces in which the best furniture and paintings were on view. More recently, and in part thanks to television series like Downton Abbey, the opportunity to explore what took place on the other side of the green baize door has become increasingly popular. Life at the top and the bottom of a house, the rooms used and occupied by servants, can be less immediately aesthetically pleasing but they hold other attractions, not least an opportunity to discover how a building operated. In its heyday, the country house was like a complex machine in which all the parts worked together to ensure smooth delivery of service to the owners. Only by looking at the rooms in which this work took place can one fully understand how a great house functioned successfully. This explains why they merit investigation. However, there is another reason why these areas can sometimes be worth exploring.
Kilfane, County Kilkenny has been discussed here before (see When Nature Imitates Art, November 11th 2013), specifically in relation to a picturesque garden developed on the estate in the 1790s. The land here had originally belonged to the Cantwells, prior to the family being banished to Connaught in the 17th century. It then passed into the ownership of Colonel John Bushe who was granted Kilfane in 1670, and his descendants remained on the estate for most of the following century. In the late 1700s, John Power married Harriet Bushe whose brother Henry Amias Bushe then lived at Kilfane. Power was the son of a County Tipperary landowner who had served with the British army in India where he had been aide-de-camp to Clive during the Battle of Plassey. Eventually he took a lease in perpetuity on Kilfane from his brother-in-law, and carried out many improvements on the estate. It would appear at least one explanation for his settling in County Kilkenny was a keen interest in hunting: in 1797 he established the Kilkenny Hunt Club. The first of its kind in Ireland, the club would meet in the evenings in Kilkenny City at what had hitherto been called Rice’s Hotel (James Rice having been house steward to Captain Power) but soon became known as the Club House, as it is to this day.
An existing house at Kilfane seems to have been remodeled by the Powers around 1798. A couple of years later, William Tighe wrote ‘To Kilfane, Mr Power has added a new front and other improvements, which render it not only an excellent house, but a good specimen of architecture.’ As then completed, the main block was of five bays and three storeys over basement with a single bay, one storey projecting porch on the ground floor, and three-bay single storey flanking wings. The building was comprehensively enlarged around 1855-6 by local builder/architects Patrick O’Toole and Joseph Wright who added three-bay two storey recessed blocks behind the wings and gave the porch bays on either side. Kilfane may have undergone further alterations in the late 19th/early 20th centuries but little else appears to have been done to the building prior to 1971 when Kilfane was sold by the Powers. It has recently come on the market again, providing the opportunity for a recent visit to the house.
Trying to understand the architectural development of Kilfane is challenging because, as is so often the case, little information survives. We do not know who, if anyone, was the Powers’ architect at the end of the 18th century, nor the appearance or layout of the house to which, according to William Tighe, was added ‘a new front and other improvements.’ Internally few clues are immediately offered. The entrance hall is wide and low, with screens of columns featuring composite capitals. Access from here is gained to the drawing and dining rooms, both with considerably higher ceilings (they each occupy a one-storey wing) and ample, full-length windows: the same characteristics are found in the former library behind the drawing room. These three spaces clearly date from the end of the 18th century, whereas the entrance hall could be earlier (and given its shape might originally have been a number of rooms subsequently knocked into one). Thereafter things grow more confusing, not least in the staircase hall which is wood panelled in a style that looks distinctly Edwardian. The first floor doorcases into the main bedrooms add to the muddle, being heavily carved in a manner suggesting German or Austrian origins. The mid-19th century alterations made to the building provide a fresh challenge, with flights of stairs on either side of the central block rising to more bedrooms.
Greater clarity, and a better understanding of the house’s original form, may be discovered in the top and bottom floors, those spaces formerly devoted to servants. Because less subject to the whims of changing taste, these areas are more inclined to retain their earliest decoration and such looks to be the case at Kilfane. Here the second floor features a series of rooms, now in poor structural condition, with the same deep window embrasures, shutters and skirting installed at the end of the 18th century. The whole storey is centred around a landing lit by a funnel-shaped cupola: according to legend, the devil was once caught playing (and cheating at) cards in the house and fled through here into the night. The basement is equally informative as again the basic layout appears to have remained relatively unaltered. Hence the sequence of rooms is much as it would have been when the Powers first embarked on developing the property, the old kitchen still in place, together with the wine cellar, storage spaces, pantries and so forth. A large section of the basement occupies only the area taken up by the main block of the house, excluding the wings, suggesting this was what first stood on the site prior to the Powers’ intervention. A further examination of the house is merited to see what else might be learned here about its evolution. In this instance, the absence of ‘stuff’ on the top and bottom floors offers an opportunity for elucidation. This may not be what Dame Helen Ghosh had in mind when she gave her interview, but sometimes the most useful information about a house can be discovered beyond the green baize door.