Unravelling the Mysteries

Described over a century ago as the finest early Georgian house in this part of the country, Florence Court, County Fermanagh epitomizes the challenges facing anyone who tries to understand the evolution of the Irish architecture. In particular, it raises the two key questions that come up time and again in this field? When was it built? And who was responsible for the design? In the case of Florence Court, the answer to the first question appears to be that the building was developed over a period of time and to the second that a number of parties were involved. But, as will be made apparent, precise dates and names remain maddeningly elusive.

Florence Court was built for the Cole family, the first of whom, Sir William Cole was a professional soldier who arrived in Ireland in 1601 and having acquired large tracts of land in Fermanagh, based himself in Enniskillen Castle. Successive generations of Coles prospered and by the early 18th century it was clear a proper country estate was required, especially as John Cole – who appears to have been responsible for initiating the construction of Florence Court – served as a member of parliament for the area. The house’s name derives from that of the same John Cole’s wife, a Cornish heiress called Florence Wrey. Their son, also John Cole, was raised to the peerage in 1760 as Lord Mountflorence, and in turn his elder son William Willoughby Cole was created first Viscount Enniskillen in 1776 and finally Earl of Enniskillen in 1789. The house remained in the family’s ownership until 1953 when it passed into the care of the National Trust. Two years later a fire badly damaged the property, which was subsequently restored. It is possible that material relating to the building’s evolution was lost on that occasion, since no documentation on the subject survives. Hence when it comes to dates and architects, conjecture must take the place of knowledge.

An anonymous manuscript dating from 1718 makes reference to a ‘very costly and sumptuous building’ which John Cole was then building at Florence Court. However, it is not known how much of this work was accomplished before his death in 1726. His son, the future Lord Mountflorence is likely to have been responsible for overseeing the construction of the present central block. A demesne map drawn up the year after his death in 1767 includes an elevation of the house’s façade which on the top floor had a large framed oculus window on the top floor. This feature is frequently found in buildings designed by Richard Castle, giving rise to speculation that he was responsible for Florence Court. It is possible such was the case, since in the late 1720s Castle was drawing up designs for Castle Hume on the other side of Enniskillen  (for more on this, see A Glimpse of the Past, August 22nd 2016).
Furthermore, in discussions of the house’s evolution it has been noted that Castle subsequently went on to design Hazlewood, County Sligo the owner of which, Owen Wynne, was associated with John Cole in the development of a road between Enniskillen and Sligo. At least some of the interiors of the main house do look to be early 18
th century (the ground floor library is a particularly curious room, featuring stylistic elements from a number of different periods). But here, as was so often the case, aspiration exceeded income and the Florence Court of c.1730 was internally a relatively plain affair.

In August 1758 Mrs Delany met the future first Earl of Enniskillen freshly returned from a Grand Tour and observed ‘Mr Cole ((£5,000 a year and just come from abroad), a pretty, well-behaved young man’. While his annual income is likely to have exaggerated, nevertheless the Coles did come into sufficient funds to embark on a further programme of work at Florence Court. Some of this seems to have derived from a legacy following the death without direct heirs of Sir Arthur Cole, Lord Ranelagh but more likely the greater part of the money was received thanks to the periodic sale of two seats in the House of Commons for the borough of Enniskillen which the Coles then controlled: each of these could have raised as much as £1,500-£2,000 at each election. Whatever the source, fresh supplies of money meant first the interiors of the main reception rooms, the staircase and the first-floor ‘Venetian Room’ and then at a slightly later date single storey wings concluding in pavilions were added on either side of the house. On the basis of similarities with Castletown Cox, County Kilkenny and Kilshannig, County Cork these external additions have long been attributed to the architect and engineer Davis Ducart; once again, no documentary evidence exists to tie him directly to the work so one must depend on informed guesswork. The façade was presumably altered at the same time: note how the top-floor oculus shown in the 1767 drawing has gone, replaced by a pedimented niche that complements those immediately below. The alterations it has undergone means that as an object of study Florence Court is simultaneously fascinating and frustrating. It tantalizes with hints but never reveals the whole story. Perhaps one day more information will turn up but for the present speculation and surmise must suffice.

8 comments on “Unravelling the Mysteries

  1. Sue, Lady Kilbracken says:

    Beautiful house. Lovely to see the photos illustrating the details and to read this accoount. Very much enjoyed it. Thank you.

  2. Finola says:

    Love how that columnar motif repeats itself all over the place.

  3. What a beautiful building. Thank you again for interesting article !

  4. Mark Chambers says:

    Thanks for posting this concise summary of Florence Court. It is a house of great interest to me and I agree, it is maddening trying to work out its history. (I, like many others, have my own pet theories.)

    The coved ceilings in the Breakfast Room (?) and Library appear to date from around 1730 and that has led several people to surmise that the house was built around that date and later finished with funding from the 1754 Ranleigh inheritance. My own view is that apart from the ceilings and floor boards in these rooms there is little evidence that this is the case. It is plausible that the centre block was built around 1760 using Castle’s original design, explaining the ‘old fashioned’ style of the house) and that these ceilings were moved at that time from the original Florence Court to the new house.

    There is physical evidence that the original house at Florence Court was located about a mile south east of the current house, near the site of the Florence Court Yew. A long service tunnel (now partially caved in) sweeps to the site from under the steps on the east front, accessed from the area door in the lamp room (next to the main service stairs). This appears to have been the site of John Cole’s extensive 18th century gardens. Little remains of these except the rock garden (opposite the yew) that is now sadly neglected and in the process of being claimed by the surrounding forest.

    Workers in the 1980s report no stonework remaining at the site, which is now covered by dense vegetation. Presumably this was used to build the wings/service blocks of the new house. What remains is a large pit indicating the foundations of a large building. There are also the remains of long straight avenues to the north, east and west with the patchy remains of laurel hedges in places, suggesting these may have been set out as parterres. An archeological survey of the site would be of interest, to see whether we can find out what buildings were there and what, if anything, remains of the rest of the original gardens.

    Apologies, this is getting quite long! There are a few other points that may be of interest. One in regards to the oculus window. Formerly in the Colonel’s Room there was a clay model of the house, believed to have been made as a gift either by an estate worker or a worker at Florencecourt Tilery, established by the 3rd Earl in the 1850s. This no longer appears to be on display, which is a shame as it is a strange piece of work. The model bears little relation to the current house (if I remember correctly it represents a choclate coloured two storey, five bay house flanked by thin square crenelated towers, topped by two larger towers flanking a massive oculus. I remember it being suggested that the person who made it had never seen the house and instead imagined what the house looked like. However, the similarity in colouring to the illustration and the presence of the oculus suggests they may have seen, or remembered seeing, the old estate map. It is a charming model and is worth seeing as an example of local vernacular art.

    One point that may be of importance is that the unusual predimented doorcase at Florence Court was not unique – there was a similar doorcase (below a ventetian window) at Nixon Hall, Gransha, about 3.5 miles northeast on a now enclosed section of the old coach road to Dublin. I have had great difficulty in tracking down information about this house. It appears to have been built at some point between 1770 and 1780 but was unoccupied by the 1840s, was inhabited at that time by squatters and subsequently burnt down. (Nixon Hall also has some connection to the infamous ‘Macken Fight’ in 1829 but that’s another story.) The foundations are apparently all that remain and the only written source I can find is a history of the French and Nixon families written in the early 20th century. It does, however, contain a pretty engraving of the house with its flanking walls enclosing the service yard behind. https://archive.org/stream/familiesoffrench00swan#page/68

    All of which leads one to speculate whether the architect of Nixon Hall was employed at Florence Court. Did Ducart work there also (if, indeed, he worked at Florence Court) or was it another architect altogether? We will probably never know – and maybe that is the way it should be!

    The final point I would like to add is one which few people comment on. The first floor landing at Florence Court was originally lit from above by a circular opening (blocked after the fire by decorative plasterwork) which looked up to a glass skylight in the second floor lobby. The skylight with its decorative plasterwork perished in the fire (it was fortunately photographed by Country Life in 1910) although its deep recess remains above. I recall in the late 1980s the upper lobby (now completely unlit) had a couple of marble topped rococo gilt tables and mirrors on either wall and several fine but rather tatty ebony couches upholstered in red velvet. It was also, as I recall, accessed from the stairs by a door lined with blue velvet (!). I have no idea whether the furniture is still there as that was almost thirty years ago, nor if the furniture was original to the house – the mirrors would make sense in helping light the upper lobby although if I remember correctly though similar, the tables beneath were not a pair; and the couches (if original to the house) may have come from the Drawing Room.

    Apologies, this comment is much longer than intended – if you have made it this far I congratulate you! Nevertheless I hope some of this is of interest to you. I enjoy your blog very much and long may it continue – and if you ever come across any information about Nixon Hall do please post it, I believe that that house has some bearing on this insoluble mystery.

  5. jamienu96 says:

    I have a few illustrations relating to Nixon Hall which may shed light on its architect. My mother’s ancestors owned the Hall and my family is in possession of several good paintings of the house.

  6. […] that until my next post. If you would like to see the front and interior of this grand old house The Irish Aesthete has a wonderful post about its history with some great photographs. Many thanks for joining me on […]

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