Designed by Richard Castle c.1740, Belvedere, County Westmeath is an exquisite villa overlooking Lough Ennell built for Robert Rochfort, later created first Earl of Belvedere. The Rochfort family had lived in Ireland since the 13th century, their primary residence being Gaulston, some five miles south-east of Belvedere. The house there, also designed by Richard Castle, was badly damaged after being burnt in 1920 during the War of Independence and later demolished. However, from around 1743 Robert Rochfort made Belvedere his main home after he had become estranged from his second wife, the Hon Mary Molesworth, who he accused of having an affair with one of his younger brothers, Arthur Rochfort. Famously, Mary Molesworth was thereafter kept a prisoner at Gaulston, never permitted to leave or to see anyone for thirty years until after her husband’s death in 1774; only once did the couple encounter each other again, by accident, and after that occasion a servant was required to walk in front of Mary Molesworth ringing a bell in order to warn Rochfort that she might be in the vicinity. Meanwhile, he pursued his younger brother for financial recompense under the legislation covering Criminal Conversation (as adultery was then known). Unable to pay, Arthur Rochfort fled the country but on his return was incarcerated in Dublin’s debtors’ prison where he died.
Floating serene above the lake, Belvedere seems a world away from this unhappy tale. A two-storey block with semi-circular bow ends with a five-bay front, the centre three bays slightly recessed and those on either side having a Venetian window on the ground floor and a Diocletian window above. Initially the building was just one room deep but at the end of the 18th century a wing was added to the rear. The two most important reception spaces, drawing room and dining room, are at either end, with smaller rooms next to the entrance hall, behind which runs a corridor incorporating a narrow staircase leading up to four bedrooms, the service quarters being in a sunken basement. The great joy of the interior is the delicate rococo plasterwork in which putti and classical figures, surrounded by trailing garlands, shells and volutes, seem to be in the process of emerging from the ceilings. The stuccodore responsible is unknown, but the work, dating from around 1760, has been attributed to Barthelemij Cramillion.
Following the first earl’s death in 1774, Belvedere – and indeed Gaulston – was inherited by his son George Augustus Rochfort, second Earl of Belvedere. However, when he died in 1714, he had no direct heir and so the titles became extinct and the settled estate was inherited by his sister Jane and then, after her death, by her grandson Brinsley Butler, fourth Earl of Lanesborough. He rarely visited Belvedere and on his death in 1847 it passed to a cousin, Charles Brinsley Marlay, a wealthy bachelor who invited Ninian Niven to devise plans for the walled garden and who was also responsible for laying out a series of terraces between the house and lake. On his death in 1912, the estate was inherited by Charles Howard-Bury, a noted mountaineer, explorer and botanist. Howard-Bury had been born and raised in Charleville Castle, County Offaly but seemingly had such an unhappy childhood there that he preferred to live in Belvedere and when he died in 1963, he left the place to his long-time companion, a former actor called Rex Beaumont, who would be the last private owner of the estate. In 1980, Beaumont announced his plans to leave the place and held a sale of the contents, jointly organised by Hamilton & Hamilton and Christie’s; quite a few of the lots had originally come from Charleville Castle, meaning collections from two different houses were thereby dispersed. In 1982 Beaumont sold the house and surrounding parkland to the local authority, which has managed the place ever since. While much money was spent on restoring Belvedere at the time, 40 years have now passed and the house is looking tired and in need of attention, little having changed there since its acquisition by the county council. The surrounding demesne is extremely popular with local families and much frequented, but Belvedere itself appears an under-utilised resource; at the moment, only a handful of the rooms are even open to the public, with much of it closed up. It’s time fresh consideration, and attention, was given to one of Ireland’s most charming 18th century villas.