All that survives of the former Church of Ireland church in Rathconrath, County Westmeath. According to Samuel Lewis writing in 1837 the building had been erected eighteen years earlier ‘almost on the site of the ancient church’ at the cost of £738, the entire sum being provided by the Board of First Fruits. At that time the living was in the patronage of Brinsley Butler, fourth Earl of Lanesborough who had inherited large estates in this part of the country through his grandmother Jane Rochfort, a daughter of the first Earl of Belvedere, notorious for having locked up his wife for over thirty years after he suspected she was having an affair with his younger brother (who he sued for criminal conversation).
There are always a certain number of country houses on the market in Ireland and such occasions provide an opportunity to inspect properties not otherwise open to the public. At the moment, among the most interesting places for sale is Seafield, located some ten miles north of Dublin. Enjoying the benefits of excellent land and proximity to the capital, this area of the country underwent extensive development in the opening decades of the 18th century. Seafield was constructed during this period: although its precise date is unknown, some time around 1730 is usually proposed. The original owner was one Benedict Arthur, whose family had previously lived in what is now the suburb of Cabra. The Arthurs appear to have remained at Seafield at least for much of the 18th century, but by 1834 it formed part of the inheritance of Sophia Synge-Hutchinson Synge, daughter of the Rev. Sir Samuel Synge-Hutchinson. In that year she married a cousin, the Hon Coote Hely-Hutchinson and the property continued to be occupied by their descendants for the next century. During this period a large extension was added to the east side of the original house; it concludes in a four-storey Italianate tower. Seafield has been occupied by the vendors for more than twenty years.
Some discussion has taken place about who may have been the architect of Seafield. In design it is certainly indebted to Sir Edward Lovett Pearce (who died in 1733) but whether he had a direct hand in the work remains open to question. The exterior is like an Italian villa, particularly thanks to the two-storey granite pedimented Doric portico in antis approached by a flight of steps. Partly inside and partly outside the wall line, it dominates the south-facing facade of seven bays and three storeys over basement. The attic floor has three hip roofs which are echoed by the same number of gables to the rear of the building. The balustrading at the top of the building is presumably 19th century, like the plate glass that now fills all the windows but other elements like the rusticated surrounds on the ground floor windows and the quoins on the corners of the house are presumably original. According to Maurice Craig, ‘slight awkwardness in the handling’ of some features discourages an attribution to Pearce. ‘It is, even so, certain that Seafield is a building of the Pearce school, and even possible that the design was outlined by him and executed by someone else.’
Internally, the most striking feature of the house is its entrance hall which runs the full depth of the building and rises two storeys. This space looks much as it did when photographed by the first Irish Georgian Society for the fifth volume of its Records of Eighteenth Century Architecture and Decoration in Dublin, published in 1913. The walls are lined with superimposed fluted Ionic and Doric pilasters, and the spaces between them filled with grisaille classical figures somewhat in the style, although not from the hand, of Peter de Gree (who only came to Ireland in 1785, dying in Dublin just four years later). There are more such figures on the upper portion of the hall but also a number of gilt-framed canvases featuring polychromatic classical figures: it would appear these were a later addition to the decorative scheme. A gallery runs along this part of the space, providing access to the bedrooms in the eastern side of the building. The gallery is reached via a small staircase at the back of the hall: the greater part of the ground floor on this side of the house is occupied by the drawing room (shown in use as a dining room in the 1913 photograph). It has a richly decorated cornice and frieze and around the panelled walls runs a series of fluted Corinthian columns: here, as elsewhere, the original chimneypieces have long since been replaced. Across the hall are two more reception rooms, that to the rear (at present the dining room), also having panelled walls and fluted Corinthian pilasters. Another feature here is a pair of imaginary landscapes painted directly onto the panels over the doors, something of a rarity in Ireland. Not unlike Bellamont Forest in County Cavan (which can with more confidence be credited to Pearce) Seafield seems designed for use as an occasional villa rather than a full-time residence (there are, for example, only four bedrooms in the 18th century section of the house). It would have served as an ideal rural retreat from the bustle of Dublin life. So many similar historic houses in the greater Dublin area have been lost that its survival is remarkable. One hopes the new owners, whoever they might be, will appreciate the importance of this property.
For more information on Seafield, see http://www.sherryfitz.ie/residential/for-sale/83461
Over 250 years ago a small group of ambitious Irish artists came together in Dublin to establish a new society dedicated to promoting their work. Within a couple of years they had not only organised an annual exhibition but also constructed a domed octagonal chamber in which this could take place. Known as the City Assembly House, it is the oldest extant public art gallery within these islands and very likely in Europe. Restored over recent years by the Irish Georgian Society, from today the space features ‘Exhibiting Art in Georgian Ireland’, a recreation of how the room would have looked when used by the Society of Artists between 1765 and 1780. All the work featured is by exhibitors in those original shows and among the more familiar names are Francis Wheatley, Thomas Roberts, Jonathan Fisher, Hugh Douglas Hamilton, Robert Hunter and Samuel Dixon. Running until July 29th, the exhibition is a unique celebration of an earlier and still insufficiently appreciated era in Irish art. Admission is free.
For more information on Exhibiting Art in Georgian Ireland and the programme of complementary events associated with it, see: http://www.igs.ie/events
A portrait of Oonagh Guinness commissioned in 1931 from the fashionable artist Philip de László by the sitter’s then-husband Philip Kindersley, who paid £1,575 for the work. Much admired, the picture was exhibited in Paris the following year in a retrospective of de László’s career. Thereafter it hung in the drawing room at Luggala, County Wicklow until Oonagh Guinness’ death in August 1995 when bequeathed to Gay Kindersley, the son of her first marriage: he sold the picture and its whereabouts ever since remain a mystery. On Saturday afternoon (June 16th) at Farmleigh, Dublin I shall be speaking about Oonagh and her son, the recently deceased Garech Browne, and how they made Luggala a magnet for artists. This is part of a series of events to coincide with an exhibition of Irish portraits by Garech’s close friend Anthony Palliser currently being held in the same venue.
For more information on this talk and others in the same series, please see: http://farmleigh.ie/calendar-of-events
No site looks its best in torrential rain, but under these circumstances there is something especially melancholic about Kilmacurragh, County Wicklow. Over the past couple of decades, the historic gardens here have undergone a wonderful and welcome rebirth, but the house which has formed the centrepiece of the estate for over three centuries now stands a roofless shell. It is located on the site of an early Christian settlement, based around a hermitage established by St Mochorog, said to be an Englishman of royal birth who came to Ireland at the start of the 7th century. A monastic community remained here until Henry VIII’s dissolution of all such religious establishments, but some of the building’s foundations have been found under parts of the present garden at Kilmacurragh. Ownership of the lands were then disputed between the local Byrne family and various settlers. However, in 1697 Thomas Acton secured a lease on the property from the Parsons family, then as now based in Birr, County Offaly (where their gardens are likewise renowned). The original Thomas Acton – grandfather of the one already mentioned – is believed to have come to Ireland in the mid-17th century with the Commonwealth army, and like so many other of its members to have stayed because rewarded for his service with property here. In 1716 the younger Thomas Acton obtained from the then-Viscount Rosse ‘leases for lives renewable forever’ at Kilmacurragh; twenty years later his son William Acton married the Viscount’s cousin, Jane Parsons. Thereafter successive generations of Actons would live at Kilmacurragh and develop its gardens until the opening decades of the last century.
Almost from the moment of arrival at Kilmacurragh, the Actons seem to have been particularly interested in the improvement of their demesne. Presumably around the same period that he built the present house at the close of the 17th century, Thomas also laid out a formal Dutch-style park, with canals and formal avenues. He also created a forty-acre Deer Park. In turn his son William Acton laid out a two-mile beech avenue to celebrate his marriage to Jane Parsons in 1736. Fourteen years later she received a premium of £10 from the Dublin Society (founded less than two decades before) for the planting of ‘foreign trees’ and accordingly large numbers of these were given a place on the estate. In 1780 her son, another Thomas Acton, married Sidney Davis who would in turn receive grants from the same society for growing small plantations, using the money to acquire further rare species. Lt. Col. William Acton inherited the estate in 1817 and he undertook further work, both in the demesne and on the house. With regard to the former, he is believed to have built the walled garden with an orangery and ranges of glasshouses, as well as providing employment during the Great Famine by the restoration of the ha-ha that surrounded the old deer park. He also further added to the planting at Kilmacurragh, buying trees from a nursery established nearby at Dunganstown in 1780. When he died in 1854, the estate was inherited by his eldest son, once more Thomas, who did most to give the gardens their present appearance, not least by sweeping away the formal layout created by his forebears more than a century and a half earlier. Thomas Acton and his sister Janet worked closely with David Moore, then curator of the Botanic Gardens at Glasnevin, Dublin, and with his son and successor in the position, Sir Frederick Moore. It has been noted that Kilmacurragh during this period became an unofficial outpost for the Botanic Gardens, thanks to its climate and soil but also to its sympathetic owner who with his like-minded sibling travelled the world in search of plants to bring home to County Wicklow.
The fourth Thomas Acton never married and when he died in 1908 Kilmacurragh was inherited by his nephew Captain Charles Annesley Acton, another bachelor. He had little time to take care of the place since on the outbreak of the First World War he signed up for service and was killed in September 1915 while assisting another wounded soldier. Kilmacurragh duly passed to his only brother Major Reginald Thomas Annesley Ball-Acton who in turn was killed just eight months later at Ypres: his heir was a two-year old boy Charles (later a well-known music critic for The Irish Times). During his youth the house stood empty and the grounds lay neglected, but in 1932 the place was taken over by a German, Charles Budina, who successfully ran an hotel there. Unfortunately, following Charles Acton’s sale of Kilmacurragh in 1944 a legal dispute seems to have arisen over possession of the property which was eventually acquired by the Land Commission thirty years later. More recently the gardens have come under the care of the National Botanic Gardens, an ideal association given the long links between the two sites. Since then much wonderful work has been undertaken in the grounds to bring them back to peak condition. However the house, which suffered the consequences of two fires in 1978 and 1982, has fallen into a ruinous state. Much has been written about the building of Kilmacurragh, traditionally dated to 1697 when Thomas Acton first took a lease on the land here. However, a few years ago in the Irish Arts Review Peter Pearson, who had examined relevant family papers including Thomas Acton’s account book, proposed that the house was constructed about a decade later. Nevertheless it would still have been one of the first unfortified residences in this part of the country and it appears likely that William Robinson, the Surveyor General (who was paid £1.1.3d by Thomas Acton in 1704 for unspecified work) had a hand in its design. Stylistically Kilmacurragh is suggestive of Robinson’s work, not least a handsome doorcase that once provided access to the building which was originally of five bays and two storeys (with an attic window in the pedimented breakfront). Photographs of the interior when still intact show it to have been extensively panelled, with a staircase featuring barley-sugar balusters not unlike those found in the Red House, Youghal, County Cork and other contemporaneous houses. The wings on either side of the main block were added in the 1840s by Lt Col. William Acton. Alas, nothing of his work on the house, nor that of his predecessors, remains. Today only the outer walls survive to look especially dispiriting in the rain…
The slate-hung exterior of Drishane, County Cork. Facing due south out to sea (hence the protective slates), the house was built c.1780 for Thomas Somerville and has remained home to successive generations of the same family – including author Edith Somerville – ever since. Drishane will feature in the latest series of Lords & Ladles (in which the Irish Aesthete intermittently has a walk-on – or rather sit down – role) beginning on RTE One television this Sunday, June 10th.
The glorious interiors of Glasnevin House, Dublin have been shown here before (see Misjudging a Book by its Cover, December 22nd 2014) with the focus o the building’s plasterwork. Since then the former entrance hall has been restored and now looks as splendid as the other ground floor rooms. Among the space’s outstanding features now properly revealed is a substantial chimneypiece. Dating from c.1760 it looks to be of stained pine and since the overdoors in other areas of the house are attributed to Dublin master carver John Kelly (in Irish Furniture, the Knight of Glin and James Peill, 2007), it seems reasonable to assume this work also came from his hand.