In 1989 American photographer Andrew Bush published a book of images he had taken at the start of the decade. Bonnettstown: A House in Ireland caused something of a stir at the time and has since become a collector’s item, as it chronicles the last days of a now-disappeared world. The visual equivalent of a Chekhov play, the pictures exude a melancholic dignity. Many of them had previously been exhibited in the United States, and in The New Yorker critic Janet Malcolm wrote that what gave the photographs a special lustre was ‘the frank avowal that they make of their voyeurism. Bush’s images have a kind of tentativeness, almost a furtiveness, like that of a child who is somewhere he shouldn’t be, seeing things he shouldn’t be seeing, touching objects he shouldn’t be touching and struggling with the conflict between his impulse to beat it out of there and his desire to stay and see and touch.’ Anyone who looked at the pictures became willingly complicit in that voyeurism.
As is so often the case, we know relatively little about the history of Bonnettstown, County Kilkenny although conveniently a date stone advises the house was built in 1737 for Samuel Mathews, a mayor of Kilkenny. In other words, this was a merchant prince’s residence, conveniently close to his place of work and yet set in open countryside so that he could play at being a member of the gentry. The house was designed to emulate those occupied by landed families, albeit on a more modest scale. Flanked by short quadrants and of two storeys over a raised basement, it has six bays centred on a tripartite doorcase accessed via a flight of steps. The rear of the building is curious since here the middle section is occupied by a pair of long windows below which is another doorcase approached by a pair of curving steps with wrought-iron balustrades. While much of Bonnettstown remains as first designed, some alterations have been made since the house was first built: the fenestration was updated, although a single instance of the original glazing survives on the first floor. And on the façade, the upper level window surrounds on consoles look to be a 19th century addition. Nevertheless, one feels that were Mayor Mathews to return, he would recognise his property.
Inside, Bonnettstown has a typical arrangement of medium-sized houses from this period. It is of tripartite design, with a considerable amount of space devoted to the entrance hall, to the rear of which rises the main staircase with Corinthian newels and acanthus carving on the ends of each tread. The rooms on either side show how difficult it can sometimes be for aspiration to achieve realisation. As mentioned, Bonnettstown was meant to be a modest-proportioned version of a grand country house, and as a result the requisite number of reception rooms had to be accommodated. To make this happen, some of them are perforce very small, as is the case with what would have been a study/office to the immediate left of the entrance hall. Here a chimneypiece has been incorporated which is out of proportion with the room, although the reason for this could be that it came from Kilcreene, a since-demolished property in the same county. That is certainly the case with the chimneypiece in the dining room, which is wonderfully ample in its scale. The chimney piece in the drawing room looks to be from later in the 18th century, as does another intervention on the first floor, a rococo ceiling in a room above the entrance. The well-worn back stairs lead both to the largely untouched attic storey and to the basement with their series of service rooms.
While hitch hiking around Ireland as a young man in the late 1970s Andrew Bush was offered a lift by an elderly gentleman called Commander Geoffrey Marescaux de Saubruit who invited the American to visit his house, Bonnettstown. Bush took up the offer and over the next few years regularly stayed with the Commander and his octogenarian relations. During this time, the property was sold and so Bush’s photographs, and subsequent book, became a record of what had once been. ‘I guess I was responding to my desperation,’ he later explained, ‘to the anxiety that I was feeling that this place was disappearing. I guess I wanted to soak up as much as I could before it was gone.’ Inevitably it did go, as the new owners put their own stamp on the place and cleared away the atmosphere of shabby gentility which had pertained when Bush saw Bonnettstown. A few weeks ago the house was sold again, and now another generation will take possession. What mark will it leave on the house, and is it likely that another Andrew Bush will wish to make a record of Bonnettstown before the next change occurs? We must wait and see.