Small but Perfectly Formed

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The terrifically severe neo-classical former national school in Bagenalstown, County Carlow dates from c.1825. Of one storey, despite its modest proportions the building achieves a certain monumentality thanks to the use of large blocks of local granite and the insertion of this grandiose entrance flanked by Doric columns. The window openings are equally severe but have been ruined by the insertion of unsympathetic uPVC glazing.

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Living History

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Since the majority of Ireland’s extant country houses date from after 1700, they are inclined to have a rational, linear character, with rooms arranged in sequence off straight corridors. The kind of organic, almost haphazard development found in equivalent properties elsewhere around Europe is largely absent here, even in older buildings where order was often subsequently imposed by their owners. Only occasionally does one come across a house which unashamedly revels in being an amalgam of several centuries and makes no attempt to conceal its heterogeneous heritage. Huntington Castle, County Carlow is one such place.

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Huntington is built on the site of a 13th century Franciscan priory. After the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 1540s the land passed into the hands of Laurence Esmonde, whose family had long been settled in this part of the country. Esmonde was a convert to Anglicanism and served in the armies of first Elizabeth I and then James I, for which services he was raised to the peerage in 1622 as Lord Esmonde. It appears that a few years after receiving this honour he built the core of the present house, now buried within subsequent accretions but still discernible as a three-storey fortified dwelling. The first alterations and additions to that core were made c.1680 by his grandson, Sir Laurence Esmonde and a wing was constructed by the latter’s own grandson (another Sir Laurence) around forty years later. In the 19th century, Huntington passed through marriage to the Durdins (now, again through marriage, the Durdin-Robertsons) and around 1860 a further extension to the rear once more increased the castle’s size.

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The interior of Huntington makes no attempt to conceal its centuries-long evolution. The drawing room, for example, has 18th century classical plaster panelled walls beneath a 19th century Perpendicular-Gothic ceiling. Some passages on the ground floor retain their original oak panelling, a number of bedrooms above being panelled in painted pine. The dining room has an immense granite chimneypiece bearing the date 1625, while those in other rooms are clearly from a century later. In keeping with this satisfying chronological mishmash, the interior is replete with short flights of stairs and narrow corridors, each leading to another part of the castle. The passage of centuries has left everything a little off beam, a touch unaligned. There is no overall plan, no impression that anyone ever tried to impose coherence on the building. Instead it was allowed to grow as circumstances dictated and, no doubt, as funds permitted. Huntington has never passed out of the hands of the first Laurence Esmonde’s descendants and one suspects continuity of ownership played a part in ensuring it avoided undergoing radical make-over: a new owner would no doubt have wanted to put his or her stamp on the place. Huntington exults in its idiosyncratic character and by so doing offers a fuller sense of evolving history than would a more rationally designed house. If only there were more like it.

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Let’s Go On

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And so 2016 draws to its close, a year which for many people around the world has been so crowded with shock one suspects its departure will not be much mourned. But like Barthelemy Cramillion’s mid-18th century stucco bird (originally in Mespil House, now in Dublin Castle, for more see Head in the Clouds, March 2016) we must try to soar above our present circumstances and hope the future will bring better times. And like the elephant below in the entrance hall of Huntington Castle, County Carlow, we can do our best to move forward slowly and steadily. To paraphrase Samuel Beckett: Well, shall we go on? Yes, let’s go on.

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The Irish Aesthete wishes a very Happy New Year to all friends and followers.

Light and Shade

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After political events of the past week, many people across the globe are understandably overwhelmed with feelings of melancholia and premonitions of catastrophe. However the study of history teaches us that our forebears went through worse afflictions – and somehow survived. They faced infinitely more terrible examples of hatred and low conduct, and found the strength to carry on. They did so because, for all its failings and foibles, the human spirit is resilient. So too is the urge, the need to create beauty, even in the midst of turmoil and disorder. The determination of previous generations to overcome adversity, and to find the beautiful in the midst of ugliness can serve as our own inspiration.

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The gardens at Huntington Castle, County Carlow demonstrate how beauty is able to survive across centuries of war and upheaval. The origins of settlement here go back to the Middle Ages when a Franciscan friary was established on the site: a souvenir of that period is the Yew Walk, comprising 120 English yews planted along a stretch of ground 130 yards long and believed to be at least six centuries old. In the 17th century the property passed into the ownership of the Esmondes who in the 1680s laid out much of the rest of what can be seen today, including the parterre and a French lime avenue. Other elements from this period include the stew ponds (for the cultivation of fish that could be eaten) and an ornamental lake, while later work further enhanced the gardens thanks to various specimen trees that continue to thrive. More recent additions include the creation of a rose garden and the planting of thousands of snowdrops.

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The gardens at Huntington remain an ongoing project, tended by the latest generation of the family that first came here almost 400 years ago. Over that period, and well before, this country experienced many instances of upheaval, war, famine and other dreadful afflictions. And yet somehow the gardens at Huntington not only endured but were regularly augmented and improved by their owners. Those owners and the outcome of their labour offer us an example of how, even under the worst circumstances, the human spirit continues to crave beauty. Taken one afternoon in early autumn, today’s photographs show that light and shade naturally co-exist, without the latter ever being able to crush the former. In these dark days, we should remember that. The light still shines through.

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More on Huntington Castle in the coming weeks…

Stalled

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One of the great lost palaces of France was called Marly. Located in a little valley some four miles north-west of Versailles, Marly was designed by Hardouin-Mansart as a retreat for Louis XIV, although the scale of the place means one must use ‘retreat’ with a certain caution. The king’s pavilion stood at one end of the site from which a series of elaborate canals and pools on either side of which were six flanking houses, to be occupied by courtiers privileged enough to receive an invitation. The elaborate interiors, many of them frescoed by Le Brun, were matched by ever-more complex hydraulic waterworks. Following Louis XIV’s death in 1715, his successors visited the place less often and even before revolution broke out in France it had been largely abandoned. At the end of the 18th century Marly was sold to an industrialist who installed a cotton factory in the former palace: following the failure of this enterprise in 1806, Marly was demolished and its building materials sold. The only feature to have survived are the famous Chevaux de Marly, commissioned by Louis XV in 1739 from sculptor Guillaume Coustou. Fifty-five years later they were moved to Paris and installed on either side of the junction of the Champs-Élysées (they are now in the Louvre).

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Here in Ireland, there is another so-called Palace of Marley (note the slight change of spelling), although it is otherwise known as Knockduff House in County Carlow: seemingly the reason the property sometimes carries the title of palace is because a Roman Catholic bishop was born or lived here. An old rhyme which was shared by someone who knows this part of the country well runs as Sweet Ballybrack I’ll give to Jack,
Inchaphhoka to Charlie,
Ballybeg I’ll give to Peg,
And I’ll live in the palace of Marley’ On the other hand, there are a number of places in Ireland called Palace or else Pallas (which in turn is derived from the Norman word Paleis meaning Boundary Fence so perhaps no bishop had any connection with the house at Marley. Of two storeys and five bays, its most immediately striking features are the pediment at the centre of the façade and the cut granite used for all the dressings including door and window cases. As indicated by the tall, narrow gable ends, inside the house was just one room deep, there being three on the ground floor and the same number above. The building is officially listed as dating from c.1750 but could be earlier, perhaps 1710-20. Unfortunately little of the original interior remains other than a rather crude chimney piece and at least some of the old staircase (much of the latter has fallen into serious disrepair, making it impossible to investigate the upper levels).

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The Palace at Marley looks to have been built by a reasonably prosperous tenant farmer, but the question then arises: of whom was he the tenant? The Kavanaghs were for a long time the principal landlords in this part of the country, and according to the Down Survey of Ireland carried out in the mid-1650s,  Knockduff then belonged to Anthony Kavanagh, a junior branch of the family. He or his successors may have lost the property (perhaps by remaining Roman Cathlic) because a map dated 1765 features the townland of Knockduff but a parcel of land on it approximating to where the house now stands is listed as belonging to ‘Lord Courtown.’ (The Stopfords, originally from England and settled in County Meath, had bought an estate on the Wexford/Carlow border in 1711: in 1758 James Stopford was created Baron Courtown and subsequently Viscount Stopford and Earl of Courtown.) so the house could be earlier than the start of the 18th century but it is hard to tell. Matters are not helped by the fact that a few years ago a renovation of the building was begun, during which the roof was re-slated and the external walls rendered. However, large openings were knocked in the rear and all the internal walls stripped back to stone, thereby removing almost all evidence of its earlier appearance. This project then stalled, and the house now stands in a vulnerable state, at risk from slipping into the same shambolic condition as the outbuildings to one side which have all but disintegrated. The grand palace at Marly has gone, remembered only through references to it in a handful of memoirs. That at Marley stands but could yet go the same way as its near-namesake.

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The Theory of Evolution

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Increasing study of country houses, here and elsewhere, has led to better understanding of these properties’ decorative histories. Almost without exception the process has been one of consistent change as successive generations adapt buildings for their own specific needs and uses, and reflect differences in taste. There can be no absolutes, nor notions that a particular style of decoration is ‘right’, only a willingness to respond to the present while respecting the past. Above is a view of the dining room in Borris, County Carlow as it was until recently, and below a view of the same room as it is now. A new wall colour and a re-hang of pictures has brought forth another aspect of the space’s character.

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